For most kids, the playground is equipped with swings and monkey bars.
When Wade Phillips was a young boy, it was striped with yard lines and bookended with goalposts.
Phillips didn’t need a teddy bear to tote around, he had a football. He grew up with the game, as he constantly tagged along to the practices of his father’s teams. His dad was legendary coach O.A. “Bum” Phillips, and football was interweaved in the fabric of Phillips’ family life.
“When I was a kid, I can remember being a ball boy or a water boy for my father’s high school team,” Phillips said. “Some of my earliest memories are of going to the Gator Bowl or talking with Bear Bryant (at Texas A&M). Coaching football was my dad’s life, and I loved being part of it.”
Eventually, Wade Phillips created his own identity on those same sidelines. He has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the more successful defensive coordinators and head coaches in NFL history, and on Tuesday he’ll join his late father Bum as an inductee to the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
Phillips didn’t always aspire to be a coach, however. As a kid, he just enjoyed playing ball, whatever the sport. It wasn’t until much later, as he was winding up college, that he experienced the wake-up call that so many athletes receive.
“I had been fortunate enough to get a scholarship to play at Houston, and my dad was coaching with the San Diego Chargers at the time,” Phillips said. “I played linebacker at, like, 215 to 220 pounds, and I saw all these Chargers linebackers at 240 pounds, and I said, ‘What am I doing?’
“That’s really how I got into coaching. I just knew I loved being around the game, and it seemed like a natural progression.”
Phillips cut his coaching teeth as a graduate assistant under his old college head coach, Bill Yeoman at Houston. A year later, he received an offer to coach defense at Lutcher-Stark High School in his hometown of Orange, Texas. (The school later became known as West Orange-Stark).
Phillips said he struggled with the decision whether to stay at Houston or enter the high school ranks. So he turned to the man who he always relied on for advice – his father.
“I got offered that high school job, and just couldn’t decide what to do. I asked my dad, ‘What should I do?’” Phillips said. “He was pretty much straight to the point: ‘Which one pays you more?’ I said, ‘The high school job.’ He said, ‘Go there. If you do a good job, they’ll find you.’”
They found him, indeed. Phillips followed the nomadic journey of the football coach, moving from one job to the next. After three years at Lutcher-Stark, he had a stint coaching linebackers at Oklahoma State and a season overseeing defensive linemen at Kansas.
Then, in 1976, he received a dream opportunity. Bum Phillips had taken over as head coach of the NFL’s Houston Oilers, and he asked Wade to join the staff as the defensive line coach.
Not only was Wade Phillips overjoyed by the chance to coach alongside his dad, but he was able to play a role in one of the golden ages of pro football in Houston. In the late 1970s, with Bum calling the shots and Earl Campbell dragging tacklers, the Oilers took the city – and the NFL – by storm. Oiler fans adopted the motto “Luv Ya, Blue,” and Houston made three straight playoff trips, twice losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
“Those were really special times,” Phillips said. “We had some great teams, but unfortunately Pittsburgh always stood in our way. … A lot of the guys who played and coached on those teams still get together. Those times really meant a lot to us. Even losing in the championship game, we had so many people show their support.
“I’ll never forget 50,000 fans waving their pom-poms in th Astrodome. That still gives me chills.”
The Oilers’ ascent coincided with Phillips’ rise in respect as a defensive mind. Phillips said he didn’t necessarily carry a single philosophy or stick to a single scheme defensively, preferring to adapt to the players he was coaching.
“I wanted to make it simple for guys,” Phillips said. “A lot of coaches focus on assignments or gap responsibility and teach a lot of different things. I always looked at the different players I had, the different body types, and I just wanted to play to their strengths and limit their weaknesses.”
Bum Phillips moved on from the Oilers to become the New Orleans Saints’ head coach in 1981, and like he’d done most of his life, Wade followed along.
Eventually, he’d get his own shot as an NFL head coach. Since the mid-1980s, Phillips has served as either the head coach or interim head coach for six different NFL franchises. In each of his head coaching stints, Phillips directed his team to a playoff appearance in his first year at the helm.
That included a 13-3 season and an NFC East title with the Dallas Cowboys in 2007. Phillips’ overall NFL head coaching record is 82-64.
In 2015, following a three-year stint with the Houston Texans, Phillips joined his friend Gary Kubiak with the Denver Broncos. The Broncos took to his tutelage perfectly, as Denver developed into the No. 1-ranked defense in the league. That unit particularly dazzled in the playoffs, and in February 2016 Phillips finally experienced what he’d been chasing for decades – a Super Bowl.
In Super Bowl 50, Phillips’ defense threw the ultimate coming-out party, stuffing Cam Newton and the Panthers on their way to a 24-10 victory.
“It’s the ultimate,” Phillips said. “You always dream of winning the Super Bowl, of climbing that highest mountain. It’s a goal every year, but it’s not easily attainable. Until you win it, you don’t even realize how great it is.”
After two seasons with the Broncos, Phillips departed this offseason to take the defensive coordinator position for the Los Angeles Rams. He said he has always appreciated a challenge, and he should find one with the Rams, who struggled to a 4-12 season in their return to L.A. in 2016.
At age 69, Phillips is among the NFL coaching fraternity’s elder statesmen. But he still gets a charge out of it. Football is all he’s ever known, and he has no hankering to retire anytime soon.
“As long as I enjoy it, I want to keep going, and I do,” Phillips said. “My health is good, and I feel like I can still make a difference. It’s what I enoy doing. I don’t have any hobbies, I’m not a golfer. .. . We’ll see. (Titans defensive coordinator) Dick LeBeau is 79, and he’s still going, so I’m going to keep it up.”
The best thing about Phillips is that he has adapted with the times. He is active on Twitter, with the handle@sonofbum, and has gained more than 120,000 followers. He also has a book out, “Son of Bum: Lessons My Dad Taught Me About His Life.”
Bum Phillips died in 2013 at age 90. Wade still misses his father, who he credits as his hero in many ways. But he’s grateful to carry on the family coaching tradition, and now to join his father as a member of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
“Texas is home for me. I’ve obviously lived all over, but I grew up in Texas, I grew up in football country,” Phillips said. “This honor means a lot to me, more than any honor I’ve really ever received, and I’ve been named the (NFL) Assistant Coach of the Year. … That my dad is a part of the Hall of Fame is even more special. He’s a hero to a lot of people, including me.”