Legendary NFL DC Wade Phillips ready to bring 50 years of insight to European Coaches Convention

You might imagine that the start of a lifelong career would be marked by some deeply profound realization, but the moment Wade Phillips decided he would dedicate himself to the craft of coaching was much humbler than some innate calling.

“It was when I realized I wasn’t going to be an NFL football player,” he says with a dry chuckle.

Of course, the legendary NFL defensive coordinator sells himself short. As the son of famed Houston Oilers bench boss Bum Phillips, the coaching profession ran through Wade Phillips’ blood long before he hung up his cleats. When he finally did, becoming a graduate assistant at the University of Houston in 1969, he was destined to rise quickly.

Over the next 50 years, Phillips only became one of professional football’s brightest minds, cultivating a reputation for bringing the best out of star players. He’s coached for 10 different NFL franchises, bearing the head coaching title for the New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, and Houston Texans on the way to a 82-64 career record. He’s led three different defenses to Super Bowl appearances as a coordinator, twice in the last decade, and took home a Super Bowl ring in 2015 with the Broncos. Along the way, Phillips has amassed a knowledge of the game that most coaches, even those in the NFL, can only marvel at and the 74-year old is ready to share as much of it as he possibly can with the European coaching community.

Organized by Jesus Sanchez and Bart Iaccarino, the front office leaders of the ELF’s Barcelona Dragons, the first ever European Coaches Convention is scheduled to kick off in Berlin on November 6 and 7 with Phillips as it’s headliner. It was an opportunity that the NFL great jumped at as soon as he was approached, spurred on by his experience coaching international NFL games in places like London, Berlin and Barcelona.

“I was kind of intrigued by the interest that all of those places had in American football,” Phillips recalls. “We got a great reception, and the fans were just like the fans in America, they were screaming and hollering for their team.”

Europe is a growing football market that Phillips sees as a burgeoning hotbed for players, but while a growing number of international athletes are making their way to the NCAA and NFL, that trend has not been mirrored among coaches. Coaching education in American football has lagged behind in much of Europe, with players heading abroad in search of better instruction and exposure. In terms of a professional career path, the pathway for coach advancement has been almost non-existent, with Dallas Cowboys defensive line coach Aden Durde the notable exception.

Those are the problems that EUCC is trying to address and Phillips sees it as a noble cause for the health of the sport in general. It is simply about providing coaches with the tools they need to get better.

“I started in high school in the United States in Texas. It stands to reason that someone in Europe could be just as good a coach,” Phillips explains. “Just like good players can come from anywhere, good coaches can come from anywhere and now it’s getting the education part of it.”

He’ll be a piece of that education in two weeks’ time and Phillips wants to lay a foundation. The first of his two 50-minute addresses to the convention is entitled ‘How to be a Coach’ and if you think that is an easy question to answer, you’d be surprised at how far astray many wander.

“I think a lot of people, they don’t know exactly what coaching is. Even guys going into coaching, some people coach the way they were coached or try to emulate someone else. I’m going to talk about the important things in coaching that I’ve learned through the years and try to convey those things to guys coming up that are really interested in being a coach,” Phillips says.

“Some people think coaching is hollering at somebody all the time. They don’t have the right concept of  what a coach is. A lot of it is teaching. If you’re a good teacher, you can be a good coach.”

When it came to that aspect of the job, few were better at it than Phillips. His ability to get the best out of players and connect with his athletes is how he stayed not only relevant, but at the top of his game in the NFL for more than four decades. A lot has evolved since his first NFL job in 1976, but that certainly hasn’t.

“People haven’t changed that much. I’m talking about individuals,” he notes. “The world and how we think in some ways is different, but person-to-person hasn’t changed.”

Phillips’ focus on the personal may be why he’s produced five NFL Defensive Players of the Year in his career and padded the resumes of countless Hall of Famers. He stressed understanding every player’s strengths and weaknesses and putting them in positions to succeed. Even Reggie White, Bryce Paup, Bruce Smith, JJ Watt and Aaron Donald need a coach to maximize their specific abilities, and that principle can be applied to any level of football.

“Even over here in the US, I have to talk to people all the time because they put players into a certain category and they say ‘you have to play this way and only this way.’ It’s really not true because everybody’s different. Every cornerback is different, every defensive lineman is different, every linebacker is different,” Phillips emphasizes.

“Some people teach scheme over player skills and it really shouldn’t be that way. You should have the player skills first and be able to utilize what they do as your priority, rather than saying ‘we’re going to run this game, this is gonna win for us.’ The players are going to win. I’ve seen really good players not play well in certain schemes. Well, the scheme’s bad, not the player.”

Photo: AP Photo

Over the course of his career, Phillips avoided that trap thanks to the versatility of his own scheme, a one-gap attacking 3-4 defense that stressed mobility and was a nightmare to protect against. Far from a rigid system, there wasn’t a size, shape or skillset of player that the 3-4 couldn’t be molded to accommodate, something that conference attendees will get a crash course in during his second session on the Sunday.

“You can utilize different players at different positions and be able to utilize their skills. You’re not locked into a great big guy at nose guard or a little guy,” Phillips says. “It’s what the skill of the player can do.”

Getting the finer points of a system from one of the best to ever implement it is a rare opportunity that European coaches are sure to clamor for, with just 200 spots available for registration. Phillips is looking forward to sharing his insight with all those lucky enough to be in attendance, but coaching development is always ongoing, and the septuagenarian coach is not yet convinced his is over.

Phillips had announced his retirement after parting ways with the Los Angeles Rams at the end of the 2019 season, but recently declared his intention to get back to the NFL. The unique situation of the last two years has not allowed a return to coaching to take place, but Phillips is keeping all options open, including a familiar one for those in Berlin.

“With this COVID thing, it’s been tough for everybody. It’s almost a year and a half wasted with everything, so we’ll see what happens. There’s some new leagues starting, those kinds of things, opportunities there, and maybe even in Europe,” Phillips teased. “We just have to wait and see.”

For more information on the European Coaches Convention or to register, click here.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.