Bum Phillips, legendary NFL coach with the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints, recently celebrated his 90th birthday by watching football on a giant flat screen from his living room recliner.
Football is what still interests him most since he retired from coaching 28 years ago. He leans back in his chair next to a full bronze statue of John Wayne. The glint in Bum’s eyes is still there.
What is the secret to reaching 90 years old?
“Seriously?” he asked as if that was the craziest question he had ever heard. “Well, a good sense of humor is important … [long pause] and stay out of trouble. That keeps someone from shootin’ you.”
Phillips survived an overseas tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and the indignity of being fired as iconic coach of the Luv Ya Blue Oilers in the late 1970s. But life has been good since he and his wife, Debbie, bought a horse and cattle ranch in Goliad in 1995.
“Old age comes natural,” Phillips said of his family lineage. “My mother was just shy of her 97th birthday when she died, and she was mentally sharp to the end. My daddy’s mother and my mama’s father also lived into their 90s.”
But now the old football coach has a tick-tock in his head to build a year-round Bum Phillips Retreat for children to come and visit, owned and operated by Bum Phillips Charities, located less than half a mile from Bum’s ranch house.
Anyone interested in joining his “$90 for 90” campaign can go to bumphillipscharities.com.
“I think we’ll get it,” Phillips said of the retreat. “Let’s hope we get it while I’m still here.”
The Houston Texans are on board to help raise funds. Part of the proceeds from the Nov. 2 Sam Houston State-Stephen F. Austin game at Reliant Stadium will go to the construction of Bum’s retreat.
Phillips, in recent months, has had health issues, mostly related to the aging process and keeping his fluids balanced. Still, he remains clear of mind and strong of will while adapting to a blander diet and a rolling walker to assist him in getting around.
Bum never until now had to watch what he ate. Gumbo — “a lot of gumbo.” Fried oysters. Barbecued ribs. His alcoholic drink of choice: beer, period.
“I never did like the taste of [hard liquor],” he said, recalling how he once tried whiskey while on a ship headed to the Pacific during WWII. “It turned my stomach, and I don’t need a second chance to prove that I don’t like something.”
He spends his time now napping in his recliner, watching football, keeping up with the news.
He began chewing tobacco when he was 14. For most of his life, he would start each day with a plug-and-a-half of Tinsley White Natural after breakfast. Old habits die hard, and now he pops a half-inch piece of cigar into his mouth whenever the spirit moves him.
He remains beloved by his former players. From time to time, anyone from Carl Mauck to Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini, Mike Barber, Kenny Burrough, Vernon Perry or Robert Brazile might drop by for a visit.
He believes Brazile, the Pro Bowl linebacker of the old Houston Oilers, should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Remember, Bum’s Oilers twice came within one game of the Super Bowl, losing back-to-back AFC Championship games to the 1978-79 Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet, he is most proud of what his son, Wade, now with the Texans, and grandson, Wes, with the Dallas Cowboys, have done with their NFL careers.
“Wade knows everything I know plus everything he knows from everybody else,” he explained.
Always the plain-talker, Bum is just as clear about his dream to leave a tangible legacy that will provide for others long after he’s gone.
“I’m not going to let ’em start something we can’t finish,” he said. “That’s what worries me, that we won’t get the money we need.”
The architectural drawing of the future Bum Phillips Retreat Center will have to be enough to keep him hopeful for now.