Bum Phillips died this week on his Texas ranch. Even though he didn't manage to bring the Saints to its first .500 season, his .391 career winning percentage was at the time the high water mark for Saints coaches. The early Saints were plagued by institutional ineptness. Owner John Mecom loved the team, but in the end he was a dilettante.
Early Saints teams were awful. In their first eleven seasons, they managed between two and five wins eleven times.
After watching a succession of untested coaches fail, Mecom made a high profile hiring. Hank Stram, who had a Super Bowl and three AFL championships under his belt, couldn't overcome the lack of talent. He gave up after two years with no success on the field to show for it.
Dick Nolan followed, and building on Stram's squad produced the two most successful seasons the Saints had experienced to that date. The Saints were expected to contend for a playoff spot in Nolan's third season, but instead suffered their worst season ever, and Nolan was fired after the team lost its first twelve games.
Phillips had been fired by the Houston Oilers in spite of leading them to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. His first draft with the Saints produced an impressive list of perennial starters: Rickey Jackson, George Rogers, Hokie Gajan, Frank Warren, Hoby Brenner and Jim Wilks. His first season was a rebuilding one at 4-12, and his second season was the strike shortened 1982 campaign. That year the Saints missed their first playoff spot by the narrowest of margins, the Detroit Lions advanced on a tie-breaker.
Phillips had been a true innovator on defense. Unfortunately he was also intensely loyal; and time can ruthlessly punish loyalty in professional athletics. Phillips attempted to replicate his Houston success, often using the same players. He traded quarterback Archie Manning, the team's most popular player, for the once excellent offensive lineman Leon Gray. He signed 37 year-old Ken Stabler from the Oilers, then gave up a first round pick for Earl Campbell. Campbell rushed for fewer than 1000 yards over two seasons before retiring, hardly a first-round contribution.
Under Phillips, the Saints had again returned from its historical ineptitude to competitive. They weren't quite good enough for the playoffs, but at least had left the realm of comic relief. Phillips's last season started OK; they were 3-2 after five games, but the team deflated and ran off six consecutive defeats. The Saints won in week twelve, and Phillips chose to go out on a winning note. He was replaced by the team's defensive coordinator, his son Wade.
Less than a year after Mecom sold the Saints to Tom Benson, Bum followed his old boss to retirement in Texas. More so than with Nolan, Bum's Saints felt like they might really finally deliver a winning season and maybe even the playoffs. Had Phillips not filled the roster with Houston's jetsam, they might well have. The following season saw the hiring of Jim Mora and the first real success of the New Orleans club. But that success was possible because of the players drafted by Phillips.