In the late 1970s, Houston was booming, being country was cool and nobody was as country as the Oilers.
Coached by a man named Bum and powered by a running back named Earl, both every bit a one-name Texas icon like Willie or Waylon, the NFL team and the city were simpatico.
Bum Phillips grew up working cattle in Orange, Texas, about 120 miles from Houston, before he became a successful high school and college coach, while wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson hat on the sideline (just not in the Astrodome, because his mama taught him never to wear a hat indoors). Earl Campbell grew up in the rose fields of East Texas and had already become a legend as a high school senior in Tyler before winning a Heisman Trophy at the University of Texas. The two had an instant connection. They already had a mutual friend: Willie Nelson.
Together, Bum and Earl became the faces of a franchise that finally allowed Houston to escape the enormous shadow of the Dallas Cowboys, coinciding with Houston’s rise as the country’s fastest-growing city and a depiction in “Urban Cowboy” as the center of the country-western universe.
With stars such as Campbell, Elvin Bethea, Robert Brazile, Dan Pastorini and later Kenny Stabler, the Oilers were a tight-knit brotherhood who wore big belt buckles and bigger cowboy hats, hung with the locals at the honky-tonk Gilley’s — just like John Travolta — and rode horses at their coach’s ranch.
“The football players that we had on our football team kind of meshed with the town,” Phillips told NFL Films a few years before his death in 2013. “That situation hit just right at the right time.”
For Houstonians, that era still lingers as the standard by which all teams are measured.
“There was a very big sense of pride that the Oilers were just so Texas,” said Houston rapper Bun B, who grew up idolizing Campbell. “Like from player to coach, it’s all Texas. I mean, we loved the Oilers. There wasn’t any other option, because the only other option is the Cowboys, and that’s not even an option. That’s just like Blue Bell ice cream, you know? There’s Blue Bell ice cream or we’re not eating ice cream.”
Such adulation is a far cry from Houston’s current relationship with its NFL team, which has deteriorated with the departures of Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins and the greatest player in Texans franchise history, J.J. Watt, while a divorce with Deshaun Watson appears imminent.
The ongoing drama is just the latest painful chapter in the story of Houston and pro football, including the Oilers’ relocation after the 1996 season before the Texans made it an NFL town again in 2002.
“I’m sorry for those fans,” said Brazile, the Hall of Fame linebacker who played in Houston from 1975 to 1984. “What more can they take? They had the Oilers leave, they had a hurricane that destroyed their city, they had the snowstorm this year. The breaking up of that team, I feel bad for the Texans’ fans, because I know exactly what they’re feeling.”
It wasn’t always like this. Four decades ago, the Oilers owned Houston lock, stock and oil barrel.
Bum rides into town
Upon the franchise’s founding in 1960, the Oilers became an overnight success, claiming the first two American Football League titles. But following a loss to the Dallas Texans in the third AFL title game, they finished above .500 just once until the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, then went 9-45-2 in their first four NFL seasons. The Oilers were most famous for a fan flipping the bird at the Monday Night Football cameras. They squandered draft picks and became a laughingstock as owner Bud Adams, a Houston oilman, burned through coaches and kept a tight grip on his pursestrings.
In 1975, Phillips was promoted from defensive coordinator to become the Oilers’ 10th head coach in their 16 seasons along with having total control of the personnel as general manager. His easygoing attitude, country-fried accent, ranch-hand attire and penchant for one-liners cut a stark contrast to the league’s iron-jawed taskmasters like Don Shula, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll and Paul Brown.
“I mean, how many players call their coach by his first name — and his first name is Bum?” said Wade Phillips, his son and longtime assistant coach. “Most coaches were so authoritarian. They were the boss. But it was by fear. It wasn’t what he did. He gained respect a different way.”
From the start, Bum treated players like his children and demanded they treat each other like family too, because they’d fight harder for family than they would for teammates. He forced players to hang out together, creating an atmosphere where they might just as well have been playing dominoes as going over game plans. There were no curfews and few rules.
On Saturdays, players were encouraged to bring their families to practice. Kids chased each other around. Even dogs were allowed.
“A lot of those players weren’t married,” Bum explained to NFL Films. “Course they all had ’em a dog. I guess they couldn’t get a girl, so they got the dog. They’re friends with that dog, and they’d bring ’em to practice.”
Pastorini, the quarterback who was drafted with the third overall pick in 1971 and suffered through two 1-13 seasons in his first three years, said he wasn’t so sure about this cowboy being his fourth head coach in five years. But as he got to know him, he realized there was wisdom under the hat.
“He had this country bumpkin way, this common-sense way,” Pastorini said. “But that country bumpkin [appearance] only went so far. The guy was a brilliant man.”
As a high school coach, Bum had invented a numbering system for defensive fronts (1-technique, etc.) that impressed then-Texas A&M coach Bear Bryant so much that he hired him as an assistant, then made it the standard taught at Alabama; it’s now the default across the sport. He installed his 3-4 defense in Houston, the first of its kind in the NFL, and not many people believed it would work. According to a 1978 Washington Post story, after just three seasons, 14 teams had adopted it.
Bum became known for doing more with less. He said coaching the Oilers was his dream job and he would’ve done it for free — “and I almost did,” he quipped.
“Bum was making $50,000 a year,” Wade Phillips said, during a time when Shula was making $500,000 a year with the Miami Dolphins. “We met in a double-wide trailer. We had to partition off to have our offensive and defensive meetings. [Offensive line coach] Joe Bugel and those guys met in a … I don’t know what it was; it was like a little shed where they kept the tools. None of that bothered anybody.”
In Bum’s first season in 1975, he led the Oilers to a 10-4 record, their first 10-win season in 13 years.
His unconventional style on and off the field worked. His innovative defense showcased Brazile, who was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. Nicknamed Dr. Doom, he predated Lawrence Taylor as the first great pass-rushing outside linebacker, a staple of modern defenses.
“I don’t care if people think I’m dumb,” Bum once said. “But I ain’t gonna prove it for ’em.”
Big Earl and ‘Luv Ya Blue’
Bum traded for the No. 1 pick in the 1978 draft to select Campbell, the 5-foot-11, 245-pound Heisman winner known for his punishing running style and 36-inch thighs.
“Standing behind the defense, you couldn’t see anything but his shoulder pads and his knees coming through the line of scrimmage,” Wade Phillips said. “It looked like one of those lawnmowers where the grass is coming up in the back.”
By mid-November, Houston was in a frenzy. Campbell had scored three touchdowns in a 24-17 upset of the Steelers in Pittsburgh. When Monday Night Football visited the Astrodome to showcase a game against the Dolphins on Nov. 20, the place was ready to explode.
“The whole city got into it,” Brazile said. “You would’ve thought it was a Super Bowl game.”
Dennis Lewin, who worked for ABC Sports for 30 years before later becoming a vice president for the NFL, produced the game and was stunned by the enthusiasm around the hotel and the Dome, with its raucous pompom-waving crowd.
“It was a totally different atmosphere than any NFL game I’ve ever been to,” Lewin said. “This was as close as it got to being a college football game. It had that kind of feel, that kind of excitement.”
Miami’s Bob Griese threw for 349 yards and two touchdowns, but Campbell’s 81-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter put the game out of reach. Campbell finished with 199 yards and four touchdowns, and became a national sensation.
Jerry Trupiano, the former voice of the Boston Red Sox who was previously a Houston talk-show host and play-by-play voice for 14 years, compared the feeling in the Astrodome to Al Michaels describing the “Miracle on Ice,” when the U.S. upset the Soviet Union hockey team in the 1980 Olympics.
“That night in the Astrodome you could feel sound, if you want to borrow Michaels’ line,” Trupiano said. “It’s not overstating it to say that crowd affected the whole city and the whole area. The energy gave the sports fan of Houston something really to be proud of.”
The game became an all-time classic.
“It was fabulous,” Lewin said. “It was the greatest NFL game I’ve ever produced, and I still think it was the best [Monday night game] ever.”
The Oilers were a national draw. For the first time, Houston had a football team that could rival its nemesis in Dallas.
“It was really insulting because I’m here in the city of Houston, and I’m playing for their football team, and all you saw were bumper stickers that said ‘Cowboys,'” Pastorini said. “We always kind of had to play under that shadow of the Dallas Cowboys, that they were far superior than we were. We’re just a minor league football team compared to them.”
But that season changed everything. The Oilers reached their first playoff game in the nine seasons since they’d joined the NFL. The first person to dial up Bum with an ‘attaboy’? Country star Waylon Jennings.
“You got to understand, the biggest thing in Texas was oil,” Brazile said. “Then the second-biggest thing was the Dallas Cowboys. Then here we come winning games.”
In 1979, the Oilers played another highly anticipated Monday night game against the Steelers. The team’s marketing department passed out cards inspired by a sign a fan had hung on the fence at the team’s practice field. The signs said, “Luv Ya Blue!”
The phrase became the nickname that captured the city’s enthusiasm for the Bum/Earl era, jump-started by the victory over the Dolphins in 1978.
Hollywood cowboys and real cowboys
An unlikely thing happened when the Oilers started winning. Bum Phillips became a fashion icon.
During the Luv Ya Blue era, Richard Wolf, president of Gary’s Hats ‘N’ Boots in Houston, Bum’s hat supplier since 1946, said his store sold more cowboy hats than any other place in the nation.
“In December, if the Oilers are in the playoffs, we sell 200 hats a day,” he told The Washington Post in 1980. “People buy them to sit in front of the TV and watch the game. Our business has more than doubled in the past two years, and Bum Phillips is the single most important factor.”
Likewise, an El Paso boot company, Sanders Boots, said its sales quadrupled in Houston after Bum endorsed them. The cowboy coach’s style became a national curiosity, such as when the Cincinnati Enquirer sent a reporter to check out his boot closet. Inside, the newspaper found 25 pairs made from alligator, anteater, beaver, caribou, lizard, kangaroo, ostrich and ostrich leg. There were also the standard cowhide, plus rough leather and patent leather.
Bum’s team followed his lead. Black, white, Texan, transplant. Didn’t matter. The Oilers became a collection of western-wear converts.
“I had to be taught how to ride a horse, how to wear cowboy boots, how to wear a cowboy hat,” said Brazile, a native of Mobile, Alabama, who played college football at Jackson State in Mississippi. “But I wore it well, now. I was an urban cowboy.”
Tight end Mike Barber, from White Oak in East Texas, made hat bands from bird feathers. As the team began winning, those too became a hot item, with fans staking out deliveries.
“Boom, it went crazy,” Barber said, saying Gary’s had “a line half a mile out the door for people wanting to buy cowboy hats and them stupid feathers.”
Former cheerleader Nita Schnitzer said Oilers-colored Columbia blue felt cowboy hats were the perfect accessory. “They were being steamed to fit at rodeos for everybody to get with their Mike Barber headbands,” she said.
Barber had to rapidly expand, renting space and hiring workers just to keep up with demand.
“Do you know that, at one time, I had 700 stores nationwide selling them?” he said. “I was spending $100,000 a month out of New York for feathers. Can you believe that?”
Campbell and Willie Nelson were both spokesmen for Harold’s in the Heights, a Houston men’s store, and made appearances together. Campbell popularized a shirt with the store’s logo on it, and the store became a go-to spot for western wear alongside its tailored suits.
“We sold blue ostrich boots like crazy,” said Michael Wiesenthal, Harold’s son. “I didn’t even know how to crease a [cowboy] hat; I had to learn how. We had a warehouse full of blue felt. We had jeans that had oil derricks embroidered on the side. I mean, people were going crazy here.”
In 1980, the movie “Urban Cowboy” was released, depicting life in Houston’s honky-tonk scene, notably at Gilley’s, the nightclub in nearby Pasadena that could hold up to 6,000.
The movie was credited with making western chic trendy nationally. But even Travolta’s black Stetson had a little Luv Ya Blue influence.
“The people in ‘Urban Cowboy’ that wore cowboy hats? They were wearing my hat bands,” Barber said.
Oilers players were already living the life portrayed in the movie, including Stabler, who arrived earlier that year and basically set up shop at the home of the famous mechanical bull.
“There’s a feel here that you’re probably not going to find in any other NFL city,” Stabler told the Fort Worth-Star Telegram in 1980. “There aren’t very many pretentious people in Houston. They are satisfied just having a good time. I can identify with that.”
Brazile said the Oilers were country before country was cool.
“We had that look and we took it all over the world, not just in Houston,” he said. “Everybody wore it. We did it by winning.”
They weren’t just dressing up as cowboys either. Pastorini said players would hang out at Bum’s ranch in Missouri City outside of town and ride horses and rope cattle in a cutting horse pen. Campbell kept his horse at Bum’s ranch.
Carl Mauck, the Oilers’ center from Southern Illinois, said Campbell once called him on a Saturday during the offseason wanting to go to a rodeo in a little town outside Houston.
“We’re out there watching, and then Earl said, ‘I wanna ride a horse!'” Mauck said. “I said, ‘I don’t know …’ Then they put Earl on one of those quarter horses and I said, ‘Oh s—.’ But he didn’t try to do anything cowboy-wise. He just rode the horse, took it around the arena, and I tell you what, those people went crazy.”
Willie Nelson would show up at practice, and many of Bum’s other musician friends would head off to training camp with the Oilers. Adams saved money by having training camps at small Texas colleges. At Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin and Angelo State, the country singers stayed in the dorms with the players.
“All those pickers that Bum knew, he made sure the invitation was out,” Mauck said. Wade Phillips said songwriters like Sonny Throckmorton, who’s had more than 1,000 songs recorded by other singers, would try out material on the players at night.
“Then you’d hear it on the radio as a No. 1 hit in another month,” he said.
A Houston music store, Don’s Record Shop, sold thousands of Oilers-themed records, such as wide receiver Ken Burrough’s disco number called “Super Bowl Itch” and another by Mauck called “Oiler Cannonball” that came about after a sportswriter heard he had written a song to the tune of “Wabash Cannonball” and Mauck showed him the lyrics.
“He put it in the paper, and not long after I got a call from Mickey Gilley,” Mauck said of the owner of Gilley’s and a country star who had 10 No. 1 hits between 1974 and 1980. “He said, ‘I like the words to your song and we’d like you to record it.’ I said, ‘You’re s—tin’ me!'”
Gilley had his own studio with a roster of pro musicians on standby. “It was easy for him to play the music and me to sing,” Mauck said. “I went down to Mickey’s one day after practice and cut it.”
The initial pressing sold out at Don’s, despite Pastorini’s friendly assertion that it was the worst song ever recorded.
Mauck took particular delight in the lyrics he wrote about the Cowboys (“the most hated team in football,” he still says), especially after the Oilers rallied from a 21-10 deficit to beat Dallas 30-24 in 1979 at Texas Stadium and claim the state’s bragging rights.
“We beat their ass on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas,” Mauck said. “On the plane ride home, Bum said, ‘You oughta sing that verse about the Cowboys.’ So I did! I went up to the pilot’s cockpit and got on the damn radio and sang that last verse to the team. S—, everybody went crazy.”
When the Super Bowl race is over
When those Cowboys finally fall
We’ll carry ’em back to Houston
on the Oiler Cannonball
The Steelers roadblock and the rallies
Campbell became every bit the superstar Bum believed he could be, leading the NFL in rushing with 1,450 yards as a rookie in 1978 and 1,697 yards the following year. With Brazile and Bethea — another future Hall of Famer — leading a tough defense, the Oilers were a physical matchup for any team.
But sharing the AFC Central with the Steelers was a problem. In 1978 and ’79, the teams split the regular-season matchups. But the road to the Super Bowl ran through harsh January games in Pittsburgh.
In both seasons, the Oilers made runs to the AFC title game, and both times Pittsburgh was a dead end. There was a 34-5 loss in 1978 and a 27-13 loss in ’79 marred by a blown call, when a touchdown catch by Houston’s Mike Renfro that would’ve tied the score was incorrectly ruled out of bounds.
But what happened after each AFC title loss still stuns players and coaches after 40 years.
Bum promised that the team would return to the Astrodome to greet fans. But after the Oilers were blown out the first year in a wet, dreary game, the flight home was delayed for three hours. When the exhausted, dejected team landed, everyone was ready to go home. Bum said no.
“The players said nobody’s gonna be there,” Wade Phillips said. “Bum said, ‘I don’t care if just one person’s there, we gave our word. We’re going.'”
When they got off the plane, the airport, which was open to visitors in those days, was packed with Oilers fans. The team couldn’t believe it.
“We never passed another car going either direction. Everybody was parked along the freeway and the entrance at the airport,” Pastorini said. “They’re honking their horn, standing on top of their cars waving. I mean, nobody took footage of that, but that footage would be iconic today.”
When they arrived at the Astrodome, there had been no attendants there to help park cars, and the lot was packed. The buses could barely get through, then finally were able to drive into the stadium, where about 50,000 fans waited.
“Rolling in that bus and the crowd just going absolutely crazy? Players were crying,” Wade Phillips said.
“I didn’t even know if my son and my wife were going to be there,” Brazile said. “And I’m saying, ‘Wow, what the death is going on?'”
Even after more than 40 years, each one said he still got chills telling the story.
“I’ll never forget as long as I live,” Pastorini said.
In 1979, after the Oilers lost again, Wade Phillips said the team again felt like calling off the return trip to the Dome.
“We said, ‘Well, they’re not going to do it again,'” he recalled.
But the crowd was even bigger. After a second consecutive AFC Championship loss, an estimated 70,000 people were waiting to cheer on the team.
“That second one, there were so many people on the freeway that the buses couldn’t get through and Pastorini and some of the other guys jumped on the cops’ motorcycles,” said Trupiano, who was working for the Red Sox when they won the 2004 World Series but never saw fans celebrate after a loss. “I don’t know anywhere else where that would happen.”
Bethea, an eight-time Pro Bowler, told the crowd he had been devastated by the loss and had decided to retire. After seeing the crowd’s response, though, he said he changed his mind. He would end up playing three more seasons.
Schnitzer, the cheerleader, rode around the floor of the Astrodome on top of a concrete truck and said the ground was shaking like earthquake tremors.
“The place literally was vibrating with the people in the stands yelling, clapping, stomping their feet,” she said. “You couldn’t hear anything until Bum came in and wanted to talk. Then it was just silence.”
Bum was so moved by the spectacle, he wiped away tears, took the microphone and addressed the crowd about how he hoped to get the Oilers over the hump and to the Super Bowl in 1980.
“One year ago, we knocked on the door,” he said slowly. “This year, we beat on the door. Next year, we’re going to kick the son of a bitch in.”
“After that, it went from a tremor to a 5.0 earthquake,” Schnitzer said.
The 73-year-old Wade Phillips, who has coached for 10 different NFL teams over 44 years, said he’s never had another experience that rivaled these rallies.
“We won the Super Bowl in Denver [in the 2015 season when he was defensive coordinator],” Wade said. “We had a parade and all that stuff. But [the fans] wouldn’ta been there if we wouldn’ta won it.
“There’s only one champion. That’s the problem,” he said. “But those teams ended up champions to the people here. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal.”
The end of Luv Ya Blue
After the 1979 season, Pastorini and Bum agreed that it was time for a change. Pastorini, a Californian, wanted to go back to the West Coast, so Bum sent him to Oakland for Stabler.
In 1980, the Oilers eliminated the Steelers from the playoffs with a 6-0 win in Week 14 but finished second in the division to the Cleveland Browns. Stabler threw 28 interceptions to 13 touchdowns, and the Oilers’ offensive struggles continued in a 27-7 loss to the Raiders in the wild-card round as they fell short of another championship game appearance.
The Oilers didn’t get to kick that door down. Instead, Bum got kicked while he was down.
Less than 24 hours after the loss, on Dec. 31, 1980, Adams fired Bum, citing Bum’s resistance to name an offensive coordinator instead of splitting duties among three coaches. Just like that, in one 15-minute meeting, the Luv Ya Blue era was over.
After Bum was fired, Wade Phillips and the other assistants were still under contract. Adams promoted defensive coordinator Ed Biles to head coach, and Biles asked Wade to stick around and take over as coordinator. Wade recalled recently just how incredulous he was.
“You didn’t just fire my head coach, you fired my dad!” he said of Adams wanting him to return. “I’m not staying here.”
Another Houston oilman, Saints owner John Mecom Jr., paid Bum $600,000 a year to take over as coach and general manager in New Orleans. Several Oilers joined Bum there, but those left behind saw their team crumble, going 7-9 in 1981, including a massive upset loss to Bum and the Saints. Biles resigned midway through the 1983 season after losing 13 straight games. The Oilers were once again at rock bottom.
Houston’s original football heartbreak was the beginning of a fractured relationship with Adams, who could never get support for a new stadium to replace the aging Astrodome. He took the Oilers to Memphis in 1997 before eventually resettling and rebranding as the Titans in Nashville.
Pastorini, who regretted ever leaving Houston, returned after retiring in 1983 and was decreed an official Texan by the state legislature that year. He said the demise of the Oilers left him without a hometown team, just a family full of former teammates.
“We’re an anomaly. We don’t have a loyalty to a team anymore,” he said. “Our team is Luv Ya Blue, and what’s good about Luv Ya Blue is that it’s remembered and it’s appreciated. I’m still getting fan mail. Every time I walk down the street or go to the store, somebody inevitably will come up to me and just want to shake my hand and thank me for the years that we had in Luv Ya Blue, and everybody kind of gets this faraway look in their eye.”
When Bum died in 2013, Campbell, who lives in Austin, grieved along with Houston.
“I came down when Bum passed away and did like two hours on the radio,” Campbell told the Houston Chronicle in 2016. “People called me and told me that because of the way the Oilers played, that brought the city together and made those people feel like they were family. It was just playing football on a Sunday, walking out of the Astrodome, fans being able to run over and get an autograph. Everything was just country like Bum Phillips liked it.”
The Texans may never capture the city’s hearts the same way.
“I don’t think it could be that again,” Schnitzer said. “I think a lot of it was lost when Bum was fired. The whole morale of Houston changed.”
There won’t be an NFL coach like Bum Phillips again — and certainly not one who dresses like him.
“Not until Nike starts selling cowboy hats,” Wade Phillips said.
There will always be one title he’s proud that Bum and his Oilers claimed.
“Like my dad always said, the Cowboys may have been America’s Team,” said Wade Phillips, who still lives in Houston. “But we were Texas’ team.”