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Line King remembers a great coach and a great American

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Bum Phillips, a great coach, a great Texan and a great American. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) Bum Phillips, a great coach, a great Texan and a great American. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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(RNN) - The Line King's old friend Oail A. "Bum" Phillips passed away last week. He didn't know me, but he was still my friend. Everyone who had the pleasure to know of him or watch him pace the sidelines felt he was their friend, too.

A few of us geezers remember that he coached the Houston Oilers during their glory "Luv ya Blue" years. He was the original master of the 3-4 defense. He also brought his wife to every road game, because "She was too ugly to kiss goodbye."

He coached with a huge, 10-gallon cowboy hat (only for outdoor games) on his head, ostrich-skin boots on his feet and chewed giant wads of tobacco while he paced the sidelines.

But not many knew he served in the Pacific during World War II as a U.S. Marine and would later do something all Southern football programs refused to do – he didn't just break the color barrier, he kicked the mother down.

Like many of "The Greatest Generation", he didn't talk about his experiences in WWII and when he did, he downplayed his role and gave all of the credit to those who didn't make it back. He once said, "I entered the Marines as a private and I left as a private."

War stories over time seem to build into maybe something more epic than they actually were – and who are we to question them anyway? Bum never did that. He downplayed every moment he was in the Corps.

One thing is certain; he drove to San Antonio the day after his 19th birthday, volunteered, boarded a train and headed to Camp Pendleton, CA. By the time his training was complete, Phillips was a member of the elite 4th Marine Raiders. His first deployment was to Guadalcanal – a place where no Marine could avoid the thin red line (where two members of his 4th earned the Medal of Honor).

Later, during the campaign on neighboring New Georgia, a priest asked the Raiders if they could help collect the dog tags of nearly 300 Army GIs who had fallen earlier in the day. Maybe Phillips was motivated by a sense of duty to the families who didn't know yet that they had lost a loved one. Whatever the reason (he wasn't ordered to do it, he was asked), he and his fellow Marines crawled within range of enemy guns and collected every single tag.

By 1944, because of heavy casualties his unit was disbanded – as he put it: "those of us who still stood had outlived our mission."

Pretty powerful stuff even if that were the end of his story, but it wasn't.

Just a few years later (1948), Bum found himself on the football field at Lamar College as a player – "passing time until he could find a job" (imagine how many men played college football after they served in World War II). Bum then he found himself at Texas A&M as an assistant coach under the guidance of Paul "Bear" Bryant.

Bum used to say Bear Bryant won because he "didn't coach football, he coached people." That  would be the honest Texan's mantra for decades to come.

In 1962, he was hired to become Texas Western's (UTEP) new head football coach. TWC had a brief history of having one or two players of color on their team, but Bum set a new standard, signing a dozen African-Americans to his squad – four years before Don Haskin's history-making 1966 national championship basketball team from El Paso. After just one season, he resigned because, as he told the school's president, he just didn't feel like he or anyone else could win there – a brutally honest assessment of the situation at the time.

Twenty years later, he was standing on the sidelines of Pittsburgh's Three River Stadium, his Oilers playing for the AFC Championship against the vaunted Steelers for the sixth time in two years.

Wearing the hat and the boots and his oversized ranch coat, he pulled a knife from his pocket (yes, a real knife) and cut off a piece of hard-packed chewing tobacco. He really didn't care what people thought of him and that's what was so refreshing about Oail A. Phillips - the legend publicly began at that moment.

The private legend began many years before in the island jungles of the southwest Pacific and in the west Texas town of El Paso.

It's hard to imagine a coach today with all of those fast-fading qualities: the bravery; the loyalty; the integrity and oh yeah, the hat, the boots and the chewing tobacco.

Rest in peace, friend.

Week Six: 5-5 (a perfect record for such a melancholy weekend)

Season: 43-38-3

Oct. 26

Vanderbilt @ Johnny Football -18½ : I have it on good authority the Vandy fan went on a wine cooler binge after his Commodores beat the Dawg. He is excited - his Music City Bowl ticket will be used and basketball season is right around the corner. Plus Bum coached at A&M, although Johnny Football's coach wears a visor.

Florida Atlantic @ Auburn -28: Bum always had Miami's number, although Gus Malzahn wears a visor.

Tennessee @ Alabama -26½: Butch Jones isn't related to Bum Phillips and is a Yankee, although Nick $aban wears a funny hat during practice.

Troy +9 @ Western Kentucky: Troy head coach Larry Blakeney spits a lot on the sidelines, although not tobacco. And Bobby Petrino wears a neck brace.

Idaho -40 @ Mississippi: The Black Bears begin their run at the Sunbelt Conference title, but 40 points? Plus, Hugh Freezer wears a visor and as far as we know Paul Petrino doesn't wear a neck brace like his brother does.

South Carolina @ Missouri -3: Both coaches wear visors, so this is tough. Missouri's defense has been extra special this year and Bum would have liked this.

Tulsa @ Tulane +4: Bum used to prowl the sidelines of the Superdome, but never wore his hat indoors. Plus he probably would like Tulane coach Curtis Johnson.

North Texas -10 @ Southern Miss: North Texas is a Texas school and Bum liked anything Texas. Quite frankly, USM has become the laughingstock of Division FB$.

UTEP +18 @ Rice: Ironically, these two schools meet this weekend. In a normal world, The Line King would be all over Rice, but this weekend  we will go with Bum's first team over his favorite city's team.

Baylor -35½ @Kansas: In case you didn't know, Baylor is a Texas school and Kansas isn't. Baylor scores about 35 points a quarter and their mascot used to drink Dr. Pepper after every score – which would probably kill him these days.

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