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It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Man Spits: Recalling a Colorful Coach
Opera Celebrates Bum Phillips, Who Led the Houston Oilers
“Luv Ya Blue,” an electronic sign reads as you enter the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa for its current show, referring to the defunct Houston Oilers of the National Football League through the color of their home jerseys. The word “Blue” flashes at times, seeming to short out, then morphs into “Bum.”
“Luv Ya Bum”: Now that would at least have been a grabber of a title, however inexplicable to the uninitiated, and you wouldn’t have had to quibble about whether the show it referred to, which opened last Saturday evening, was a musical, an opera or an opry. Instead, its makers gave it the awkward and tendentious title “Bum Phillips All-American Opera,” so let the quibbling begin.
For those of you who do not automatically shift your gaze from, say, the Metropolitan Opera on a fall Saturday to the N.F.L. on Sunday, a little background may be needed. In fact, a lot is needed, and that’s part of the problem.
Oail (pronounced AWL) Andrew Phillips, nicknamed for his sister’s inability to pronounce “brother” — “bumble” was shortened to “bum” — was from 1975 to 1980 the coach and general manager of the Houston Oilers (the forerunner of the current Tennessee Titans, and not to be confused with the present-day Houston Texans). Though he turned a mediocre team into a Super Bowl contender in his final two seasons, its hopes were quashed both times by the Pittsburgh Steelers in conference championship games, a step short of even playing in the Super Bowl, and Phillips was fired in a New Year’s Eve Massacre in 1980.
But by then he had become a cult figure in Houston, a hero to the Luv Ya Blue throng of avid Oilers fans. Hefty and jut-jawed, he presented himself as the quintessential Texan, with his cowboy hat and boots and his down-home manner and platitudes. He chewed tobacco and spat a lot, as was copiously documented in an NFL Films segment that presented him as the No. 8 Character of All Time.
In the film clip, he points out a homemade sign in the stands: “It ain’t over ’til the fat man spits.” So is it opera we’re talking about, after all?
No. For all of Phillips’s late immersion in the Christianity of his upbringing and his newly adopted mission of visiting prisoners, there is no heroic action here of operatic scope.
The issue is not quality. Conceived and directed by Luke Leonard, the work functions reasonably well on Broadway musical terms, and there is no reason to believe it would have been better for being more operatic.
The work “was born from nostalgia,” Mr. Leonard writes. And Phillips was indeed a colorful figure, but the color was local.
Even for many of us who followed football avidly at the time, he was never more than a peripheral figure. Of what I wrote above, about all I remembered before I started digging was coach of the Houston Oilers, cowboy hat and boots, and jutting jaw.
So exposition is needed: lots of it, and it’s still not enough. In Kirk Lynn’s libretto, the television announcers tell about Bum; family members tell about Bum; Bum tells about Bum.
In operatic terms, almost everything functions as recitative, little as aria. Even when the melody soars a bit, it seldom conveys overwhelming emotion of the kind that motivates operatic arias; it is still too busy just dispensing the facts.
All of that said, Peter Stopschinski’s music has appealing moments, perhaps more of them in a countrified mode than in the higher-flown tunes or the slightly more adventurous harmonies, and a talented and energetic cast added to the appeal.
The hard-working, strong-voiced, charismatic and, yes, jut-jawed baritone Gary Ramsey offered a tour de force as Bum Phillips. In the other glamour role — as Phillips’s second wife, Debbie — Alison Bolshoi unfurled a plush and lovely dramatic-soprano tone but spent a little too much time slightly under pitch.
For those who know more, and care more, about Bum Phillips, this will undoubtedly make for a fine evening’s entertainment. But merely loving music and loving football isn’t enough to make it so.
“Bum Phillips All-American Opera” runs through March 30 at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater, 66 East Fourth Street, East Village; 212-475-7710, lamama.org.
“Places, Old Lady!” the stage manager shouts. “Places, Hippie Pig!”
A titter goes up in a venerable theater in Manhattan’s East Village, where a collection of actor/singers, bedecked in replicas of the Houston Oilers’ home blue jerseys, are milling about onstage. The director is trying to fix the timing of the entrance for the Hippie Pig, who is being played by a sort of biker-ish guy, bearded, long-haired, and shirtless, while the harried stage manager is trying to diminish the general hubbub.
When order is restored, a projection of the roof of the Astrodome begins once again to swirl on a screen, and everyone returns to the task at hand: a stumble-through rehearsal for Bum Phillips: All-American Opera. They’re working out the knots in the staging of a number near the end of the first act. It’s a song about Earl Campbell, and it transitions into a full-throated rendition of “Houston Oilers, Number One,” because what else would you expect to encounter at a night at the opera?
(a growing number)
Look out football, here we come, Houston Oilers, number one.
We’ve got the Astrodome
the world’s eighth wonder
We’ve got a state as big as the sun
We’ve got a coach
We’ve got a coach
We’ve got a running back all-star
We’ve got Earl Campbell!
BUD and BUM:
We’ve got tons and tons and tons of fans
we need a song!
BUD, BUM, EARL, and BARBER:
Look out football, here we come
Houston Oilers, number one
Look out football, here we come
Houston Oilers, number one
Look out football, here we come
Houston Oilers, number one
Look out football, here we come
Houston Oilers, number one!
Which, yes. Feel free to raise an eyebrow. I’m not at the Ellen Stewart Theater/LaMaMa E.T.C expecting to see high art. Bum Phillips: All-American Opera is not La Bohème. Bum Phillips is a guy standing behind a trading-card-like prop frame, striking a classic QB pose. It’s you, in the audience, wondering, “Is that supposed to be Dan Pastorini?”
But if you spend a few moments watching the production unfold—and I was lucky enough to be allowed to watch them run through the end of Act 1 and a portion of Act 2—you realize that, yes, there is a natural kinship between the NFL and the grand clash of high emotions that is usually opera’s terrain. One involves lots of oversized and oversexed pituitary cases being subjected to epic violence and cruelty. The other is professional football.
Of course, we’re not talking about just any professional football team; we’re talking about the late ’70s/early ’80s Houston Oilers, in all their glorious wackiness: the “Luv Ya Blue” signs, the John 3:16 guy in the rainbow wig, everything about them striking a giddy contrast with their dynastic foe, Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers. Amazingly, in the brutish and brutal world of the NFL, they actually seemed to be having fun.
That was mainly due to their coach and general manager, Bum Phillips, who died last October and whose part in the opera is performed by Gary Ramsey. He was at the center of those wild, rambunctious teams—an honest-to-God Texan, prowling the sidelines in his cowboy boots, a wide-lapeled shirt, and a white Stetson resting on top of a Marine’s buzz cut, bellowing like a sort of shitkicker Maximus to a delirious Astrodome crowd of more than 70,000 who had just watched their team lose in the AFC championship game: “Last year, we knocked on the door. This year, we pounded on the door. I’m telling you, next year we’re going to kick that sumbitch in.”
There was lot more to Bum than the sports-flick-friendly narrative—colorful character takes rag-tag bunch of plucky upstarts to within inches of winning it all—might suggest. The dramatic arc of the opera covers, yes, the fabled playoff runs, but also tells the story of his time in the Marines in World War II, during which he was forbidden from revealing his exact location and had to alert his family to his location via code: “Love, from S.I.,” for example, to indicate that he was in the Solomon Islands. There are scenes depicting the origin of the name “Bum,” his retirement, divorce, and most notably, his efforts with ex-Oiler Mike Barber to minister to convicts. Take the very goofiest song-and-dance numbers from Gravity’s Rainbow and you’ll have an idea of what’s going on here.
Musical director/composer Peter Stopschinski and director Luke Leonard, both of whom were rabid fans of the team at the time, came up with the idea of an opera about Bum after reading his autobiography, Bum Phillips: Cowboy, Coach, Christian. Librettist Kirk Lynn, who crafted the script from Bum’s book but also drew heavily upon NFL Films footage, says: “I grew up loving Bum. When I was reading the book, I thought, ‘He speaks like my Dad—funny, but also completely sincere and serious,'” he said, “Honestly, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about people thinking about Texans and how we’re stupid based on the way we speak. I wanted to let Bum be Bum and just be proud of it, because Bum was so great.”
Stopschinski and Leonard ventured down to Bum’s Texas ranch to meet with him and discuss the project. It was a seminal event that altered how they viewed the piece, both in style and content.
“I was wondering how we were going to present football in a way that isn’t ridiculous or even offensive for a professional athlete,” Leonard said, “But when I met him, I realized that cannot be the only thing. He was so kind and generous. The house filled up with his family. They were just so happy to meet a couple of strangers that were making an opera about their father. … That’s what I felt when I left, that we had this weight of responsibility. We can’t mess this up or Texans will shoot us, because they love Bum Phillips!”
Leonard continued: “People worshipped him on the level of a saint.” He mentioned Bum’s prison ministries. “They were going to Angola, where 70 percent of those guys are doing life sentences. And nobody loved those guys, but Bum did. And that’s what made Bum special. Bum loved first. His love was unconditional. And that’s what hit home for me. That’s what it’s about. And that’s what we felt when we went to meet him. I felt like, well, he loved us.”
Stopschinski chimed in: “It wasn’t an act. He was never putting anything on.”
Like any tragic protagonist, the profound love he had for his players was also his undoing as a coach (though it was his saving grace as a human being). Bud Adams fired him in 1981, partly because he refused to change his ways and partly because, in a pattern that continues unabated to this day, the owner felt that in order to snag that elusive crown, he needed a “disciplinarian” to replace the lax, easygoing “player’s coach.”
One of those players, Dan Pastorini, will be coming to New York for a benefit performance on Thursday. He’ll be joined by Bum’s son, Wade, and Lawrence Harris, a former Oilers offensive lineman who is now an accomplished baritone and who will be singing the national anthem before the curtain rises. (“Every opera should begin with the national anthem,” Stopschinski said.) Pastorini isn’t a fan of the modern NFL. “I don’t really like the game anymore, and I don’t watch it,” he told me. “You know, the way the NFL treats retired players is ridiculous… They should be ashamed of themselves. It’s kind of disgusting. Drew Brees made a comment about the retired players wanting their money and the alcoholics.
“He should kiss the ground we walk on, because we were the ones who laid the groundwork so he could make 17-18 million dollars a year.”
He holds Bum Phillips in the highest regard, however. “He said, ‘You’ll fight more for your family than you will for your teammates,’ and that’s how it is to this day. We’ve got Carl Mauck, Curley Culp. We see each other all the time at various charitable events and we’ve all stayed close. We will always be close because of Bum Phillips. … I loved him like a father. He’s the best human being I ever met in my life.”
So let’s give the man his opera. He’s earned it. Let’s give his second wife an aria. Let’s give him a Greek chorus of toupee’d, yellow-blazered color commentators and a player on the ground clutching his groin and a supernumerary getting knocked on his ass by Earl Campbell, his helmet sent skyward in slow motion. Let’s give him a literal Deus Ex Machina in the form of Jesus Christ himself.
And, in lieu of the fat lady, let’s give him a chorus of 300-pound linemen:
SMALL GROUP OF PLAYERS:
Niel-sen’s the quart-er-back
Hit him so hard the moth-er fuck-er retch-es
call an-oth-er play
Niel-sen’s got to run or we fuck-ing lose to-day!
Robert Silverman is a Contributing Editor at KnickerBlogger.net and a freelance writer whose work has appeared at the New York Times, ESPN.com, The Classical, and VICE, among others. He co-wrote We’ll Always Have Linsanity: Strange Takes on the Strangest Season in Knicks History. You can follow Robert on Twitter at @BobSaietta.
Take advantage of the Special Discount Code FIRST WEEK ONLY!!! Use code “WEEK1” @ checkout :https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/930722
On March 20th, Monk Parrots invites you to get in to the ‘Luv Ya Blue’ spirit and join us for a special benefit performance of Bum Phillips All-American Opera. Your $50 ticket will provide you a seat to the production, as well as an exclusive, pre-show reception featuring special guests: Phillips’ son and NFL coach, Wade Phillips, former Houston Oilers Dan Pastorini and Lawrence Harris, NFL Films, plus other special guests (to be announced soon), and a post-show Q&A with the cast & creative team. Don’t miss this historic event.
Tickets are available for purchase at the following link: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/9870176
Bob West The Port Arthur News Sat Oct 19, 2013, 04:37 PM CDT
West on Bum Phillips: We’re all better for having known Bum
PORT ARTHUR — Move over Tom, Vince, Darrell and all you other legendary coaches sitting at God’s right hand. Bum Phillips just arrived and the Creator has much to discuss with one of the most special and unique individuals ever to walk the face of the earth.
Meanwhile, for those of us left behind there’s so much to toast and celebrate after the passing of an icon who made such a profound impact on so many lives. Nowhere more than here in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Texas are there endless reasons to sit back and thank the Lord for seeing fit to bless us with an up close and personal relationship to one Oail Andrew Phillips.
Remember that all-time Christmas favorite movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and the angel showing Jimmy Stewart’s character how different the town of Bedford Falls would have been if he’d never existed? Put a slight
spin on that and think about what this area would have missed if Bum hadn’t been born in Orange, started coaching in Nederland at the age of 26, returned to Mid-County as the head coach at Port Neches, played collegiately at Lamar and been so giving of himself for Southeast Texas causes.
For openers, Port Arthur’s Hughen School might never have had the funds to help so many handicapped kids. Bum, as those who date back to the 1980s know, threw all his influence into a series of fund-raising celebrity golf
tournaments with Bob Hope that generated hundreds of thousands of dollars and invaluable exposure to the school.
Typically, Bum gave all the credit to Hope. But one of the funniest people to
ever crack a joke knew better. “All these big name football players are here
because of Bum, not because of me,” he said.
Beyond the Hughen and Bob Hope High School kids, so many of us have So much
to be thankful for that this coaching icon came our way, and kept coming back
and kept giving of himself. Put me right at the front of the line when it
comes to singing the man’s praises. Nobody ever treated me better or helped
me more than Bum Phillips. So forgive me for getting a bit mushy and over the
top in bidding him farewell.
Outside of my own father, I’ve never loved another man more than Bum. Not
only for what he meant to me as a writer, not only for personal projects like
the Port Arthur News Homecoming Roast and not only for the insight he gave me
about coaches and the game of football am I thankful.
Indeed, the greatest lesson I learned from Bum was how you should treat
people, no matter who they are or what their status in life. At a time when
our country is filled with so much hate, with so little disregard for those
who are suffering, I just wish God had given Bum an even bigger platform.
Looking back, of all the quotes I’ve seen and heard about Bum, the one I
think that perhaps best defines who he was came from former Houston Oilers
quarterback Gifford Nielsen.
“We had country western parties and rap parties,” Nielsen said of how Bum
created a family atmosphere among players of diverse backgrounds. “Bum was
able to punch the right buttons for everybody. He was a legend because of how
unique he was — the way he dressed, talked and coached. Wherever we went,
people wanted to see Bum Phillips.
“They just couldn’t believe a guy like him existed. He broke down all the
barriers on his team and then started to break down all the barriers of the
city of Houston. I’ve never seen this in sports and I don’t think I ever
Nielsen, for sure, would have appreciated what I witnessed sitting next to
Bum in August of 2010, during a marathon book signing for his autobiography,
“Bum Phillips: Coach, Cowboy, Christian.” Former teammates, classmates,
players and sons and daughters whose parents had been touched in some way by
him streamed through to get a book signed and to reminisce. It was a scene
I’ll never forget.
Among those lining up that day was current Nederland coach Larry Neumann. I
mention Neumann because of the thoughts he expressed about Bum in the
immediate aftermath of a down-to-the-wire victory over arch-rival Port
Neches-Groves Friday night. Part of it is worth repeating, even though I’m
running out of space.
“It is hard to not think Bum wasn’t hovering over this field tonight,”
Neumann said of the eerie coincidence of the 90-year-old coach’s death
coming roughly at halftime of the 90th meeting of the two Mid-County schools
where he coached on the way up. “You can’t tell me Bum’s spirit wasn’t
Two years ago, of course, both communities did themselves proud and created a
special memory for an old coach by naming streets Bum Phillips Way in his
honor. A third area city should have done the same, but Port Arthur copped out
by saying its policy is to only name streets after those who are deceased.
OK, Port Arthur, you don’t have that excuse any more. For those who don’t
know what Bum did for your city, here’s a brief history.
• Back in the early 1960s, he took Lincoln High School coach A.Z. McElroy
under his wing at a time when it wasn’t fashionable for a white coach to be
embracing a black coach. Bum brought Mac to Port Neches to attend practices,
gave him equipment for Lincoln’s team and spent many hours talking coaching
tactics with him.
• In 1975, a Lincoln player named David Hanchett was paralyzed from a hit
late in a game, and sent to the Texas Institute of Research and Rehabilitation
in Houston for treatment. Bum was a frequent visitor and sent a steady stream
of Oiler players. Upon learning Hanchett was a Cleveland Browns fan, he
arranged with the NFL and Browns owner Art Modell for Hanchett to be wheeled
to midfield to call the coin toss in Houston’s season finale with the
• In 1977, PAISD athletic director Howland Reich asked Bum if he’d come
to Port Arthur and do a clinic for the district’s junior high and high
school coaches. He not only came, he brought his entire staff. Reich was blown
• In the early ‘80s, he teamed with Bob Hope for the aformentioned
celebrity golf tournaments on behalf of Hughen School, using his influence to
bring in numerous NFL stars and other pro athletes.
• In 1989, he came back as the target of a Port Arthur News Homecoming
Roast and returned in subsequent years as a roaster for an event that raised
over $600,000 for the city’s Museum of the Gulf Coast.
All those examples were the essence of Bum Phillips — giving, giving,
Thanks for everything, Bum. When they open a greatest human being Hall of
Fame, you deserve to be in the inaugural class. You truly were one of a kind.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.