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Bum's the word

Dec. 20, 2010 at 6:20 a.m.

Goliad resident and former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips recently collaborated with Victoria Advocate Public Service Editor Gabe Semenza to share his life as a husband, father and football coach.

His self-titled autobiography brings to life those characters and places that have influenced him over the years.

Phillips coached in the National Football League from 1975 to 1985. His colorful life, however, also includes an upbringing during the Great Depression, a tour during World War II and time spent as a rancher and businessman.

The following excerpt, taken from Chapter 12 of the book, is about a topic especially interesting to the Golden Crescent - why he chose to live where when he could have moved anywhere.


Debbie and I love Houston, but we yearned to enjoy a less hectic and more rural setting. For years we sought land where we could build a ranch; a homestead we'd settle upon for good to pursue the way of life we'd both always known and loved.

Houston's growth began to constrict our small ranch on the city's outskirts, and the demands of the celebrity lifestyle became too much. I don't resent the time we spent doing charitable work, seminars or endorsements. If someone asked for help, we offered it. But we reached the point we could barely keep up with all the requests. When developers began work on a 12-lane highway outside our front door, traffic only pushed us faster toward quieter pastures.

Debbie and I looked everywhere - south near Kingsville, north outside Kerrville and the Texas Hill Country, and every stop along the way. We looked at grassy pastures, rocky outcrops and at prices that spanned the spectrum. Nothing we toured fully fit our wants. The ones we liked we couldn't afford, and the ones we could afford we didn't like. We finally spotted a newspaper ad, which highlighted land for sale in Beeville, a quiet town in South Texas. We traveled several times to inspect properties and stopped during return trips to eat in the county just north of Beeville. In these parts, everybody knows everybody and we fit right in with the characters from nearby Goliad County.

As luck would have it, our Beeville Realtor said a ranch, which was not yet on the market, might be just what we were looking for.

"Would you mind being in Goliad County?" she asked.

"Not at all," we told her.

We drove along a winding road, up and down hills that open to vast green, flowing pastures and alongside a mix of brush, trees and spacious, scenic valleys. We turned off the highway, traveled along a paved county road for about a mile and turned to our right. From the turnoff, we could barely see the 250-acre property. Dense brush, which choked 80 percent of the land here, blocked our view. Slowly, we cruised up the half-mile private, paved driveway, around a tall oak tree and to the front of the house. We felt lost in a sea of solid brush and trees, but we loved it. The house was OK - engulfed in Austin white stone, which we both like - and the land was otherwise largely undeveloped: no barn, stables or cutting arena. The property had only a perimeter fence and half the cattle pens it does now. We knew going in it would be a lot of work. We visited the following week and rode the property on horseback, squeezing between the tall, thick brush while on the lookout for rattlesnakes in the grass. While riding from the front of the land to the farthest corner, we decided we'd found our dream property.

As it turns out, the seller's great-grandparents settled in the original Stephen F. Austin colony near Houston, and then on this land in 1826, about a decade before Texas became a state. The land and home stayed with one family for almost 200 years.

We signed the deal on the hood of our Suburban in nearby Goliad, and the homestead became our own. We are only the second family in Texas history to claim it.

The seller was kind enough to share her "IO" brand and a story we love to tell. Her great-grandfather won the land about 130 years ago in a card game and thus branded his cattle with "IO" - which is short for "I owe" - to gig the loser, who was his cousin.

This area, much like Orange, was settled by gunfighters, regulators and vigilantes. Goliad County also once boasted a famous hanging tree at the town square. The county is home to the Presidio La Bahia, a landmark to a time when the Spaniards occupied it. Goliad earned its name in 1829 and is the phonetic anagram of Hidalgo, a hero and priest during the Mexican Revolution.

On moving day, May 27, 1995, seven trucks pulling 30-foot cattle trailers rumbled down the road from our home outside Houston, down historic U.S. Highway 59, along the narrow county road and atop our new, paved driveway. We'd loaded fence posts and boards, horses and cattle, clothes and pans.

The night we moved in, the skies opened up. It rained 2.5 inches the first night and not again until September 1996.

Because the property lacked landscaping and other buildings we'd need to work cattle and horses, we set out immediately to put our stamp on the IO Ranch. Friends must have thought we'd lost our minds. I don't think they saw the diamond in the rough.

During the next few years, we planted thousands of posts, built riding pens, barns and added special wire to the perimeter to keep out rooting feral hogs. Using skills I learned on a bulldozer in the military, I cleared 95 percent of the brush and saved the prettier trees for scenery and cattle shade. We built the Debbie Dome, a covered arena that shades Debbie from the unforgiving Texas sun while she works our cutting horses.

The property blossomed into what we knew it could become. Friends who'd thought we were crazy finally saw the place for the beauty it held. I just hope everyone in the world can be as happy in the latter part of life as I am in mine.

We turned the rough country into a welcome home for friends and family. Former players visit often, and when we were a bit younger, singers and songwriters did, too. We once invited two dozen friends to our home, and we sat around, picked and grinned. The bunch included country songwriters Sonny Throckmorton and Casey Kelly, writers of George Strait's "Cowboy Rides Away;" Rock Killough, Craig Dillingham and others who call the Country Music Hall of Fame home. The Beatles opened for Bruce Channel when he toured Europe with his smash hit "Hey, Baby," and he played for us on our Goliad ranch. These are good folks, deep folks, and we love to be around them.

Although the nearest neighbor is a mile away, I'm certain he sat outside and enjoyed the free concerts played right here on my favorite land.

Editor's note: The headline, "Bum's the Word," was taken from a sportscast Bum used to do with Gifford Nielson, a show that sometimes got them both in trouble as Bum spoke his mind on football, women and more in his lovable Bum way.



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