On Football and Failure

by | Jan 20, 2014 | Faith | 2 comments |

Bum Phillips, coach of the Houston Oilers in the 70’s and the New Orleans Saints in the 80’s, died on October 18, 2013 at the age of 90. His real name was Oail Andrew Phillips Jr., but he was always called Bum, short of brother, which his younger sister couldn’t pronounce. Bum didn’t mind his nickname, he said, as long is it didn’t have a “you” in front of it. A colorful fellow, Bum was known for his blue jeans, white Stetson and down-home Texas wisdom.

“Football is a game of failure,” he said. “You fail all the time, but you aren’t a failure until you start blaming someone else.”

As the football season winds down, I think of all the failures I’ve seen in the past several months. In every play, at least one player missed or dropped a pass or coverage, block or signal. Referees threw flags for holding, illegal blocks and tackles, pass interference and personal fouls.

Even with multiple camera angles and commentators, I’m sure I didn’t see or hear all that was really happening. But obviously there wasn’t just failure on the field. There were spectacular plays, too – seemingly impossible passes caught and length-of-the-field runs and scores. But one team’s touchdown always meant the other team’s failure.

At the end of each 2013 regular season game, with the exception of the Packers-Vikings tie in overtime, one team won and the other lost. Then, in playoff games, the final score determined the end of a team’s season or a chance to go to the Super Bowl – and the fate of every NFL coach’s career.

“There’s two kinds of coaches, them that’s fired and them that’s gonna be fired,” Bum Phillips said. (In Texas, fired is pronounced something like lard with an f.) And on Black Monday, December 30, 2013, five coaches became ‘them that’s fired.’ Chudzinski, Frazier, Schiano, Schwartz, Shanahan – looking for jobs or retirement.

Every day, we fail. We miss chances to speak the truth, to be patient, to overlook minor offenses as others overlook ours, and to encourage others. Sometimes we fail spectacularly, but we aren’t failures until we blame someone else, or deny or manipulate or run away – and I’ve done them all. Success feels wonderful, but failure, owned and assessed, provides the better opportunity to learn and change and grow in humility.

After his father’s death, Wade Phillips tweeted, “Bum is gone to Heaven – loved and will be missed by all – great Dad, Coach, and Christian.”

For all his failure, seemed like Bum Phillips made a pretty good life.


  1. Dianne


    As a football fan the analogy about failure in football and failure in life certainly resonated with me. It also reminded me of many things said in our Bible Study yesterday on Forgiveness. We do fall short each and every day but must learn not only to forgive others but to forgive ourselves as well. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Carole Duff

      Dianne –
      Bum Phillips’ wisdom seemed to focus on awareness of and responsibility for shortcomings. But without forgiveness, however, I don’t know why or how anyone would get off the bench and get back into the game. Thank you for pointing out the connection with forgiveness.


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