SAN ANTONIO—He was done signing autographs. Finished glad-handing fans. Complete with his first day of training camp as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
But, refreshingly, Wade Phillips was just getting started.
As Phillips jogged into The Alamodome locker room tunnel last Wednesday afternoon, a man desperate for his attention fired a football that skidded, tumbled and bounced into the back of the coach's legs. An encore—or perhaps a fight—was inevitable. Phillips picked up the ball, tucked it under his arm and, after briefly pretending to jog toward the bowels of the stadium, returned to the field, signed some more and, just like that, created priceless goodwill.
See, Bill Parcells, it ain't that damn hard. In four minutes the new coach produced more fan interaction than the former coach did in four years.
"It's part of the deal," Phillips says of connecting to fans. "I'm all about creating a family atmosphere, and they're part of our family too."
For better or worse, the Cowboys are again being coached by a living, breathing, feeling human being.
Gone is the grumpy old Yankee asshole, replaced by a good-ol'-boy Texan who swigs Diet Dr Pepper and considers every day casual Friday. Gone is the self-absorbed dictator who never once last summer in Oxnard, California, acknowledged adoring training camp fans with a wave or nod of the head (much less an autograph), replaced by a trusting delegator who shakes hands with reporters and poses for on-field pictures with sponsors, fans and owner Jerry Jones' Arkansas mafia. Gone is the coach who drove a Cadillac and talked boxing, replaced by the coach who favors Ford and asks about your kids.
Gone is Jim Burt, replaced by Jay Novacek.
"I came to camp Bill's first year, but I haven't been back until now," says Novacek, the legendary tight end and one of several familiar Cowboys—instead of New York Giants—who popped in for camp including James Washington, Nate Newton, Deion Sanders and Larry Lacewell. "I don't think I could've played for him."
Cowboys training camp hasn't been this relaxed, open or fuzzy feel-good since the 2002 Dave Campo regime, which, of course, may indicate a looming 5-11 disaster.
Nah. Thanks to their coach, the 2007 Cowboys will finish 11-5, capture the NFC East and—barring a botched hold—win a playoff game for the first time in 11 seasons.
Under Phillips, the Cowboys defense will play a more aggressive, attacking, gambling style with Roy Williams closer to the line of scrimmage. Under Phillips the Cowboys offense will get the ball early and often to Terrell Owens, who ran a reverse on the first play of camp. And under Phillips, the owner—after four muted, minimal seasons with his castrated balls shoved in his mouth—will return to prominence.
"I think everybody will say that I'm a great defensive coach," Phillips says. "I want to be known as a great head coach."
Says Jones, "We have every right to believe we'll be better than last season."
Mostly, the Cowboys will be better because they're happier. Duh. Even a national aeronautics company whose employees wear diapers and drive 4 million-pound vehicles drunk knows that isn't rocket science.
"Guys are just more relaxed, having more fun," says quarterback Tony Romo. "It's a combination of things, but we're really flying around the field."
Dallas' chilled culture starts with the folksy Phillips. You'd never ID Wade as the head coach. Maybe a trainer. A member of the sideline chain gang. Or a tractor mechanic.
While Parcells cast a suffocating shadow, Phillips drips all the arrogance and aura of an art museum maintenance man working the graveyard shift. Wearing a tucked-in blue Adidas golf shirt, blue shorts and white tube socks at mid-calf, he stands hands on hips—no, make that hands on ample side belly. Add the rotund face and silver hair, and Wade looks more Jerry Falwell than Vince Lombardi. And instead of a bark, he instructs with a wimpy whistle or a sorta mumbly voice that doesn't carry. (Great, now instead of a coach that's hard of hearing we have one that's hard to hear.)
Wade even pokes fun at himself, a Parcells taboo.
Asked his question marks about the team, Phillips quipped, "You mean, besides the coaching?"
"Wade is as much Texas as Bill was New Jersey," says public relations director Rich Dalrymple, who has worked alongside every Cowboys coach since Tom Landry. "Bill could be abrupt, direct, even confrontational. Wade's demeanor and bedside manner are immediately disarming."
Countless eras removed from Jimmy Johnson's "make your mind control your body, not your body control your mind" two-a-days in the 100-degree Austin heat or Parcells' physically rugged and psychologically numbing practices, Captain Casual commenced training camp inside an air-conditioned building. With no pads. And only one practice. During one workout three players left the field for bathroom breaks. Considering Johnson's "asthma field" and Parcells' disgust for weak minds and weaker bladders, neither player would've returned to the field had the coach not been Wade Phillips.
Jones' wife, Gene, is back on the sidelines during workouts. Assistant coaches hold press conferences. Novacek laughs with tight end Jason Witten during practice. Sanders and San Antonio Spurs guard Bruce Bowen address the team. Even the annoyingly retarded mascot Rowdy is back revving his four-wheeler and leading cheers during offensive drills.
You win some, you lose some.
"They certainly have different styles of communicating," says offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. "I just don't like it when people call Wade laid-back. He understands football like few other people, and he wants things done his way. Because there's not a lot of yelling and screaming doesn't mean we're running a country club."
With a Q rating just a tick above peach cobbler, Phillips wouldn't command even an at-large berth to ESPN's "Who's Now?" tournament. His press conferences—unlike Parcells'—are more NyQuil than noxious. Surprisingly, he has more experience and a better sense of humor than last year's coach.
On possibly fining himself for showing up to camp overweight: "If Bill wasn't fined for that, I'm sure not going to be."
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On defensive coordinator Brian Stewart's statement about the Cowboys defense being the best in the NFL: "If he said that, he shouldn't have."
And, after hearing Jones' upbeat state-of-the-union press conference on the eve of camp, his prediction for the '07 season: "After listening to that I guess we'd better win 'em all."
Why not? After all, liberated players make better players.
Right, Ron Washington?