When the legendary coach of the Houston Oilers, Oail Andrew Phillips — everybody knows him as “Bum” — was approached in 2012 with a pitch to make an opera about his life, he responded in trademark fashion, “I can’t sing a lick.”
But Mr. Phillips gave his blessing, and two years later the “Bum Phillips All-American Opera” premiered on March 15 at La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in Manhattan’s East Village. Texas football and opera might seem like an unlikely union, but the world of opera has never been short on brash men of destiny. The outsize, Stetson-wearing Mr. Phillips, who in the late 1970s twice came achingly close to taking Houston to its first Super Bowl, was no less a star-crossed general than Otello. But he was also a jester. His famous wit — homespun homilies affectionately known as “Bum-isms”— made such good copy that even Rigoletto would have had to doff his cap.
The director Luke Leonard, a Houston native, conceived the opera after reading the coach’s 2010 autobiography, Bum Phillips: Cowboy, Coach, Christian. Mr. Leonard said the coach was easy to find; his phone number and address were listed on the website for his Texas-based charities. In 2012, Mr. Leonard traveled with Peter Stopschinski, a fellow Houstonian who composed the opera’s music, to the Phillips ranch in Goliad, Tex., where Mr. Phillips treated them to Subway sandwiches, a pot of his wife’s baked beans and, of course, pie.
“I felt a lot of responsibility after we left,” Mr. Leonard said. “Like a weight. It felt more relevant and more real.”
A recent performance, which doubled as a benefit for Mr. Phillips’s charity, drew a scattering of the coach’s friends, family members and former Oiler players to New York. Lawrence Harris, whom Mr. Phillips drafted as a lineman and later became an opera singer, sang the opening national anthem.
The quirky and earnest production by the Monk Parrots, a New York arts company, focuses on crucial points in Mr. Phillips’s life, from his Depression-era upbringing in Orange, Tex., and his time in combat as a Marine in World War II to his divorce, second marriage and late-in-life turn to Christianity. In the end, Phillips is delivered more character than caricature—fearful, enthusiastic, and at times haunted. In addition to the show’s director and composer, several other Texans populate the cast and production team, including Kirk Lynn, a native of San Antonio who wrote the opera’s libretto.
But it is Mr. Phillips’s year as Houston Oilers head coach during the 1979 season that takes the central focus. Mr. Phillips, played by Gary Ramsey, presided over the “Luv Ya Blue” years, named after the team’s blue jerseys, from 1978 to 1980, an era of delirious pride — even by Texas standards — that swept Houston as the city was reveling in an economic boom.
Watching a staged depiction of the “Luv Ya Blue” era is like biting into a deep-fried madeline. The opera, largely set in 1979, celebrates the Oiler mania of the era with a choreographed parade of Columbia blue jerseys and foam fingers, Texas flags and Derrick Doll cheerleaders, and an operatic rendition of the Houston Oilers fight song. Earl Campbell, the Hall of Fame running back, who is played by Anlami Shaw, appears young and full of menace, and he even sings. The Houston Astrodome is restored to its bygone status as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Dan Pastorini, the Oilers quarterback for most of Phillips’ time with the team, flew in for the show. He still encounters fans of those Oilers teams of the late 1970s who remain nostalgic for the euphoria that Phillips cast over Houston.
“They always come and they shake my hand and they thank me for the ‘Luv Ya Blue’ years and all of us who played it,” Mr. Pastorini said. “And you see this faraway look in their eyes. It was like Shangri-La. It was like Camelot.”
Mr. Phillips’s reign at the helm of this Texas-size ecstasy aligns the stars for disappointment. The upstart Oilers fall one game shy of the Super Bowl two years in a row, in 1978 and 1979. Both times Mr. Phillips’s designs were foiled by their division rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that was rounding out a six-year span in which it won four Super Bowls.
In its tragicomic climax, the opera zeros in on a pivotal play in the second showdown between the Steelers and Oilers when an apparent touchdown pass from Mr. Pastorini to receiver Mike Renfro is ruled incomplete by a referee unable to see the catch from the conclusive angle visible to the millions watching on television. The characters reverse and repeat their steps like in an instant replay clip, but the ruling cannot be reversed. The call remains the subject of what-if fantasy scenarios 35 years later.
After the loss, an estimated 60,000 greeted the team at the Astrodome. Mr. Phillips, wiping away tears, delivered a speech that would have made Patton blush.
“Last year, we knocked on the door,” Mr. Phillips told the crowd. “This year, we banged on it. Next year, we’re going to kick the sum’bitch in.”
This, the ne plus ultra of Bum-isms, naturally appears near the end of the opera. In reality, the door was never kicked in. Mr. Pastorini was traded, and in 1980 the Oilers lost in the playoffs to the Oakland Raiders, who eventually won the Super Bowl. The team’s owner, Bud Adams, then fired Mr. Phillips. Houston never forgave Mr. Adams, who moved the team to Tennessee in 1997.
Mr. Phillips was revered in Texas until his death in October and remained close to a number of his former players.
“I was moved to tears in the end,” Mr. Pastorini said. “I lived with the man and I knew the man and they depicted him to a T.”
“It’s a great tribute for us and our family,” said Mr. Phillips’s son, Wade, who has also had a career as an NFL coach. “There’s not many people that get an opera, Don Giovanni and the Barber of Seville.”