February 21, 2000
Blues Light Special
By Jimmy Mohr and Ric Sweeney
When Bob McNair’s new franchise takes the field in 2002, they will begin the process of forging new memories for the city of Houston’s football-starved fanatics. But at the same time, they’ll also begin erasing the old ones. As engrained as Houston Oiler lore may be with most of us, it does not, technically, belong to us. Somehow, it belongs to the people of Tennessee. Thus, the onus of protecting our city’s historic fabric falls upon each and everyone of us. Enter John Pirkle.
Pirkle is a fan, just like the rest of us. He doesn’t have a journalism degree, nor contacts throughout the NFL community. But that didn’t stop him from writing what will invariably be Houston’s pro football legacy, Oiler Blues, a thorough look back at the highs and far too many lows of Houston’s first professional football team, the Oilers.
“I felt like it was a piece of Houston’s history and a piece of my life that was going to be lost if someone didn’t do it (write a retrospective), and so I’m glad I did,” says Pirkle, who sat down recently to talk with HoustonProFootball.com.
And, according to Pirkle, contrary to most recollections, things weren’t always that bad with the Oilers, as the franchise not only produced some great teams, but also many colorful events, players, coaches and even management. “I mean, how many teams have a general manager (Ladd Herzeg) who mooned a wedding party?”
But in addition to preserving the Oilers’ legacy, Pirkle also wanted to set the record straight about the city’s fans. Most remember only the sparse turnout the “Save the Oiler” rally produced in 1995. And most assume it was fan apathy that ultimately drove Bud Adams from town.
“The Houston fan had gotten a black eye nationally thanks to news outlets like ESPN and the like. Houston fans were called bad fans and the Oilers were portrayed as leaving because the Houston fan was a bad fan, and that wasn’t true,” says Pirkle.
Pirkle, who was born and raised in Houston, began writing Oiler Blues while living in San Francisco. When his mother became ill, he began a grueling odyssey of back and forth trips to Houston on a bi-weekly basis to care for her. Before long, he was in Houston full-time.
“The thing with my mom was pretty serious, and instead of sitting around and worrying about it, I wanted to do something.”
So Pirkle began his journey into Oiler lore at the Houston Public Library. “I would take my mom to the Medical Center, drop her off, and I’d go to the library and spend my day ‘fishing’ with the microfiche, and that’s the way I started.”
Pirkle would research the team during the day, pouring over each article written about the team from the local papers, while writing at night on his laptop. The process took a year and a half. “I went back to roughly 1958, when they were first passing bonds to build the Astrodome, and I took it from there.” Pirkle also absorbed any and every book that has ever been written about the Oilers, from Cannon to Campbell to Kill, Bubba Kill.
He then relied on ex-players and coaches to help fill in the gaps and provide a little color, though not all were willing to help out. “If they (the players) loved the team or really liked Adams, they were a little hesitant to talk to me because I think most people knew, if you were going to do a fair story, most of it was going to be negative because Oiler history is so frustrating.” But Pirkle had no hidden agenda. “My goal was just to tell the story. I was trying to record their history.”
Their history, of course, began in 1960, when owner Adams, along with Lamar Hunt, challenged the NFL’s hierarchy by forming the AFL. Right from the start, Adams began alienating the city.
“Houston was split over the idea of the AFL,” says Pirkle. “Other leagues had come up and failed, and the community felt if they joined the AFL, they’d forfeit their chances of getting an NFL team later.”
Among the anti-AFL faction was then Houston Post columnist Jack Gallagher, who lobbied hard to keep the AFL out of town. When the AFL began to prosper, however, Gallagher refused to change his stance, belittling the Oilers, while calling for the-QB George Blanda’s head and challenging Adams to a fistfight, among other stunts. He began what became a long running tradition in town, and soon, its main event: the Oilers versus the local media. Gallagher gave way to Dale Robertson, as Dan Pastorini replaced George Blanda as the whipping boy du jour. Eventually, Herzeg and Jerry “Bobo” Glanville would get caught up in the media maelstrom too.
“The reporters were a big part of the story. And sometimes, they were the story,” says Pirkle, referencing the many confrontations between columnist and player, including Pastorini’s take down of Robertson in 1980 and Fran Blinebury’s tête-à-tête with Ladd Herzeg over a bottle of champagne at the trendy Tony’s restaurant.
They may have even, purposefully or not, led to the team’s ultimate departure. “When you constantly remind people of some of Jerry Glanville’s worst moments, you have the power of the pen to make sure people never forget those things.”
Of course, no one factor sealed the Oilers’ fate — there were many, from Bud’s firing of Bum, his Jacksonville courting to, of course, the 35-3 lead in Buffalo. But Pirkle believes the Oilers’ die may have actually been cast before the franchise was even born. As the sports world of the late 50’s and early 60’s began to change drastically, the city may have erred in their foresight. With television making a bigger impact, and the NFL gaining in popularity, the city elected instead to pursue baseball as a means of solidifying their national perception. Thus, the Astrodome was built for baseball, and not football.
“They (city officials) felt that getting a baseball team would make Houston a big league city. What they didn’t see was that football was about to pass baseball as America’s favorite sport because of television. Some people saw that vision, though — people like Bud Adams.” But it was all downhill from there with Adams.
“This was a guy who appointed himself the first general manager of the team, and yet knew nothing about football!” That started a myriad of coaching mis-hires, firings and all around bad decisions. “In 1970, after he fired (GM) Don Klosterman, the team actually ran without a general manager so Bud could save Klosterman’s $40,000 a year salary. And that’s never happened before or after in the history of professional football!”
Oiler Blues is filled with such painful recollections. And Pirkle doesn’t sugarcoat the history, he lays it all out for us to draw our own conclusions. It’s enjoyable, though oft-times painful, reading. Meeting Pirkle, and talking with him, is like taking a trip down memory lane. What we thought was going to be a quick interview, turned into a four hour Oiler-fest. And that was after talking to him on the phone earlier in the week for an hour and a half. But Pirkle is used to generating this type of response from fans.
“When I would go on the radio, on these call-in shows (to promote the book), everybody in Houston, just about, has a story or a memory to tell.”
Of course, we couldn’t let John go without addressing the book’s most controversial passage. While discussing the 1993 negotiations that eventually brought Wilbur Marshall from Washington to Houston, Pirkle, as an aside, labels then Redskin GM, current Houston GM, Charley Casserly “the worst GM in football.”
“I lived in Washington for most of Casserly’s tenure, and I saw Casserly take over for (Bobby) Beatherd and I saw the team fall apart. They went from the best in football to the very worst. I saw them make the worst free agent moves, the worst drafts…”
Pirkle referenced both the Desmond Howard pick (in which Casserly gave up a slew of picks in order to move up to take the Heisman winner) and the Heath Shuler pick as prime examples of Casserly’s draft shortcomings. However, he’s willing to give Casserly the benefit of the doubt.
“Hopefully, Casserly has learned from his mistakes, and in all fairness, he’s built them (the Redskins) into a playoff team now. But at the time, that was my take.”
And after immersing himself in non-stop Oilers, and studying their every move, both the good and the bad, Pirkle offers this small piece of advice for new owner McNair, which he thinks will go a long way to helping the new team bond with the community: “Let’s not turn our back on our football history, let’s embrace it.”
Oilers Blues is a terrific first step
Oiler Blues is a thorough look back at Houston Oiler history. From the bad decisions and tough luck to the parade of hapless coaches and playoff disappointments , it’s all here in this in-depth team biography.
And you can order your copy online by
clicking here, or by calling toll free (800) 431-1579