March 21, 2000
Luv Ya Blue
By Bob Hulsey
Sid Gillman’s successor, O.A. “Bum” Phillips, looked like he came from central casting. The stocky good ol’ boy from Orange, Texas with the ten-gallon hat, the cowboy boots and the square chin had coached under Paul “Bear” Bryant at Texas A&M, later coaching at Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso), the University of Houston, SMU and Oklahoma State. Gillman brought him in as a defensive assistant with the Chargers. Phillips was as Texan as Pope Paul VI was Catholic.
As Oilers Head Coach and General Manager, he was also a sigh of relief for players who felt Gillman worked them too hard. When asked why his players didn’t scrimmage during training camp, Phillips was blunt. “Houston’s not on our schedule.”
He had a disdain for stopwatches too. “What do you have to time Billy Johnson or Kenny Burrough for? They’re fast enough.”
New blood ran through the Oilers’ veins and it lent vigor to a team with talent but little confidence. Robert Brazile, a tough and speedy linebacker, was added in the 1975 draft as was RB Don Hardeman, a first-round pick from Texas A&I known as “Jaws” for his non-stop mouth. DE Bubba Smith joined his younger brother Tody on the defensive line but his bad knees left him a shell of his All-Pro form. Carl Mauck came from San Diego to anchor an emerging offensive line.
Phillips implemented a defensive front with only three down linemen and four linebackers. The “3-4” defensive grew out of the college game and Miami’s “53” defense that used a “tweener” who was sometimes a DE and sometimes a linebacker. The “3-4” added quickness off the ball and was surprisingly effective against the game’s top runners like Pittsburgh’s Franco Harris and Buffalo’s O.J. Simpson.
Defense would start the 1975 Oilers on the right foot. DB Willie Germany scooped up a fumble and ran it in for the only score in a 7-0 shutout at New England. Suddenly, barriers were dropping. The Oilers won in Cleveland for the first time ever. They nipped Washington for their first win against an NFC team. They followed that up by beating Detroit.
The Oilers reached the halfway point with a 6-1 record, the lone blemish a two-point loss against Cincinnati. It turned out the Oilers lost to only two teams that year – the Bengals and the Steelers. It was unfortunate that they lost to both twice because it cost them a playoff spot. Houston finished 10-4 but Pittsburgh was 12-2 and Cincinnati was 11-3. That year, 10-4 was only good enough for third place. Still, the 21-10 finale over Cleveland before a sellout Dome crowd let the country know that the Oilers had finally showed up for the National Football League.
Houston’s fans responded warmly to their new coach and his band of overachievers. The enthusiasm would soon give birth to a movement called “Luv Ya Blue” which featured fight songs, pom poms and other antics more common to a college football game than the more businesslike professional game.
Bum now had credibility with his players, the media and the fans. “It’s a nickname, it ain’t a description,” he’d say of the colorful moniker that grew from his little sister Edrina’s early attempts to say “brother.”
Conquering the NFL was not as easy as it might have first appeared. The quarteback controversy between the inconsistent Dan Pastorini and his backup Lynn Dickey created turbulence. Dickey deserved a shot as a starter but Pastorini had more talent and was becoming a team leader. Phillips traded Dickey to Green Bay for QB John Hadl, a balding Kansan who starred for the old AFL Chargers and then with the NFL Rams. He would provide Pastorini with veteran counseling and a clear pecking order on the depth chart.
Bum had brought aboard his son, Wade, as linebacker coach. S Mike Reinfeldt came over from Oakland and the draft brought a hard-nosed WR named Mike Barber from Louisiana Tech, whom Phillips groomed as a tight end.
The Bicentennial year of 1976 started with a gift. The Oilers were the first opponent for the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A 20-0 shutout and wins over Buffalo, New Orleans and Denver led to a 4-1 start. Then a 30-27 loss to San Diego started a downward spiral. Still oft-criticized and unhappy, Pastorini asked to be traded but an injury soon quieted such talk. Houston didn’t have the depth to absorb the rash of injuries they suffered. Hadl finished the last half of the season and, while the defense kept things close, it wasn’t enough to win. The disappointing result was a 5-9 campaign.
Phillips was not immune from injuries himself. He was thrown from a horse at his ranch the following spring and was discovered by his daughter in a cement culvert.. He had suffered four broken ribs and a ruptured appendix. “I was embarrassed as the devil,” he recalled.
The running game had ground to a halt and Bum looked to upgrade the attack. He drafted RB’s Rob Carpenter and Tim Wilson as well as OT Morris Towns, OG George Reihner and TE Jimmie Giles.
The kicking game also needed improvement. Pastorini was relieved of the punting chores and Cliff Parsley got the job. Placekicker Skip Butler missed his first three field goal attempts and was replaced by Tom Dempsey. The former Saint with the deformed right foot owned the NFL record – a 63-yard FG in 1970 – but he missed three PATs and was released. Finally, the Oilers signed Toni Fritsch, an Austrian soccer player who had success with the Dallas Cowboys. The pudgy kicker had an accurate leg – so good that he practiced hitting the goalposts when he got bored with splitting them. “Every time I look at him,” cracked Bum, “I thank God for our immigration laws.”
The 1977 season started out like the year before. This time, it was a 20-0 whitewash of the Jets, Houston’s third straight opening day shutout. The Oilers beat Pittsburgh, 27-10, but the victory was costly as Pastorini went down again. Two weeks later, Pastorini gritted out a 27-10 loss in Pittsburgh. The Oilers were 3-3.
The next game at Cincinnati was a turning point. Hadl had failed to move the offense and the Oilers trailed, 10-0, in the fourth quarter. A limping Pastorini came off the bench to direct two scoring drives and tie it with :27 left in the game. Fritsch surprised the Bengals by kicking deep. The ball hopped around near the goal line where Cincinnati’s Willie Shelby waived at it as it bounced haphazardly. Steve Baumgartner was the first Oiler downfield and he fell on the football in the end zone for an apparent touchdown.
The replays indicated Shelby had not touched the ball. “I didn’t touch it. I know that,” said Shelby in the locker room. “Why? Was I supposed to?”
But the official believed otherwise. He said the ball hit Shelby’s hand while Shelby had a foot on the out of bounds stripe. No score. Touchback. Bengals’ ball on their 20-yard line. Cincinnati ran out the clock, won the overtime coin flip, marched down the field and walked away with a 13-10 win.
The Oilers protested to the league, but all the league did was admit that the official made a mistake. It didn’t change the result.
“I’d like to see full-time officials,” Phillips fumed. “If they can cost me my job, I’d like to be able to cost them theirs. Right now, they can go back to their insurance business. I don’t have an insurance business to go back to.”
The bitter Oilers responded with a 47-0 demolition of the Chicago Bears. From there, they won four of their last five and finished with an 8-6 mark, good, but not enough for a playoff spot.
“We thought we were 9-5,” remarked Bum, “but I’ve had a little hell convincing my owner of that.”
Bum needed something extra to get to the next level. His answer resided just a few miles up U.S. 290.
Bob Hulsey has a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked in print and radio covering sports throughout Texas since 1976. He presently works for a telecommunications company in Austin.
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