The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West collection was first published in the Port Arthur News on Sept. 15, 2004.
Many years ago, back when Wade Phillips was a young assistant coach for the Houston Oilers, one of the most bizarre chapters of my sportswriting days unfolded from a conversation with him. Darned if history didn’t repeat Sunday afternoon at Reliant Stadium.
To set the stage for chapter two, allow me to flash back to January of 1978. The Oilers of Bum Phillips had shocked the NFL by not only getting into the playoffs, but advancing to the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh.
Houston, of course, had gone bonkers in what was the early stages of Luv Ya Blue. The city’s love affair with the team was such that over 50,000 fans packed into the Astrodome late on a Sunday night to welcome the team home from a 34-5 drubbing at the hands of the Steelers.
In the process of doing a wrapup story on the feel-good Oilers for Pro Football Weekly, it came to my attention that tight-fisted Oiler owner Bud Adams did not pay his coaches anything for the three playoff games. The NFL, at the time, paid players for playoff games but it was up to the team to reward its coaches for the extra weeks of work.
Oiler coaches knew from talking to coaches with other playoff teams that they were getting nice bonuses. Underpaid as they were, from Bum on down, the assistants resented their cheapskate owner putting the equivalent of a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking.
“Yeah,” said Wade, “it’s probably a good thing we didn’t make it to the Super Bowl. Bud would probably have wanted us to pay him.”
The quote was too good to pass up. I used it in the Pro Football Weekly story, but protected Wade by not using his name. Adams, who was thoroughly embarrassed because Pro Football Weekly was widely read in the NFL community, hit the roof.
He called Bum to his office and demanded to know who was responsible. Bum honestly didn’t know and that’s what he told Bud. Adams then ordered him to call me and get the name of the ingrate. Bum, who didn’t really want to know, called and explained the situation.
I told Bum exactly what I’m sure he wanted to hear, namely that I was not about to give up a source for his bleeping owner. A couple of days later Bum called back and said Bud was going to retaliate by banishing me from the Oilers’ charter flights for road games.
In those days, because of the interest in the Oilers, I went to several of their out-of-town games. It was terrific traveling with them because you had easy access to the players, the food on the plane was great and you didn’t have to put up with airport crowds, checking bags, etc.
It was a pain and an inconvenience to have to fly commercial the next year. Especially when the Oilers played a Christmas eve playoff game in Miami and I wasn’t able to get back until late the next day. Bud cost me Christmas with my kids, but I had the satisfaction of embarrassing him with his peers.
Back to the present, meanwhile, my chat with Wade after San Diego upset the Texans Sunday afternoon hardly seemed the stuff of controversy. On the other hand, the mere fact he had to get permission to speak with me from San Diego’s Director of Public Relations, Bill Johnston, should have been a tipoff.
Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer, I came to learn, is one of those control-freak coaches who doesn’t like his assistants talking to the media. Writers who cover the Chargers have to get permission in advance. More often than not, he turns them down.
I was standing there when Wade explained to Johnston who I was, that I was from a hometown newspaper and wanted to ask him some questions about the game. Johnston, somewhat reluctantly it seemed to me, gave his okay.
Anybody who watched the game would understand why I needed to talk with Wade. His defense, after giving up 14 first downs and 259 yards the first half, limited Houston to six first downs and 77 yards the second half. The Texans managed just one first down in the fourth quarter against what had been one of the NFL’s worst defensive teams the previous two years.
It was pretty obvious from where I was sitting that Wade had made some major halftime adjustments which stifled the Texans.
He confirmed that adjustments were made and that he’d purposely waited until halftime to make them. By holding off until the half, he kept Houston’s coaches from having time to make counter adjustments. Based on the results, it’s apparent the Texans weren’t able to adjust on the fly.
You have to think that’s exactly what Phillips, who never got serious consideration when he interviewed for Texans’ head coaching job, anticipated.
With that information, I went back to the press box and began writing. About the time I finished a column for Monday’s Port Arthur News, my cell phone rang. It was Bill Johnston, the Chargers’ PR guy. Johnson had somehow gotten my home number and called the house. My wife told him I was probably still in the Reliant Stadium press box and gave him the cell phone number.
Johnston, it seems, had been confronted by irate San Diego writers who saw Phillips talking to me in the locker room. They were understandably upset because they couldn’t talk to him. Johnston, who was clearly between a rock and a hard place, asked me in a very nice way if I would not use anything I had gotten from Phillips.
He might as well have asked me to send a birthday present to Bud Adams.
I told him my column was finished and there was no way I was taking Phillips’ quotes out. I explained to him I would look pretty foolish if a guy with a following where I write made adjustments that helped beat the Texans, and I didn’t devote part of my column to it.
Johnson then asked me to read the column to him. At first I said no. Then, after reiterating that nothing was coming out, I read him what Wade had said. He suggested I’d be doing Wade a favor by not using the quotes. I again declared nothing would be changed.
As it turned out, Schottenheimer had told San Diego writers that the team made no adjustments at halftime. They knew what he said was bogus, because Charger defensive back Quentin Jammer told them adjustments were made. But they couldn’t get to Wade for confirmation.
That led to the following paragraph from Tim Sullivan in his Monday column for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“We’d like to recount Phillips’ opinion of yesterday, but the Chargers remain squirrelly about letting assistant coaches speak. The Bolts’ public relations office conceded that the new defensive coordinator had been interviewed after the game, but only by his ‘hometown’ paper and by prior arrangement.”
I haven’t spoken to Wade since Sunday, so I don’t know if he got chewed out by Schottenheimer for revealing state secrets. But the next time I see him I won’t be surprised if he turns and runs the other way.
Oh, well, at least I don’t have to worry about getting kicked off the Chargers’ charter.
Port Arthur News sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.