In a lifetime following sports, other than a handful of Batavia Trojans (as the Genesee County-based minor-league baseball team was once known) outside Dwyer Stadium as an eight-year-old, I have only asked for one athlete or coach for an autograph.
Even as a kid, I didn’t quite get the importance of owning someone’s signature on a piece of paper. Standing near my seat in the end zone of Rich Stadium as the New Orleans Saints prepared to take on Buffalo on Oct. 30, 1983, though, I saw Bum Phillips, who died Friday at age 90, shaking hands with and signing for a handful of fans near the stadium wall.
Since the Bills were generally miserable through my early experiences with the sport, I had to adopt a couple other favorite teams in order to raise the possibility of seeing someone I wanted to win actually do so on any given Sunday. For some reason, most likely an affinity for underdogs, I settled on the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints.
Along with thunderous running back Earl Campbell, Bum was one of the main reasons for the Houston selection. His Stetson hat, snakeskin boots and drawls of folksy wisdom made him stand out among the NFL’s look-act-and-talk-alike head coaches, an older Hoss Cartwright striding the sideline.
Among his best Bumisms: “There’s two kinds of coaches, them that’s fired and them that’s gonna be fired.” On Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula: “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.” On Campbell’s inability to finish a mile run: “When it’s first-and-a-mile, I won’t give it to him.”
He might have doomed himself with one of his most famous quotes. After the Oilers came up short against Pittsburgh in the AFC title game for the second straight year, he addressed an Astrodome full of fans thusly: “Last year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on it. Next year we’re going to kick the son of a bitch in.”
Instead, the Oilers lost a wild-card game to the Raiders in 1980, the third straight year they were eliminated by the eventual Super Bowl champions. So Bud Adams made Bum’s words come true despite a 55-35 regular-season record. He took his Stetson hat and snakeskin boots to New Orleans, making a long-putrid franchise competitive.
I figured this would be the only chance I’d ever have to talk to my favorite coach, so I grabbed my game program, borrowed a pen, and made my way down to the cluster around him.
When it was my turn, I tried to think of something to say to him. The Saints were 5-3 at that point, while the Oilers, having completely disintegrated after his departure, had yet to win a game.
“Do you think Bud Adams knows he made a mistake?” was the best I could come up with.
He looked at me and smiled as he took the program and pen.
“Don’t know about that, but he sure should,” Bum said as he signed.
The Bills beat the Saints 27-21 that day, a game most notable for a knee injury suffered by Jerry Butler, which ultimately truncated the wide receiver’s career.
Bum never got the Saints to the playoffs, retiring late in the 1985 season in order to give his son, Wade, his first shot as a head coach.
The younger Phillips would later take the Bills to two postseason berths and a .500 record, only to see his father’s philosophy on job security in the coaching profession play out after the 2000 season.
In an age when Bill Belichick’s hacked-up sweatshirts represent the greatest fashion risk amidst a sea of NFL-licensed synthetic outerwear, there will never be another NFL coach who looks or talks like Bum Phillips.
Or would make me want his autograph.
(Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I do remember getting one other celebrity signature, this one with only a tangential connection to sports — Morganna, The Kissing Bandit at the Buffalo Convention Center during the Clutch Artists’ Autorama in March 1985. I was 16. You can Google her for further explanation.)
David Staba has written about the Buffalo Bills, among other topics, since 1990 for a variety of outlets, including We Want Marangi since way back in 2012.