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The Bum Phillips opera is taking shape: Yes, this crazy concept needs to happen

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Bums Phillips with coat and hat
Bum Phillips' cowboy hat and boots became iconic symbols for the Houston Oilers head coach. Bum Phillips Charities
Bum Phillips at the Astrodome
Bum Phillips at the Astrodome. Bum Phillips Charities/Facebook
Bum Phillips with cross behind him
Bum Phillips at his ranch in Goliad, Texas. Bum Phillips Charities/Facebook
Earl Campbell with the Oilers
Earl Campbell, the running back who helped redefine the position in the NFL. Earl Campbell/Facebook
Bums Phillips with coat and hat
Bum Phillips at the Astrodome
Bum Phillips with cross behind him
Earl Campbell with the Oilers
Joel Luks, head shot, column mug, April 2013

Hut, hut, hike?

Try singing that. Now try singing that without sounding like Mary Poppins. Add some vibrato, a dramatic stare, maybe point at someone as if your life depended on it.

The spirit of such a convention during a game of football — the vernacular locution that quarterbacks huff prior to a snap — could next year find itself on the operatic stage, figuratively speaking, as a 1970s Houston football icon is set to be the subject of a contemporary opera.

Extreme drama is what the life of former Houston Oilers coach Oail Andrew "Bum" Phillips has in common with opera, a genre that's notorious for heightening the emotional thrust and the inner turmoil experienced by the characters. Yes, in opera, death can take forever, an instant can be extended to minutes (even hours) and simple decisions are dragged on for what seems like days.

Sports and opera may not seem like they play for the same team, but considering the passion, emotion, blood, guts and glory in each, the similarities could usher both vocations from the sidelines into a satisfying experiment that blends music lovers and football fiends together.

The marriage isn't anything new. Houston Grand Opera challenged composer Jack Perla to pen Courtside, a story that begins on the basketball court and nods to the life of Yao Ming — without explicitly connecting the dots.

 The impresario describes Bum Phillips, the opera, as a journey to "overcome strife through resilience and faith" within the framework of a football game.

At the helm of this new musical commission is New York-based author and Cypress Creek High School graduate Luke Leonard, whose days playing high school football and reading Phillips' autobiography, Bum Phillips: Cowboy, Coach, Christian, mused the unlikely pairing. Last year, Leonard was successful in raising funds to task a duo of native Texans — playwright Kirk Lynn and composer Peter Stopschinski — for the text and musical score. Through a second crowdsourced campaign that ends on July 21, Leonard hopes to raise a portion of the cash needed to mount the world premiere at the Ellen Stewart Theater in New York City in March 2014.

The impresario describes Bum Phillips, the opera, as a journey to "overcome strife through resilience and faith" set within the framework of a football game. Themes trek outside of the field to explore American family values, religion and purpose alongside the charismatic protagonist's work transforming a failed home team into a city-wide point of pride that marshaled the so called "Luv Ya Blue" movement. The golden era saw players like Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, Elvin Bethea and Earl Campbell — whose 199-yard, four-touchdown game to beat the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football is the stuff sports legends are made of — redefine what it meant to be a Houston sports fan.

Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak thinks the opera is a good idea. Of course, Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips — Bum's son — is on board. Bum himself, who at the age of 89 is happily retired in a horse ranch Goliad, Texas, approves of the venture, but admits he isn't the singing type.

Leonard has a myriad of accolades attached to his name. The University of Texas at Austin alum's directing work in The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, a contemporary opera by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and award winning playwright Mac Wellman, was named one of the "Top Ten Theatrical Wonders of 2010" by the Austin Chronicle.

Surely Leonard has the background to pull this off well. But the risk of themed operas that reach beyond what's deemed traditional content is that they are often short lived. Like some sports giants — here today, forgotten tomorrow.

Then again, Bum Phillips is not one who's easily forgotten. He's arguably an even larger Houston legend today. He's still talking football on local radio shows. Bum's one for the history books —his chewing tobacco, cowboy hat and cowboy boots included.

As such, isn't it a slap in the face that Bum Phillips would not be premiered in Houston?

Bummer. But maybe they can change that. This opera is too intriguing not to see.

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