ARLINGTON, Texas — In one of the Houston Roughnecks’ first team meetings in January following the revived XFL’s launch, a new, yet familiar, face addressed his players.
Wade Phillips, who despite being 75 is still proudly known as the Son of Bum, a nod to his Stetson-sporting father, a Texas icon who brought the Houston Oilers to the cusp of a Super Bowl title in the 1970s, is a head coach again after wondering if he’d ever get another opportunity to coach at all.
Phillips spoke to his new team in a big meeting room underneath Choctaw Stadium, a baseball field that was formerly the home of the Texas Rangers, just a short walk from AT&T Stadium, where one of Phillips’ old teams, the Dallas Cowboys, play.
When he got up to speak, with every player, coach and support staff member in attendance, one assistant said the room was completely silent, with every player “locked in” on Phillips, note pads or iPads in hand.
He told the team he believed in the XFL’s motto, “where dreams meet opportunity.” But those weren’t just reserved for the players. It was personal for him, too.
“Coach Wade is a Houston legend. He has all gears running,” said Alex Myres, a Roughnecks defensive back and Houston-area native who played at the University of Houston. “When he came in and told everybody that this is an amazing opportunity for him as well, that put a lot of things in perspective for me and for a lot of guys. It was go time at that point. Everybody understood why we’re all here.”
Phillips hadn’t coached since getting fired by the Los Angeles Rams in Jan. 2020, and was vocal about being open to all opportunities. For this one to come along, about 90 miles from where he grew up in Southeast Texas — where he later played linebacker at the University of Houston, then was an assistant for his dad in the greatest era of Houston’s pro football history — it’s even sweeter. And it doesn’t hurt that the Roughnecks wear blue and red with an oil derrick on their jerseys, just like Bum’s team did.
“Houston’s home,” Phillips said. “Being with the University of Houston, then the Oilers, then the Texans and now the Roughnecks… throw me into the briar patch, you know? It surprises me. But it shouldn’t surprise me. I’ve been to every team in every league.”
Phillips’ career in coaching spans more than 40 years. He has been the defensive coordinator for eight NFL teams and coached in two Super Bowls. He won 56% of his games as a head coach, including three full-time jobs with Buffalo, Denver and Dallas and interim jobs in New Orleans, Atlanta and Houston. He has worked for Marv Levy (born 1925) and Sean McVay (born 1986), with Buddy Ryan, Marty Schottenheimer, Dan Reeves and Gary Kubiak in between. He has coached 20 top-10 defenses, 30 Pro Bowlers, five Defensive Players of the Year and two Defensive Rookies of the Year.
So it hurt when even his hometown teams overlooked him until the XFL came along. Phillips had been passed over by the NFL’s Texans and the USFL, which returned last year, despite a Houston Gamblers team that needed a new coaching staff. But, as he told the players, this was a surprise to him too.
“I didn’t think I was going to be a head coach somewhere,” he said. “I did think the USFL might give me a shot, but I’m glad they didn’t because I think this is a better league. Nobody wants to see the Houston Gamblers play the New Jersey Generals in Birmingham. Who’s coming into that game At least your home team is playing at home.
“And I would’ve loved to have gone back to the Texans because they were so bad. I was there before [as defensive coordinator under Kubiak] when they were bad and we turned it around pretty well.”
After four decades in coaching, Phillips knows the numbers game, and he is sure he knows why he hasn’t gotten a shot again until now.
“No matter what you say, age is a problem, in any profession,” Phillips said. “Once they think you’re old enough, they want the young guy.”
When the XFL begins its reboot with eight teams playing 10 regular-season games — the Roughnecks start their season Saturday at home against the Orlando Guardians (8:30 pm ET on ESPN, FX, ESPN+), Phillips will be a full-time head coach again for the first time since 2010.
Just like his players, he’s got something to prove.
PHILLIPS’ COACHING STAFF is an interesting mix of experience and youth. His offensive coordinator is 33-year-old AJ Smith, who first impressed Phillips when they met at the Angelo Clinic in Texas when Smith was 20 and asked Phillips’ opinion on how to attack certain defenses. He has since been a high school and college assistant, and coached wide receivers under June Jones, who was the Roughnecks’ head coach in 2020 before the league suspended operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Roughnecks’ defensive coordinator, Brian Stewart, is a veteran in both the NFL and college. There are lifers like 67-year old Bill Johnston, a defensive line coach who won a Super Bowl with the Saints in 2009 and a national championship with LSU in 2019, contrasting with offensive line coach Andre Gurode, the former Pro Bowl center who played for Phillips in Dallas and is in his first full-time coaching job.
But one name stands out: Wide receivers coach Payton Pardee, the 26-year-old grandson of Jack Pardee, who was the coach of the Houston Gamblers in the original USFL in 1984, at the University of Houston — where he coached Andre Ware to a Heisman Trophy — and the Houston Oilers, when Warren Moon lit up the scoreboards.
Pardee, who played at the University of Houston from 2015-18, is in the infancy of his coaching career, working for three years at Texas A&M-Commerce before getting the call from Phillips, which he described as surreal.
“It means everything to me,” Pardee said. “A big dream of mine has always been to coach in the city of Houston. Coach Wade obviously has had that opportunity. I grew up loving the Oilers and the Gamblers, even though they were done at that point, because my granddad coached for all three teams in the city. And being able to work for Coach Wade is incredible, because you learn so much. Everybody in Texas knows him. My granddad knew him very well. So that’s been real special for me.”
Pardee said it’s even more poignant that he’s part of Smith’s offensive staff that is heavily influenced by the Run and Shoot, the same pass-heavy scheme that his grandfather ushered into the mainstream.
“This an opportunity to show that this system can still be successful, because the bulk of its success was back in the heyday, the mid-to-late ’80s and early ’90s and then with June Jones in the early 2000s,” Pardee said. “So, there’s a couple different layers to this.”
Pardee said the scheme is a hybrid that also features Air Raid elements, but after the death of Mike Leach in December, Phillips says he has his own nomenclature for it.
“I call it the Mike Leach offense now,” he said. “No offense to that [Air Raid inventor Hal] Mumme and those guys, but it’s a tribute to Mike so we’re going to call it the Leach offense here.”
Phillips, who was part of the “Luv Ya Blue” hysteria that swept Houston in Bum’s era, knows the city will get behind a winner if he can get the Roughnecks off to a good start. He’ll be back on campus at UH, playing in the 40,000-seat TDECU Stadium that opened in 2014, and thinks an exciting offense paired with his defense can get fans behind them.
“The Texans have struggled, so to get a professional football team winning in Houston, we know what it’s like when they’re winning,” he said. “We’d like to get that feeling. I mean, it’s coaching in my hometown. It couldn’t be better than that. I’m just worried about us trying to play well and represent our city and even Texas.”
PHILLIPS HAS BEEN impressed with the attitude of the XFL players he has worked with. He said there’s no ego and a lot of hunger to get another shot at football. He lived the same experience after playing linebacker in college, leaving Houston as the Cougars’ career leader in assisted tackles in 1968 — a record that stood until 2011.
Yet he knew he wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL, so he looked for a way to stay involved by coaching. He wants his players to know that too, that their football lives don’t have to end with their playing days. As an example, Phillips’ son Wes played arena football after his college career at UTEP and is now the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator,
“Sometimes you’re not ready to finish playing,” Phillips said. “Some of them are 24, 25, 26 years old. Maybe they got an opportunity but got hurt and feel like they can still make it. Maybe they’ll make it, maybe they won’t. But they’re great players to coach. They all want to listen and try to try to learn how to get better.”
Wide receiver Nick Holley said the team understands the amount of knowledge and history that Phillips brings to their locker room.
“He comes into meetings with great energy every single day,” Holley said. “We all feed off of that. Regardless of what happens, Coach Wade’s going to take it as far as he wants to go. That’s the type of guy he is.”
And he brings instant credibility to a league looking to attract fans in football hotbeds.
With the Arlington Renegades coached by Bob Stoops and the San Antonio Brahmas coached by Hines Ward, the XFL hopes fans will embrace the intrastate battles, much like the NBA’s Texas Triangle.
“There’ll be a rivalry. We play each other twice. So it’ll be fun. Stoops wants whoever wins the Texas title to get a box of cigars,” Phillips said, laughing. “I don’t smoke cigars. I guess that’s his deal. I don’t want any cigars. They can keep ’em.”
Phillips is all in on what is likely his last head-coaching gig, grateful for a chance, no matter the league.
“It’s different, but it’s the same,” Phillips said. “It’s coaching, teaching them fundamentals and how to improve, all that stuff that you’ve always done. And we’re running the Phillips 3-4 defense, so that hasn’t changed.”
The Run and Shoot, a blitz-happy defense that terrorizes quarterbacks, Texas rivalries, Bum’s son and Jack’s grandson? It’s almost as if the XFL knows there’s a group of Houstonians out there who have never felt the same since the Oilers left in 1997 and are pouring on the nostalgia.
“It feels like home for a lot of people who are in Houston,” Myres said. “A lot of people see the logo as the Houston Oilers, and I think that speaks volumes for the city of Houston to get behind it. We’ve got to go out there and perform and bring wins to the city of Houston, but I think that’s one thing that we can do for sure. And then it’ll give the fans something to get behind.”