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BILLS CAN'T AFFORD TO TAKE THEIR TIME PROMOTING PHILLIPS

As the Marv Levy news conference was breaking up late Wednesday afternoon, a TV sportscaster and his photographer hot-footed after Wade Phillips, who was making a quick exit.

Phillips, always cooperative under normal conditions, turned down their request for an interview. He wasn't being rude, just observing protocol. This was Levy's day, and no one connected to the Bills wanted to intrude upon the departing coach's eloquence and emotion.

There is no time for extended farewells in prosports today, however. The Bills need to choose their new man as quickly as possible in order to let him select a staff without delay. Practices for the East-West college all-star game in Palo Alto, Calif., commence Friday and having their new coach on the scene, as Levy used to be, seems important for the locals.

The team also has to create some fresh enthusiasm among the fans. The change in coaches, as much as anything, is an opportunity to sell tickets. The absence of a viable quarterback, the 6-10 record and the lack of touchdowns is bad enough without waiting around for a decision on Levy's successor.

The view from here is that Phillips should get the job. Promoting him makes the most sense.

The Bills have become stale, which reflects on their coaching staff. Stale, some say, to the point of edging into moribund. No customers are going to ante up for those expensive new club seats to watch moribund.

Phillips would be a good choice. In the NFL, there used to be a hesitancy about promoting an assistant from the incumbent staff, but Bill Parcells changed that long ago when he rose to replace Ray Perkins with the Giants.

Besides, Wade came to Buffalo with some sort of tacit understanding that he would be the prime candidate for the job when Levy did retire. There were moments between the end of the season and this week when there was some fear another NFL team or a university might hire him as head coach.

This is unlike the ascension of most assistant coaches. There is almost a clear slate in Buffalo since most of the veterans who might have been set in the ways of Marv Levy -- Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, et al, -- are gone or in the winter of their careers.

His three years as head coach in waiting also allowed Phillips to get a perspective on the rest of the assistant coaches on Levy's staff.

Phillips had some important experience at putting together a staff when he was elevated in Denver to succeed Dan Reeves. His offensive coordinator and assistant head coach there was Jim Fassel, just named coach of the year for his work as rookie head coach of the Giants. Phillips hired Fassel because he knew he was John Elway's quarterback coach at Stanford and that a working relationship with the great quarterback was essential.

Phillips was on a short leash during his two seasons as the Broncos' head coach. In 1993, he posted a 9-7 record and a return to the playoffs after a year's absence. The next year, he lost his first four games, but the Broncos righted themselves by winning six of seven in October and November.

What finished him was a combination of Mike Shanahan becoming available to owner Pat Bowlen and a season-ending three-game losing streak that pulled his record down to 7-9.

Still, Phillips probably would have stayed longer as Broncos head man except that Bowlen lusted for Shanahan, a popular former offensive coordinator for Denver.

In Buffalo, Phillips would be confronted by so many problems it's unlikely he'll be able to fix all of them in one year. No. 1 on the list is to find a quarterback, maybe two. The first would make the offensive respectable and the second would represent the future.

He would also have to fix a woeful offensive line, find some young receivers and competent tight ends, as well as keep his special teams from being the handicap they were in 1997.

If he gets the job, Phillips may not have enough space on his 1998 calendar.

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