“My mom still has a baby blue rabbit-skin vest in her closet she used to wear to the Astrodome,” Leonard said.
So when Leonard, who is a director and artist living in New York City, was trying to think of a new project in 2010, one Goliad County resident eventually came to mind.
“I was thinking about football and how much coaches have different personalities with how they motivate people,” Leonard said.
Leonard had recently finished graduate school at the University of Texas and was interested in producing a musical about Longhorns football coach Mack Brown. Leonard also kicked around the idea of using the lives of NFL Hall of Fame running backs Walter Payton and Earl Campbell for the musical.
“I loved Earl Campbell, but then I really didn’t really know much about Earl,” Leonard said. “Then Bum’s name popped into my head. The name ‘Bum’ alone is so great. So I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”
Leonard, the founder and producing artistic director of Monk Parrots, a nonprofit vanguard theatre company, then read Phillips’ autobiography “Bum Phillips: Coach, Cowboy, Christian” and set up a trip to Goliad County to meet with Phillips and his wife, Debbie, and discuss the project.
“Debbie told us on the phone that she thought it was a hoot that we wanted to make an opera about Bum,” Leonard said. “But she told us that Bum couldn’t sing a lick.”
Leonard, his parents and composer Peter Stopschinski made the trip to the Phillips’ ranch in March 2012.
“I walked up to Bum and said, ‘Mr. Phillips, it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ ” Leonard said. “Bum replied, ‘It’s a pleasure to want to be met at 89.’ Here I was in the presence of a legend and it was as if he seemed surprised that I remembered him, which is a testament to how humble he is. We stayed for three hours and left with their blessing for the opera.”
Leonard said former Oilers running back Earl Campbell will be portrayed in the opera.
“The main focus is on Bum,” Leonard said. “Bum represents American values - hard work, determination, discipline, passion, friendship, loyalty, honesty, collaboration, and respect … values that sometimes feel misplaced in this crazy world.”
Bud Adams, the Oilers’ owner who hired and fired Phillips, will be protrayed as one of the musical’s main antagonists.
“There is only one scene with him,” Leonard said. “He’s a funny character. He’s all about making money.”
The world premiere of the opera is scheduled for March 2014 in New York City. But to produce the show, Leonard needs to raise $20,000, which will make the project eligible for additional grants.
The link to donate money to the Bum Phillips Opera is http://www.usaprojects.org/project/bum_phillips_2014_world_premiere_opera.
“The first draft is done and is great,” Leonard said. “I don’t know that the ending is complete yet. We might want to keep working on that. I need to still get the fully orchestrated score from Peter. It’s still a work in progress, especially with budgeting.
“We’re a non-profit. Everybody on our staff is a volunteer. We don’t have money for operating expenses. We have to pay for production costs and materials and to rent space. There’s marketing and you have to hire a publicist.”
Leonard said he would like to have Phillips attend the premiere.
“The ultimate goal is a Texas premiere, but we need a Texas presenter to make it happen,” Leonard said. “I sent materials to Houston Grand Opera a long time ago, and I pestered Buck Ross at University of Houston Moores School of Music to support a second workshop. I also tried UT-Austin’s Butler School of Music, UT-Austin’s Department of Theatre & Dance, and Texas Performing Arts in Austin.
“We’re going to do the show, regardless. I’m really good working with limited means.”