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The Essential Stories of Wade Phillips

What has made Phillips one of the NFL’s most brilliant and beloved characters for more than 40 years? Ask players like Earl Campbell, Bruce Smith, and J.J. Watt—they all have a tale to tell.

Collage of images of Wade Phillips Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Wade Phillips has coached in the NFL for 41 seasons. Over a career that’s spanned five decades, he’s proved to be one of the greatest defensive minds in the history of football. He’s worked with more than a dozen current and future Hall of Famers, including Reggie White, Bruce Smith, and Rickey Jackson. And somehow, at age 71, the now–Rams defensive coordinator hasn’t slowed down.

Despite injuries to key players like cornerback Aqib Talib, the Los Angeles Rams finished this season ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA. In their two playoff wins this month, they held a trio of the league’s most dynamic running backs to 2.51 yards per carry. After winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in his first season under Phillips, Aaron Donald looks poised to repeat behind his 20.5-sack total in 2018. Phillips transformed this unit upon coming to L.A. in 2017, and it’s helped bring the Rams head-to-head with Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

For nearly half a century, Phillips has mentored some of the best players to ever grace a football field. Through it all, he’s secured a reputation as one of the game’s most endearing characters. With Phillips looking to bring home his second championship as a defensive coordinator, it feels like a good time to garner insight on how he’s been this good for this long. So I asked players from each of his stops one simple question: “What’s your best Wade Phillips story?”

The years each player was on a team with Phillips on staff are in parentheses.

Earl Campbell, Houston Oilers RB (1978-80) and New Orleans Saints RB (1984-85)

Campbell remembers May 2, 1978, as a day unlike any other. He was a senior at the University of Texas, and around 9 a.m. he left for his speech class. When he got back to his apartment six hours later, his roommate Alfred Jackson delivered a piece of news that would forever alter Campbell’s life. “He said, ‘Earl, you’re the luckiest guy in the world,’’’ Campbell says. “‘Everybody’s been looking for you.’ I said, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ He said, ‘Man, you got drafted by the Houston Oilers. That man Bum Phillips been callin’ here.’”

Wade also heard the news secondhand. He was in South Bend, Indiana, that day, scouting Notre Dame players who had supposedly contained Campbell in a 38-10 Cotton Bowl win over the Longhorns four months earlier. An Oilers scout had told a skeptical Phillips that no matter the result, Campbell was not only the best player on the field that day—he was the best player he’d ever evaluated. When Wade turned on the tape, he was a quick convert. “I thought, ‘This coach is right,’” Phillips says. “This is the best player I’ve ever seen.”

A few hours later, Wade’s wife, Laurie, called. The Oilers had traded for the no. 1 overall draft pick and selected Campbell. “I started hollering in the hotel, and they thought I was having a heart attack,” Phillips says. “I was young then, and they still thought I was having a heart attack.”

Growing up in Tyler, Texas, Campbell was one of 11 siblings. His father, Bert, died when he was 11, and as football emerged as Campbell’s calling, he came to treat some coaches like father figures. He forged a close-knit bond with Texas head coach Darrell Royal, and his relationship with Bum blossomed into something even more. Earl wore cowboy boots because Bum wore cowboy boots. When Bum would put in a wad of White Natural Tinsley chew, Earl would follow with a dip of Copenhagen. Campbell spent days at Bum’s house, just lounging around the living room. Oilers teammates began chiding the Heisman Trophy winner that Bum was his “Daddy.” And if Earl was his daddy, that meant Wade was his brother. “I could never get used to it,” Campbell says, “because he would catch me off-guard [in the hallway]: ‘Hey brother.’”

The greeting started as a lighthearted nod to Bum’s connection with the running back, but it soon turned into a sincere expression of love. The pair would sit together on the team plane, cranking up country music on the boombox and drinking Budweiser. “I liked Gladys Knight and all that stuff,” Campbell says, “but we listened to Willie Nelson.” Campbell had gotten close to Nelson during his days at UT. The musician was a friend of Royal’s, and on visits to Austin Campbell would go on runs with Nelson in the bayou nearby. Eventually, Campbell convinced Nelson to attend an Oilers practice. “I remember three guys came out with long hair, and they were coming across the field,” says former Oilers defensive lineman Steve Baumgartner. “We were right in the middle of running our team offense-and-defense thing. Bum was up in the tower and these guys kept coming closer and somebody goes, ‘Who are these goddamn hippies coming out here?’” So that afternoon, the Oilers hung out with Willie Nelson.

As Campbell talks about his friendship with Wade more than 40 years after they met, there’s still an air of disbelief in his voice. Wade treated the 22-year-old like his own blood. When Bum died in October 2013, Wade’s mother, Helen, asked one of her daughters if she’d called their brother to break the news. “She said, ‘Mom, we know you told Wade,’” Campbell says. “And [Helen] said, ‘No, I’m talking about your other brother.’”

Wade Phillips
Wade Phillips
Getty Images

Bruce Smith, Buffalo Bills DE (1995–99)

Bruce Smith was already a Bills legend when Phillips was hired as the team’s defensive coordinator in 1995. Over 10 seasons, Smith had compiled 116 of his eventual NFL-record 200 career sacks and had been voted first-team All-Pro five times. But a decade spent in the league as a 3-4 defensive end—combating the constant double-teams the position requires—had taken its toll. The 1990 Defensive Player of the Year had undergone six or seven knee surgeries by that point. In Phillips, he found the perfect coach to inject new life into his career.

The NFL’s sack king had a well-known preparation routine. By the Wednesday before each game, Smith had created a dossier on the opposing team’s linemen—their strengths, their weaknesses, their tells. Phillips shared that meticulous approach, and Smith relished it. Each week, the defensive staff handed out a two-to-three-page breakdown of the opposing offense’s favorite plays, and what they were most likely to run given a certain formation or situation. Come game day, Smith felt like he could see into the future. “If you paid attention during the course of the week, when you walked up to the line of scrimmage and you saw their formation, you know that, seven times out of 10, this is their favorite play,” Smith says. “If you paid attention to that detail during the course of the week, and you’re able to look at that offensive lineman and say ‘He is light on his hands’ or ‘He’s heavy on his hands’—the down and distance, the formation, the score of the games—that gives you an opportunity to make plays.”

Phillips encouraged Smith to attack whenever the scenario called for it, lessening the number of double-teams—and punishment—he faced. “If there’s a blitz, and there’s someone coming outside of you, and you’re supposed to be in the D gap, well, dammit, you better be there,” Smith says. “But, once you’ve taken care of that, his main goal and objective was he wants you to make plays—get in the backfield and make plays. Disrupt the offense.” Even as he crept into his mid-30s, Smith finished with double-digit sacks in each of his first four seasons under Phillips. In 1996, he took home his second Defensive Player of the Year award. “When Wade [came],” Smith says, “it just seemed like I had gotten rejuvenated.”

Andy Dorris, Houston Oilers DL (1977–80) and Steve Baumgartner, Houston Oilers DL (1977–79)

Dorris and Baumgartner both came to Houston during the second season of Phillips’s tenure as the defensive line coach on his father’s staff. Wade had turned 30 earlier that year, and the Oilers’ new defensive linemen were only four years his junior. “The people that Bum had assembled were just a great bunch of guys,” Baumgartner says. “He used to call them his family and that’s what it was like. Wade was like—its sounds kinda corny or sappy—but he was almost like a big brother [to us].”

Neither player had ever been around a coach even remotely close to their own age, and it led to more off-field interaction than either had previously had with a member of a staff. Dorris remembers sitting with Phillips on the team plane to away games and asking whether the coach knew how to play Cassino, an 18th-century Italian card game. To his surprise, Phillips knew the game’s rules inside and out. “That shocked me, because my parents came from Europe and he knew how to [play],” Dorris says. “I mean, he was a very well-rounded guy.”

Dorris and Baumgartner had previously played together in New Orleans, and the environment under Bum Phillips was unlike anything they’d experienced with the Saints. Every other week, the back gates of the practice field would open and a BBQ pit would roll onto the field. Players and coaches alike took their families to celebrations after games. “[Those were] the best years playing football, any football, that I ever had,” Dorris says.

Even in his first stint as an NFL coach, Wade’s brilliance—both schematically and in dealing with players—was apparent. Baumgartner was injured for a handful of games in 1979, and he spent those afternoons in the booth with Phillips to chart offensive alignments by hand. By the time he’d start writing, Phillips had already identified the formation and called down the play. “I was amazed how he could—I’m gonna use the word ‘forecast’—what they were gonna run,” Baumgartner says. “I can remember telling my buddies, ‘Man, I was up in the press box with Wade … wow, he was a different person up there.’ He was just 110 percent into analyzing how that game was going and trying to call the right defense.”

Team flights under Bum included a written test about the game ahead, and Dorris recalls one quiz where, instead of just filling out his own assignment, he charted the entire defense. He’d slightly altered the play, placing himself further inside than normal based on the offensive personnel and the alignment of his teammates. Rather than reprimand him, Wade asked him what prompted the change. “He says, ‘You know, that’s good, that’s real good,’” Dorris says.

“Afterwards he went and took that little knowledge that I wrote and he applied it to other things. He really worked with you. You really were a team.”

Derland Moore, New Orleans Saints DL (1981-85)

The first thing Moore recalls about his five years with Phillips is breakfast. “He’d get so pissed off when people would say, ‘Hey, Wade, still on your diet, huh?’” Moore says. “He’d have a footlong Baby Ruth in one paw and a Diet Coke in the other. It was funny shit.”

Moore was in his ninth NFL season when Phillips arrived in New Orleans as the defensive coordinator on his father’s staff. Wade was only four years his senior, and initially the lineman thought that his new coach should go pound sand. “I said to myself, ‘You were down there in junior high coaching when I came into pro ball. What are you doing?’” Moore says. “But I listened to him, and thank god I did. Because I had the most fun I ever had playing for him.”

Before Wade got to town, Moore had spent his Saints career as a nose tackle—“collecting the trash,” as he puts it. In Wade’s defense, he was given freedom to rush the passer whenever he picked up certain visual cues from the offensive line. Games suddenly featured more sacks. Plane rides became filled with games of Bourré against Wade. On Wednesday nights, the staff would fly in banjo players from Nashville and bring pizza and beer to the team. Moore’s time with Phillips changed the way he thought about life in the NFL. “That was the most wonderful time of my life playing professional football, playing for him on defense,” Moore says. “He was very special, and is very special.”

Lamarcus Joyner, Los Angeles Rams safety (2017–present)

Phillips had been the Rams defensive coordinator for just two weeks when Joyner’s agent sent him a tweet. It was from Phillips, and in it, he joked that L.A. was the only team in the league with a defensive coordinator on Medicare and a head coach in day care. That told the Rams’ safety all he needed to know about his new boss. “I knew early only on that I was dealing with someone with a great personality,” Joyner says. Plenty of coaches like to pretend that they want their players to have a carefree attitude on the field. Phillips followed through on that promise. “There’s a reason he’s been in the league for 41 years and year in and year out, leads a top defense,” Joyner says. “That’s not a coincidence. It’s because of who he is. And the players kind of take on that identity.”

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans
J.J. Watt (99)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

J.J. Watt, Houston Texans DE (2011–13)

On the morning of July 31, 2012, Watt opened his copy of the Houston Chronicle, turned to the sports section, and found a stunning comment from his defensive coordinator. Phillips had told the paper that the Texans’ most recent first-round pick was destined to be a bust. Not a draft bust—a Hall of Fame bust. “I read that quote,” Watt says, “and I was like, ‘Is this guy serious?’”

Watt had just finished a fairly pedestrian rookie campaign, managing 5.5 sacks during the regular season while draft mates Aldon Smith and Von Miller became first-year sensations. Though Watt had popped up during Houston’s two-game playoff run (collecting 3.5 sacks and a crucial pick-six in a 31-10 wild-card win over the Bengals), his debut season had been mostly forgettable. But by making his declaration, Phillips changed everyone’s perception about the second-year defensive end—including Watt’s. “If this guy, who’s been around the league for so long and seen so many incredible players, if he believes in me that much, I better damn well believe in myself that much,” Watt says.

That fall Watt turned in one of the most spectacular defensive seasons in NFL history. He finished 2012 with a league-leading 20.5 sacks and a mind-blowing 39 tackles for loss en route to being crowned Defensive Player of the Year. It was a historic achievement, one made possible by Phillips’s guiding philosophy. Watt says Phillips taught him to embrace taking risks within the structure of the system and encouraged him to use his prodigal athletic gifts. Diving into someone else’s gap was allowed, as long as there was a reason behind the move. Linebacker Bradie James spent that season playing behind Watt, and the veteran told his coach not to worry about giving his burgeoning superstar more leeway; James was happy to let Watt’s decisions dictate his own. “I’d be like, ‘Wade, I know what you want to happen. ... I’m just going to back up and say, J.J., you do your thing,’” James says.

Watt and Phillips would spend only one more season together, as Phillips was let go in a regime change in 2013. But during that year, Phillips regaled Watt with stories of Reggie White and the other great pass rushers he’d coached—and expected the Texans star to someday fit into that hierarchy. Watt declines to mention where Phillips ranked him back then. That’s between them, he says. But he knows that without Phillips, he wouldn’t be in the conversation at all. “He gave me a lot of freedom to go out and play the game the way that I knew how to play it,” Watt says. “I’m forever thankful for that. That combination of the confidence and the ability to go out and play the game [my way], it helped turn me into what I became.”

John Johnson, Los Angeles Rams safety (2017–present)

In a video posted to the Rams’ Twitter account on Monday, cornerback Aqib Talib asked Phillips when he’d gotten this defensive coordinator stuff under control. Wade’s response: I’ve been poppin’ since my demo, baby. “That’s a Future lyric,” Johnson says. “[From] a song that Future just dropped. It’s not even a month old. Why does a [71]-year-old man know that? Why?

Ben Leber, San Diego Chargers LB (2004-05)

Leber was a ball of stress whenever he took the field as a young player. At Kansas State, he was part of a rigid system governed by longtime Wildcats coach Bill Snyder. During his first two professional seasons in San Diego, the demands of coordinator Dale Lindsey’s defense were similar. “Then [Wade] came in and changed everything,” Leber says. “And it wasn’t just a change in defense. It was a whole change in mental philosophy: ‘I want you guys to go out and play, and be free, and have fun with it.’”

Right before each game, Phillips would tell his defense, “The mistakes are on.” It’s a Wadeism still used to this day. “I always thought it was such an interesting, simple phrase to let the guys know that you don’t have to overthink things,” Leber says. “He allowed you to play anxiety-free and truly without mistakes.”

Patrick Kerney, Atlanta Falcons DE (2002–03)

Midway through the 2003 season, as the Falcons were floundering, Phillips addressed his defense in a team meeting. “In his very fatherly way, he said, ‘Guys, don’t forget, every winner is just a loser that didn’t quit,’” Kerney says. “And you’re like, ‘Wait, wait a sec, it’s Monday morning. We just got our teeth kicked in. We’re supposed to be getting our backs chewed out. And here’s this guy, our coach, still believing in us.’ It’s just one of those endearing moments. You’re like, ‘All right, that’s why I bust my hump for him.’”

At 6-foot-5 and 273 pounds, Kerney was a prototypical 4-3 defensive end during the early 2000s. But when Phillips brought his 3-4 system to Atlanta, Kerney dropped more than 15 pounds to prepare for a move to outside linebacker. Not long into Wade’s first season, injuries forced Kerney back to the defensive line as a 5-technique end. “In my mind, I’m just thinking, ‘Wait, we’re playing the 3-4, and that’s just 290-pound defensive ends 2-gapping in a sumo stance,’” Kerney says. Instead of feeding his undersize star to the wolves on the interior of the line, Phillips and Kerney came up with a different variation of the traditional 3-4 defensive end role—one that would help Kerney thrive. “He sold me on the idea that if I had great technique, if I had a great understanding of what we were trying to get done, using the quickness that I had, that I could be successful in this system,” Kerney says. “It [was], essentially, a defensive end–defensive tackle hybrid position. And I’d put up a pretty good debate that that was maybe my best year in my 11 years.”

Bryce Paup, Buffalo Bills LB (1995–97)

Paup couldn’t bring himself to say it. The rest of his Bills teammates called their new defensive coordinator by his first name, but Paup refused. “For me, it’s always about respecting the position of being a coach,” Paup says. “I was never comfortable calling him ‘Wade.’ So I always called him ‘Coach.’ And to give me a hard time, every time I said, ‘Hey, Coach,’ he’d say, ‘What, Player?’”

Before Phillips, Paup treated every play—even in the offseason—like his future depended on the outcome. “I was all about it all the time,” Paup says. “Go, go, go. It didn’t matter if I was a Pro Bowler or if was a rookie.” If he blew a coverage or missed a tackle during practice, Paup would take out his anger on anyone who got in his way—usually on the very next play. Twenty-five years later, the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker recalls those moments with a hint of embarrassment. Phillips, for his part, found them hilarious. He and then–Buffalo linebackers coach Ted Cottrell used to put money on which unlucky teammate would incur Paup’s wrath. “He just takes all the angst out of the situation,” Paup says. “There’s so much pressure and money riding on things, that when a guy has a sense of humor, isn’t a dictator, and actually has a personality to him, it makes it a whole lot easier to play harder for him. To have someone who’s been in the fire and can still joke about it.”

Paup spent his first five seasons in Green Bay, bouncing between several different positions for three different coordinators. When he came to the Bills in 1995, he was able to focus solely on playing outside linebacker for the first time in his career. And Phillips gave him the freedom to master it in his own way. “I would start lining up outside the tight end, and I knew, at the snap of the ball, I had to cross the space and get to the C gap,” Paup says. “They gave me enough latitude, [Wade] did, to basically take advantage of people that didn’t know where I was going.” In his first season with Buffalo, Paup led the NFL with 17.5 sacks and was named Defensive Player of the Year.

Three years later, Paup left the Bills and signed with the Jaguars in free agency. During his first few practices there, he tried the same roaming, creative tactics Phillips had always encouraged. It didn’t go over well. “Coach [Tom] Coughlin just about blew a gasket,” Paup says. “It was just like, ‘OK, you’re playing me totally different and you’re taking away what made me good at Buffalo, but still, you expect me to have the same numbers. Ain’t going to happen.’ That was very frustrating, but I couldn’t say anything because it was like if you said anything, you’d go down to the principal’s office and you’d get paddled.”

Dallas Cowboys v Cleveland Browns
Wade Phillips
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Rickey Jackson, New Orleans Saints LB (1981–85)

Jackson knows he struck coaching gold—twice. The Hall of Fame linebacker was a rookie when Phillips took over as the Saints defensive coordinator in 1981. He played under Phillips for five years, until the staff was fired in 1985. Jackson spent the next eight seasons working with a linebackers coach named Vic Fangio—now the Broncos head coach. “I really love Vic, and I really love Wade,” Jackson says. “Both of ’em were great coaches for me and both of ’em made sure that I got in the Hall of Fame by some of the stuff they let me do.” Philips would devise ways to create solo opportunities where Jackson could attack off the edge. In his final three seasons under Phillips, Jackson recorded double-digit sacks each year en route to three straight Pro Bowl appearances. “Everybody on the team, whatever you could do good, Wade let you do it,” Jackson says. “He was a player’s coach and he still is a player’s coach today. ... If you’re good, he’ll bring it out of you. You ain’t no good, you’ll be able to see it.”

Cornelius Bennett, Buffalo Bills LB (1995)

Phillips didn’t have much trouble fitting in with the ’90s Bills. He had a closet full of Coogi sweaters, which were all the rage in those days. Backup quarterback Frank Reich and Jets QB Boomer Esiason owned a chain of boot stores in Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and Ohio called Jim and Chuck’s Boot Shop, and cowboy boots were the standard in Buffalo. It was a chance for Phillips to dig into the collection he’d spent decades building. “Wade probably had every skin they had,” says Bennett, who played linebacker under Phillips for just one season. When Phillips walked off the Rams’ jet earlier this week wearing a cowboy hat and fur jacket as a tribute to his father, some may have thought it was a stunt. But Bennett says that’s just the well-dressed man he knew back in 1995. “That’s him,” Bennett says. “That’s Wade. That threw me back. I was like, ‘OK, my man’s still got some style.’”

During their year together, Bennett says Phillips was the son of a football coach in every way. “You’ve got to remember, he grew up running around locker rooms, as a lot of guys who turn out being great coaches do,” Bennett says. “Their fathers are coaches, and their kids are right there with them from basically birth. He knows basically everything about the locker room, like a player would. A lot of coaches aren’t comfortable coming through. But with Wade, it was totally different.”

Simon Fletcher, Denver Broncos LB (1989-94)

During his first four seasons in the league, Fletcher’s production was solid if unspectacular. He amassed 19.5 sacks as a Sam and Will outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Joe Collier’s system but eventually grew frustrated with the rigidity of Denver’s scheme. A born pass rusher, Fletcher was relegated to coverage duty far too often. That all changed when Phillips was hired to replace Collier in 1989. Under Phillips, Fletcher gained autonomy. He was free to alter the strength of the defense whenever he saw fit to ensure that he got to chase the quarterback. Fletcher estimates that he rushed on 90 to 95 percent of snaps with Phillips in charge.

During their first season together, Fletcher recorded 12 sacks for a defense that allowed a league-leading 14.1 points per game. “Rather than bring a system and have the guys adapt to the situation, he looks at his players, looks at their strengths, and he develops a new system around the personnel that he’ll be working with,” Fletcher says. “You’re basically being asked to do what you’re already strong at, what you’re already capable of doing, within the context of a system that is so simple that you don’t waste time and missteps thinking.”

When head coach Dan Reeves was fired in December 1992, Phillips was tapped to replace him (the first of two times in Phillips’s career that he’d take over for a recently fired Reeves). The following spring, Fletcher recalls Phillips approaching him in the weight room to ask what, as the head coach, he could do to keep one of his leaders happy and playing well. “I said, ‘Besides what you’ve already done, I would say just make sure that [defensive coordinator] Charlie Waters puts me in position to make the plays,’” Fletcher says. “He said, ‘Well, if it comes down to you or Charlie, I think you’ll still be here, so we’ll figure it out.’”

That season marked the first time Phillips had been a head coach since his father resigned from the Saints in 1985 and Phillips took over on an interim basis. In Fletcher’s mind, the harsh reality of his father’s ousting always colored how Phillips viewed the job. “I think that set the tone for his attitude about head coaching,” Fletcher says. “You know, ‘This is not really what I want to do, but I’ll do it if you think I should.’ I don’t think Wade is that guy who wants to be in a position where he may be seen as responsible for a guy’s career ending through being cut, traded, or what have you.” The Broncos went 16-16 over the next two years, and Phillips was let go after the 1994 season.

In 2015, Fletcher was traveling with a friend in rural Colorado when news broke that Phillips was returning to Denver as the team’s defensive coordinator. Fletcher remembers his buddy asking about the Broncos’ outlook with Phillips back in the fold, and Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and Chris Harris on the roster. Fletcher had only one response: Super Bowl. Barely a year later, the Broncos’ dominant defensive performance fueled a 24-10 win over the Panthers to earn the only championship of Wade’s legendary career. “I think when [Wade is] a defensive coordinator, he is totally at home,” Fletcher says. “He’s relaxed. He’s Harold Wade Phillips.”

Marcus Spears, Dallas Cowboys DE (2007–10)

During Phillips’s first week as the Cowboys’ head coach, he opened the team’s facility to his entire roster and their families. Anyone who wished to come was welcome—something that defensive end Spears says he had never seen before and hasn’t seen since in the NFL. With their loved ones gathered in one place, Phillips used the occasion to remind his players what really matters in their lives. “He understands what this is really about,” Spears says. “A lot of dudes are here to take care of their families.”

At the time, Dallas was a veteran-heavy team that had been molded by former coach and personnel head Bill Parcells. The NFL lifer and notorious hardass had been an ideal shepherd for the early years of the roster, but for Spears, Phillips was the perfect coach to oversee the group’s second act. Players were allowed to express themselves. “Crank That” by Soulja Boy was released that fall, and Spears remembers chanting it on the practice field. A game of spades was almost always humming in the locker room. The radio was constantly cranked up to 11. “We took it seriously when we were doin’ football stuff,” Spears says. “[But] in between practice being over and then going to meetings, you got a couple hours, and we did our thing. Nobody felt like we had to be quiet or we had to be a church mouse around the facility.” The Cowboys’ training camp that summer was chided as Camp Cupcake for their light schedule and perceived lack of physical practices, but Dallas still finished 13-3 that season and earned home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

Spears has no doubts concerning Wade’s ability as a head coach. The problem, in his mind, is that Phillips’s lax style only works with a certain makeup of team. As the roster turned over in favor of newer models, unseasoned players in need of structure got away with all they could under Phillips’s leadership. Dallas went 9-7 and 11-5 in Phillips’s next two seasons, but after a 1-7 start in 2010, he was let go in favor of Jason Garrett. “Coincidentally, the year Wade got fired is the year we went very young,” Spears says. “[We] got rid of a lot of veteran guys. A lot of guys left. And you know, young guys just didn’t understand that type of freedom.”

Rather than storm out the door, Phillips spent the rest of the day saying goodbye to every member of the organization, one person at a time. Spears was on injured reserve, and Phillips bid him farewell in the training room as he rehabbed. “He could’ve been bitter and pissed off,” Spears says, “but he just was like, ‘Hey guys, it didn’t work out. Had a great run here. I’ll remember each and every one of you guys, and you know, life goes on man.’”

Denver Broncos Victory Parade
Wade Phillips
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Bill Johnson, Atlanta Falcons DL coach (2002–03) and Los Angeles Rams DL coach (2017–present)

Almost immediately after Phillips was hired by the Falcons, he and Johnson began to realize they were kindred spirits. Former defensive end Patrick Kerney jokes that at times, the pair couldn’t decide whether they were meeting or just eating. After a 3-10 start to Phillips’s second season in Atlanta, head coach Dan Reeves was fired and Phillips was elevated to interim head coach. On his first day in charge, Phillips called a team meeting, presumably to circle the wagons to try to salvage what was left a of a lost campaign. Standing at the front of the room, a stoic Phillips told the team that everybody had to find something to play for. After taking a beat, Phillips looked down, inhaled, and said, “Me, I’m playing for my cowboy boots.” He then proceeded to turn and walk straight out the door. The next Sunday, the Falcons beat the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, 30-28.

Bradie James, Dallas Cowboys LB (2007–10) and Houston Texans LB (2012)

For most of his 20s, Bradie James was resigned to life as a bachelor. The Cowboys linebacker couldn’t reconcile how men within the league dedicated enough time to the sport and their home life. Then he met Wade Phillips.

James was entering his fifth NFL season in 2007 when Phillips was hired as the Cowboys head coach. Wade’s only son, Wes, was an offensive assistant on the staff, and each day, James would watch Wade lovingly spend time with his son. Wade also invited his father to the facility occasionally, which only added to the familial atmosphere. At the time, dominos was the popular game in the Cowboys locker room, and when 80-something Bum asked for a game, James didn’t pay him much mind. “He comes in with his big cowboy hat,” James says. “This guy: We’ll take it easy on Bum. The next thing you know, ‘Pow. 10!’ ‘Pow. 15!’ He would absolutely annihilate us on the domino table. If we were playing teams, Bum was on my team.”

Those years spent around the Phillips family showed James juggling a family and his career wasn’t just possible—people who were doing it successfully stared him in the face every day. “Wade taught me about quality of life,” James says.

On May 30, 2009, James, then 28, got married. A reception at the W Hotel in Dallas followed. The first man on the dance floor was Wade Phillips. As Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” blared over the speakers, Wade sang along and swayed to the music with his wife, Laurie. For James, a future that once seemed so remote was finally within reach. “Wade teaches you, regardless of your circumstance, who you are, what’s goin’ on, to enjoy your life,” James says. “That man danced the entire reception. I said, ‘Ya know what? Forget about football. Forget about all this stuff, the glitz and glamour, and what we put value on. How about we value just being a human being and being able to enjoy your life?’”

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