SAN FRANCISCO – One morning in the early 1960s, Wade Phillips looked out the window of his house in Amarillo, Texas, and saw a moving van sitting outside. His father, Bum, the local high school football coach, had gotten a college head job at UTEP, then known as Texas Western. It was time to move again.
“I was in the ninth grade,” Phillips said Wednesday morning. “We lived across from the school. I knew Dad had the job, but I didn’t know we were going that day. It was sad for me, because I had a new girlfriend and a lot of friends. We just left that day and that was it.”
But that was life for a football coach’s son, and Phillips got used to it. Bum moved four more times in the next several years. Wade grew up in the game, became a coach himself. He coached linebackers under his dad at Oklahoma State and joined him in Houston a year after Bum became head coach of the Oilers in 1975.
Wade worshipped his dad, and he wound up just like him, a football vagabond. That first NFL gig 40 years ago became a serpentine coaching odyssey, one that has taken him to eight different cities – including six years in Buffalo – and 15 different jobs, while establishing him as one of the top defensive minds of his time.
There was a time, though, when Phillips thought he would step away early. Back in the ’90s, he and his wife, Laurie, would sit and plan for his early retirement.
“I was going to retire at 55,” Phillips said, “because you got your full retirement at 55. That’s what I told my wife when we were about 15 years in, that I’d max out my retirement. But once that hit, I never looked back.
“I really don’t have any hobbies,” he said, “and my wife says I don’t do anything around the house. So I’m not much good to her. I enjoy what I’m doing. I feel like I can contribute, and I’m going to do it as long as I can.”
Phillips thought he might be done when he spent the 2014 season without a job. He’d been let go by the Texans at the end of the 2013 season, having finished out the year as the interim head coach after Houston fired Gary Kubiak.
But when Kubiak took over for John Fox as Denver’s head coach, he knew where to look for his defensive coordinator. Phillips, who had been fired as the Broncos’ head coach 20 years earlier, had no problems going back.
“No, not really,” Phillips said with a laugh. “I needed a job. It’s one of 32. And I’d had a great experience there. We lived in Denver six years, as long as I lived anywhere in my whole life, being a coach’s kid. It was like coming home. That’s coaching in the NFL. If you can get a good job somewhere, you’re glad to have it.”
Phillips has proved he can still contribute at 68, leading the Broncos’ defense to a No. 1 ranking in the NFL. He showed that a team can adapt smoothly to a 3-4 defense and get even better. His D painted a masterpiece in the AFC title game, confounding Tom Brady and hitting him more than 20 times in a 20-18 triumph.
There are people who say Phillips is the biggest reason the Broncos reached the Super Bowl in a year when Peyton Manning was a shell of his former self. There’s talk of him being the best defensive coordinator ever. In 33 seasons as a coordinator or head coach, his defenses have finished top 10 in 23 of them.
“It’s really the staff. Two of the guys I’ve worked with a long time, Bill Kollar and Reggie Herring,” he said, referring to his defensive line and linebackers coach. “That really helps. So working with people you’ve worked with before who are great coaches make it a lot easier.”
Phillips shakes his head when young reporters attach superlatives to his current team. Is this one of the best defenses ever? Was the defensive effort against Brady the best of his career?
He has an encyclopedia of games in his memory. Phillips remembers coaching for the Oilers when they shut out the defending champion Steelers, 6-0, in 1980. He remembers big games when he was coordinator for Buddy Ryan with the Eagles. He also recalls a 10-7 loss to the Bills in the AFC title game in Buffalo in 1992.
“I’ve had a lot of great moments,” he said. “Like when I was with Denver and we played Buffalo in the playoffs. They had the K-Gun. We slowed them down. They made three points on our defense and they were one of the highest-scoring teams ever.”
The man has fond memories. He also has his share of regrets. He had some success as a head coach in the NFL, including a 29-19 record in three regular seasons with the Bills. But he went 1-5 in playoff games, which included the infamous Music City Miracle against Tennessee in January of 2000.
Phillips was asked what went through his mind as that fateful final kickoff return was unfolding in Nashville that day.
“When I was standing on the sidelines, I knew it was a forward lateral,” he said, “so I thought they were going to bring it back. If they had HD in those days, we wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d be a head coach somewhere.”
He got a good laugh out of that one. Who knows how differently things might have turned out if the Bills had won that game? In praising Kubiak for his job with this year’s Broncos, Phillips said Kubiak did a better job managing a quarterback issue than he did with the Doug Flutie-Rob Johnson flap in Buffalo.
“It hasn’t been a big controversy here,” he said. “It didn’t get into, ‘We should be playing this guy or that guy.’ He handled it really well, and the quarterbacks, too. But we won a lot of games with both guys in Buffalo. But people don’t remember that, they remember the controversy. That’s where I felt let down a little bit.
“We had a good record there, but that’s how it goes. I think we won 34 or 35 games at Houston and got fired there. I won 34 in 3½ years in Dallas and got fired. That’s just the way it is. That’s part of the game.”
Phillips said he enjoyed his times as a head coach and learned a lot. He also said it might have been better if he’d been a defensive coordinator the whole time. Then he pointed out that he made the playoffs six times in nine years as a head man.
“I’m sorry, five,” he said. “But who’s counting? It’s passed me by. This is my niche, this is what I do the best. I’m out of the head coaching business. I’m glad I had the opportunity. It helped me be a good assistant coach.”
He has been a great assistant coach, a man who has improved defenses every place he’s gone. Phillips clearly has an ego, but part of his genius as a coordinator is subjugating his ego and not forcing his schemes onto his players.
“I think what makes Wade a great coach is he takes what he has and molds it to what he does best,” Kubiak said. “He does a good job of getting people in position to make big plays, but he’s been flexible throughout his career, which shows his strengths as a coach.”
Asked what Phillips brought to the Broncos, Kubiak answered “confidence” without a second’s hesitation. Veteran linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who played for Phillips in Dallas, concurs.
Now Phillips is back in the Super Bowl for the second time. He was defensive coordinator for the Denver team that was humiliated by the 49ers, 55-10, after the 1989 season. To think, the last time he went to the Super Bowl was the year before the Bills began their four-year run.
His big challenge is to cap off a great defensive season by containing Cam Newton and upsetting the Panthers. Phillips said Newton gives him nightmares, but he seems confident that his defense can rise to the moment.
“They seem to really respond under pressure,” he said. “We’ve had so many pressure games. We just broke the record of the ’78 Oilers who had the most wins of seven points or less. I was with the ’78 Oilers and that’s when my hair started turning gray – all those close games – so it can’t turn any grayer.”
Actually, his hair is white these days. But he looks good for 68, barely a line on his face. The NFL journey has been good to him. Someone asked if winning the Super Bowl would be icing on the cake at the end of his career.
“Well, I don’t think it’s the end of my career,” he said with a faint scowl. “But it’s great. Going from unemployed to the Super Bowl is pretty special.”