SAN ANTONIO - Wade Phillips has spent his entire coaching career futilely trying to establish his own identity. He's been blowing a whistle for 37 years, the last 31 of them in the NFL. And yet, to many, he still is "Bum's Boy."
Never mind that he celebrated his 60th birthday last month. Never mind that his daddy retired from coaching nearly a quarter century ago. Never mind that he's taken two franchises to the playoffs as a head coach and is considered one of the best defensive coaches on the planet.
Once a father's son, always a father's son.
Now, as he begins what, in all likelihood, will be the last head-coaching job of his career, Phillips finds himself stuck in yet someone else's shadow.
This one doesn't belong to his father. This one belongs to his new boss, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Jones is about as hands-on as sports owners come. He not only wears the title of owner, but also club president and general manager.
"I bought this team to run it," Jones said unashamedly.
Four years ago, after three straight 5-11 seasons, a desperate Jones swallowed hard and hired Bill Parcells to be his head coach. It seemed like a marriage made in hell. Two strong-willed guys with extra-large egos. But they managed to coexist for 4 years and even earn a couple of playoff invitations before Parcells called it quits in January.
When Jones replaced him with the mild-mannered Phillips, it appeared that the Cowboys' boss wanted a coach who was the polar opposite of Parcells. It appeared he wanted someone he could control, much like the three men who preceded Parcells as Cowboys head coach: Dave Campo, Chan Gailey and Barry Switzer.
But Jones insisted nothing could be farther from the truth.
"The big question when Bill came here was whether we'd be able to work together," he said. "People were taking bets over how long it would last. We both worked hard to make it work. We both did some eggshell-walking. Were there issues that came and went? Of course there were. But it was a pleasure working with him. Did I listen to him? Yes. Will I listen to Wade as much as I listened to Bill when I have to make a decision? You bet I will. You bet I will.
"I've always believed we have a successful [management] structure for winning. [By serving as his own GM], we've eliminated a third person in the management of the team. I understand the criticism of the last 10 years [no playoff win since '96, no division title since '98]. But this is the only way I could own the Dallas Cowboys, to basically have this type of structure."
Phillips, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Pillsbury Doughboy, doesn't have a problem working for a hands-on owner like Jones. After a 7-year wait, he's just happy for another chance to be a head coach. And all the better that it's with a team that went to the playoffs last year.
"I think I can make my mark in the league," Phillips said. "I'll go down as a great defensive coordinator. I don't think anybody would say any different, even if my career ended today. But I'd like to go down as a great head coach. Jerry's given me that opportunity, and I'm going to do it for him."
Phillips has been an NFL coach for 31 years, but this is only his third head-coaching gig. He coached the Denver Broncos for two seasons (1993-94) and the Buffalo Bills for three (1998-2000). Took the Broncos to the playoffs his first year there and took the Bills to the playoffs twice in 3 years, but was canned after an 8-8 finish in 2000. His phone didn't ring for a head-coaching opportunity again until Jones called.
"If you get fired, people think you did bad," said Phillips, who spent the last 3 years as the defensive coordinator of the Chargers. He also served as the Eagles' defensive coordinator from 1986 to ''88. "I mean, 29-19 [his record in Buffalo] is a pretty good record. It was in the top six for those 3 years.
"But people don't remember those kinds of things. They just think, 'Well, he was fired in Buffalo. He couldn't do it.' "
Phillips' personality and coaching style are night-and-day different from Parcells'. Parcells was North Jersey gruff. Phillips is South Texas kind and gentle. Parcells was a yeller and screamer. Phillips berates a player about as often as Lindsay Lohan goes to church (rehab chapels don't count).
"Nice guys don't always finish last," Phillips said. "They can end up first. It's all about getting them to play, and play their best. It's not whether you holler or scream at them or get in their face.
"People think of coaches as guys who chew you out all the time. But to me, coaching is teaching. That's the way I've always approached it, and I've had good results."
Indeed he has. In his last 18 years as a head coach or coordinator, he has experienced only three losing seasons. Eight of those 18 teams finished in the top 10 in the league in defense. Twelve finished in the top 10 in sacks. His defenses finished in the top 10 against the run in six of the last eight seasons.
Like Parcells, Phillips employs a 3-4 defensive scheme. But Parcells preferred a conservative, don't-give-up-the-big-play approach. He seldom blitzed. Phillips favors an attack defense that blitzes early and often and is heavy on slants and stunts.
"My expectations for the defense are really high," Jones said. "I certainly agreed at the time with Bill's approach to running a 3-4 and running a defensive scheme. It was with less risk by design than maybe the one Wade runs. The only problem was, we still were giving up the big plays."
For "Bum's Boy," this likely is his last chance to escape the shadow of his father, his last chance to make his mark as an NFL head coach. He knows it and so does his boss.
"I'm into logic," Jones said. "I like to see if we're aligned with our interests. When I see someone that's got something to prove, when I see someone that wants something real bad, then that kind of helps my decision-making." *