Thursday, December 15, 2016

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Bud Adams for Moving the Houston Oilers to Tennessee

December 15, 1996, 20 years ago: The Cincinnati Bengals defeat the Houston Oilers 21-13 at the Astrodome. It is the last home game the Oilers will ever play. With their move to Tennessee already announced, the attendance is a mere 15,131. I don't have video of this game.

The following Sunday, December 22, 1996, they played their final game as the Houston Oilers, beating the Ravens, 24-21 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. Team owner Kenneth Stanley Adams Jr., a.k.a. Bud Adams, moved them to Memphis, playing as the Tennessee Oilers, expecting to play at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis for 2 seasons, while their new stadium in Nashville was being built. 

But the people of Memphis, hating Nashville as both the State capital and as a rival for supremacy in the State, never took to the team, and the attendance was as bad as any team has had in the post-World War II era. So Adams cut a deal to share Vanderbilt University's stadium in Nashville for 1998. It seated only 41,000, but they weren't getting that in Memphis anyway, and it was only for 1 season. They became the Tennessee Titans when their new stadium in Nashville opened in 1999.

Bud Adams was an oil company executive from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, whose plane got stranded in a fogged-in Houston airport in 1946. He decided he liked the area, and stayed. When the American Football League was founded in 1960, he set up the Houston franchise, and won the 1st 2 AFL titles. 
Bud Adams with the 1st 2 AFL Championship trophies,
an Oiler helmet autographed by Warren Moon,
and what appears to be a bust of himself.

But the 1961 season remains the last in which the Oilers/Titans franchise has gone as far as the rules of the time allowed them to go. They would lose the AFL Championship Game in 1962 and 1967, and the American Football Conference Championship Game in 1978 and 1979 before the move, and Super Bowl XXXIV in early 2000 after it.

Adams died in 2013, the next-to-last of the original owners still involved. (Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills was the last, and died the next year.)

The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Bud Adams for Moving the Houston Oilers to Tennessee

First, let me give a couple of reasons that didn't make the cut: The Best of the Rest.

Donald Trump. Huh? What does The Orange One have to do with the Oilers leaving Houston? Well, as the owner of the New Jersey Generals and the guiding force behind the United States Football League's lawsuit against the NFL, which was won in only the strictest sense of the word (winning $3.76 in damages), he killed the USFL. (Not the only business he's screwed up.)
Donald Trump and Herschel Walker, 1983.
One of these men is pretending to smile. The other isn't.

Had that not happened, by 1995, when Adams began to seriously consider the Tennessee move, there probably would have been a merger between the leagues, involving cities that had USFL teams but not NFL teams. One of those teams was the Memphis Showboats. If the Showboats had occupied Memphis as an NFL team in 1995, it's incredibly unlikely that Nashville would have been a viable market for an NFL team.
A Showboats helmet, with their paddlewheel logo

This wouldn't have precluded Adams moving the Oilers somewhere else. But it would have made it much harder to find a proper market.

Radio. By 1995, the Oilers' radio network, which had been statewide, had been reduced to 1 station in Houston. As a result, Harris County, owners of the Astrodome, agreed to let the Oilers out of their lease, to enable the move to Tennessee after the 1996 season, instead of 1997 as had been planned.

Gary Bettman. The Commissioner of the National Hockey League? Yes. In 1995, even as the New Jersey Devils were on their way to winning the Stanley Cup, Bettman had seen a proposal by the City of Nashville to build a new sports arena, what's now named Bridgestone Arena.

Having a Sun Belt fetish, he thought adding another NHL team to the South was a great idea. And since the Devils were having attendance problems despite being one of the best teams in the League, he thought they were the team that should move.
"Come to the Dark Side. We have the Sun Belt.
It's some sort of irony thing."

Ultimately, Devils owner John McMullen chose to keep the team in New Jersey, and, 12 years and 3 Stanley Cups later, the Prudential Center opened in downtown Newark. Nashville built its arena, and in 1998, the expansion Nashville Predators debuted there.

Adams saw this, and wondered what kind of deal Nashville would offer to get an NFL team. He found out, and he decided it was too good to pass up.

Now, the Top 5:

5. The Dallas Cowboys. A.O. "Bum" Phillips, Oilers head coach from 1975 to 1980, was a quote machine. And one of his more familiar quotes was, "The Cowboys are America's Team, but the Oilers are Texas' Team."
Tom Landry and Bum Phillips, Thanksgiving Day 1979.
Notice which of these native Texans is actually wearing
a cowboy hat. The Oilers beat the Cowboys.

Familiar, yes; correct, no. You would think that the Oilers would have a stranglehold on NFL fans in South Texas. (The presence of the New Orleans Saints means that, unlike the Astros, who don't have MLB competition in New Orleans, Houston's NFL reach does not extend eastward into Southern Louisiana or the Gulf Coast parts of Mississippi and Alabama.) Instead, it is only the area immediately around Houston, for 100 miles or so, that was Oilers territory, and now belongs to the Texans. San Antonio? Austin? Forget it: That's all Cowboy country.
And no matter that the Oilers were more successful than the Cowboys, who also started in 1960, until 1966, or what the Oilers did in the Earl Campbell era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, or in the early 1990s when the Astrodome became known as the House of Pain, they were never going to take anything other than the Houston area away from the evil ones to the north. Nor have the Texans, not by a long shot.

In contrast, with the University of Tennessee far away in Knoxville, Vanderbilt perennially having a poor fotball team, the Predators being popular but not that popular, no MLB team closer than Atlanta and Cincinnati, and no NBA team closer than Atlanta and Memphis, Adams and the Titans ruled the sports scene in Central Tennessee. They've never had to worry about, say, the Atlanta Falcons or the Cincinnati Bengals taking fans away from them.

4. The Astrodome. Billed as "The Eighth Wonder of the World" when it opened 1965, 30 years later, it -- along with Shea Stadium in New York, and the remaining structures of the 1964-65 World's Fair across Roosevelt Avenue -- was said by an architecture critic to be a relic of a future that never came to be.
With the construction of new stadiums and the expansion of older ones, the Astrodome had become the smallest stadium in the NFL. It seated barely over 50,000 for football for most of its existence. In 1987, Adams told the city government that he would move the Oilers to Jacksonville if they didn't improve the Astrodome, including raising seating capacity and putting in more of what the place practically invented: Luxury boxes. He got his wish: In 1990, it was expanded to 62,439 seats, including 65 luxury boxes, and the Oilers stayed.

The expansion did not improve the lousy sightlines: The seats near the 50-yard line were the furthest from the playing field, while the closest ones were in the end zone. And as the Astros were the stadium's primary tenant, whenever there was a scheduling conflict, or any dispute between the Astros and the Oilers, the Astros would always win out. Hard to believe, considering that Texas is the football State.
See? The sideline seats really weren't all that close.

In 1995, improvements for the Astros meant that football seating capacity was cut back to 59,969. So Adams reached his tipping point. He decided that, in order to continue as an NFL team owner, he had to have a stadium that he -- not a government, not another team -- controlled. Houston was still his first choice, but he was willing to make another choice.

3. Politics. For its entire existence, the Astrodome has been owned by Harris County -- not the City of Houston, not the State of Texas, and not by the owners of any teams playing there. (Although Roy Hofheinz, the founding owner of the Astros who sparked its construction, had been a Mayor of Houston and later a federal Judge.) So that when Adams wanted a new stadium, he knew that the County wasn't going to give it to him.

So he went to the Mayor of Houston, Bob Lanier (no relation to the basketball legend of the same name), and asked him to have the City build him a stadium. But Houston taxpayers were still on the hook for the money needed for the Dome's recent renovation. He knew that Texans, famously tax-hating, would never accept a tax to build an entirely new stadium. The slogan "LUV YA BLUE" was dead and gone, and Lanier knew it couldn't be brought back.

With the NFL promising Cleveland a replacement Browns, and the League having recently returned to Baltimore, Oakland and St. Louis after only a few years each, Lanier gambled on Houston being similarly rewarded, and called Adams' bluff, turning him down flat.
In contrast, despite also being a conservative Southern city, Nashville was more than happy to vote on a referendum to build a 68,000-seat football stadium: It got 57 percent of the vote. And Mayor Phil Bredesen was happy to spend the money to get Tennessee -- which would later elect him Governor -- its 1st major league sports team. Goodbye, Lone Star State; hello, Volunteer State.
Adams presents Bredesen with a Tennessee Oilers jersey.
The Titans rebranding also changed the uniforms.


    2. Tennessee. It's proven to be a great market for football, evidenced by the 110,000 fans who pack Neyland Stadium in Knoxville to watch the University of Tennessee play 6 times every Autumn. And the Titans usually have good attendance. They're averaging 63,881 fans per home game this season. The Houston Texans, who took the Oilers' place? 71,884. Then again, their stadium seats a lot more than the Titans'.
    Nissan Stadium, with downtown Nashville behind it

    Which brings us to the biggest reason you shouldn't blame Adams for moving the Blue:

    1. It Worked -- For Both Places. The NFL returned to South Texas with the expansion Houston Texans in 2002. The 6-year gap wasn't nearly as long as the 13 years that Oakland and Baltimore had to wait, the former to get the Raiders back, 1982-95; the latter to get the Ravens in 1996 after the Colts left after 1983. And Los Angeles lost both the Rams and the Raiders after the 1994 season, finally getting the Rams back this year, after 22 years. Minneapolis had to wait 31 years: 1930 Red Jackets, 1961 Vikings. Cincinnati, 34 years: 1934 Reds, 1968 Bengals.

    Since 1996, who's been better off in the NFL: South Texas, or Tennessee? In 20 seasons, the Titans have made the Playoffs 6 times, including 2 AFC Championship Games and a berth in Super Bowl XXXIV. The Texans, meanwhile, didn't reach the Playoffs until 2011.
    Marcus Mariota, quarterbacking the 2016 Tennessee Titans

    On the other hand, from 2009 onward, the Titans haven't made the Playoffs at all, while the Texans have done so 3 times. This season, they are both 7-6, sharing the AFC South Division lead, although the one that loses out will almost certainly not make the Playoffs.
    Tennessee loves its Titans. Houston loves its Texans every bit as much as it loved its Oilers. So both Adams and Lanier -- who died in 2014, 14 months after Adams died -- gambled, and both won. Fitting, I suppose, because the USFL team in town had been named the Houston Gamblers.

    VERDICT: Not Guilty. Adams got everything he wanted -- except a Super Bowl win, and he came a lot closer than Houston ever has. Lanier got what's now NRG Stadium built, next-door to the Astrodome, and it's a far better stadium. The NFL returned to Houston after just 6 years, and the Texans became respectable quickly, and are now one of the better teams in the NFL.
    NRG Stadium, packed to the gills for a Texans game

    So, in all this gambling, Adams won. Tennessee won. Lanier won. Houston won. Both teams are commercially successful, so the NFL won.

    Did anybody lose? Houstonians lost in the short term, but they won in the long run. Really, the only losers were the now-derelict Astrodome, and the people who miss the old days, when the Astros and Oilers both seemed like teams of the future.
    The Astrodome is now dwarfed by NRG Stadium.
    With the Houston skyline behind them.

    The future for Houston sports turned out to be a bit different than what was expected. But it has been better.

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