November 6, 2001
by Bob Hulsey
In 1984, Bob Irsay moved the storied Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis. He did so in the dead of night with moving vans trudging through the snow. The City of Baltimore did not see it coming and were powerless to stop it. Thus started a game of musical chairs among NFL owners, piting cities against each other in a war over stadiums, markets, luxury suites and tax breaks. True, Al Davis had actually led the parade two years earlier but he had to win a lawsuit against the NFL to move his Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles and, with his reputation as a maverick in Pete Rozelle’s club, the move was thought to be a rare situation.
But Irsay and others owners soon realized that they too could become free agents, just like their players. If they weren’t happy where they were, they could just pack up and move to someplace they liked better. Just the threat of moving often broke the will of city fathers who then found public monies to bankroll new stadiums or to give currents ones a facelift.
This happened to Houston in 1987 when Bud Adams publicly courted Jacksonville and threatened to move the Oilers there if the Astrodome wasn’t changed to his liking. Out went the giant scoreboard, in came a few thousand seats and numerous luxury boxes (coveted by owners since they got to keep all of the revenue made from the suites). The Astrodome even acquired two artificial fields so the Oilers wouldn’t have to share the same carpet as the Astros.
The Astrodome still seated less than the average NFL stadium and the Oilers were still beholden to the Astros in leasing priority. So with a few division titles in hand, Adams announced his desire, in early 1994, for a new downtown domed stadium that would house the Oilers and the NBA Houston Rockets. PR firms drew battle lines. The Astros’ parent organization, which owned the Astrodome, was against the plan. The owners of the Summit, where the Rockets played, also disapproved. Adams found support from Les Alexander, who owned the Rockets. Mayor Bob Lanier offered initial support but backed off after public reaction soured.
On the field, the Oilers were already beginning to dismantle like a director’s chair. Buddy Ryan was offered the head job in Phoenix and left. Kevin Gilbride was promoted then later fired. Defensive ends Sean Jones and William Fuller both left via free agency. Guard Doug Dawson signed with Cleveland while the other guard, Mike Munchack, a future Hall of Famer, retired. None of this sent shockwaves through Houston until Warren Moon was traded to the Vikings for a pair of middle-round draft choices.
With a standing in Houston equaled only by Earl Campbell and Bum Phillips, Moon’s trade ruffled more than a few feathers. Other than one much-discussed brush with the law, Warren was treated like a hero whose talents helped to make the Oilers respectable again after the failures of the early ’80s. He was a frequent face at charity events and he spearheaded his own efforts to raise money for Houston’s unfortunate. Needless to say, trading him wasn’t the best move to make while trying to sell the voters on a new stadium.
Head Coach Jack Pardee must have felt like General Custer. His troops were deserting him. He and Adams wanted Buddy Ryan’s defense to remain, even without Ryan so they named Jeff Fisher, a former player and assistant under Ryan, their new defensive coordinator.
Cody Carlson would now quarterback the new offense but he separated his shoulder in the season opener. In stepped a gutsy young man named Bucky Richardson. The NFL had probably not seen a QB with less physical skills since Joe Kapp led Minnesota to Super Bowl IV. But he was legendary at Texas A&M for his ability to win games with his arm, his legs, his will, his guile – whatever it took. Bucky was Houston’s last draft pick in 1992 and saw only mop-up and special teams duties for two years.
Richardson might be best remembered for a play during an exhibition game against Dallas. With Bucky at the helm late in the game, the Oiler offense began clicking and pulled away to win. Who wouldn’t be inspired after seeing Richardson, his right arm yanked by a Cowboy defender, switching the ball to his left hand and completing the pass with his other arm? That was Classic Bucky.
But in the regular season, when real bullets begin to fly, it was clear Richardson was overmatched. In the most telling moment of the 1994 season, the Oilers were again in Dallas when the offense caused a false start and the play was whistled dead. After everyone else had slowed down, Charles Haley bolted across the line of scrimmage and decked Bucky with a vicious tackle. So flagrant was the late hit, it should have drawn a personal foul and a possible ejection. But no flag was thrown and no Oiler came to Bucky’s defense. Clearly the Oilers had already quit. It was just the second week of the season.
Houston lost that game, 20-17, and plenty others followed. The Oilers dropped nine of their first ten, beating only Dave Shula’s equally hapless Cincinnati Bengals.
It was Fisher’s defense that kept the Oilers in several of the games. Three losses happened even though the Oiler defense did not surrender a touchdown. After a loss in Cincinnati, the decision was made to relieve Pardee of the head coaching job. Gilbride was shown the door, too. The 36-year-old Fisher was named interim boss. And with that, out went the Run and Shoot. Fullbacks and tight ends were once again welcome in Houston.
The remaining Oilers played hard under their new coach but could win only the season finale against the Jets. The effort was enough to remove “interim” from Fisher’s job title. The Oilers were 2-14 and back on familiar ground. The seven consecutive playoff appearances seemed like a distant memory.
Bucky, Cody and Billy Joe Tolliver, the third quarterback, were all released. Houston signed journeymen Chris Chandler and Will Furrer to replace them. Their mission was to run the offense while their eventual replacement developed.
His name was Steve “Air” McNair, a strong quarterback with a bazooka for a right arm. He came from a small black college, Alcorn State, and many pro scouts drooled at his physical skills while wondering if playing against weak competition hid his flaws. The Oilers drafted McNair in the first round and promised Houstonians they would develop their new star slowly.
McNair got to experience Oiler reality in the preseason when his first home game for his new team was canceled. It was alleged the Astrodome field was unsafe – the turf too torn up to be playable. Some saw it either as a bargaining ploy or retaliation in the stadium wars. If so, it was a rather expensive way to make a point.
Adams was in the middle of negotiations with the City of Nashville to move the Oilers to Tennessee. Bud found a mayor desperate for a “major league” team who was willing to meet his price and before anyone in Houston took it seriously, Adams had a deal with Nashville. The Oilers were committing to move out of the town Bud Adams called home for most of his life. There were some efforts to try to scuttle the deal and keep the Oilers in Houston but they were often halfhearted. Houstonians never got to vote on a stadium deal that might have kept the Oilers in Texas but there was no assurance it would have passed.
Attendance declined sharply for the lame duck team even though they improved to 7-9 in 1995. Mainstays of Pardee’s Oilers, such as Ernest Givins, Webster Slaughter, Lamar Lathon, Lorenzo White, Bubba McDowell and David Williams were released or found work elsewhere. The team did go after free agents and landed Dallas center Mark Stepnoski and KR Mel Gray, who set NFL records before he got to Houston but seemed only to make costly fumbles in Columbia Blue.
The defense retooled while the offense lived and died with Chris Chandler’s medical chart. When healthy, Chandler was outstanding, like when he hit 23-of-26 for 352 yards and four TDs while beating Cincinnati. When he was not healthy, which, unfortunately, was much more often, the Oilers attack was dead in the water. Shoulder ailments, concussions, elbow problems and mononucleosis were among the ills that plagued the signal-caller.
McNair started the final two games in a stripped-down offense and Houston won both. It offered what little optimism any remaining Oiler fans could cling to.
The Oilers thought they’d be in Tennessee for 1996 but they had to play one more swan song in the Astrodome. They worked out an agreement to get out of their lease a year early but they had to buy off the city, county and the Astrodome to do it.
It gave Houstonians one season to admire the fourth Heisman Trophy winner in team history, RB Eddie George (there was one each decade – Billy Cannon in the ’60s, Earl Campbell in the ’70s, Mike Rozier in the ’80s and Eddie George in the ’90s). George was another solid first-round choice who showed skills both as a runner and a receiver. The draft added several players who would eventually blossom in Nashville.
The Oilers lost their final game in the Astrodome but won on the road in Baltimore, 24-21, in their final game representing Houston. The win also meant that, at 8-8, they did not go out as losers. George was the workhorse, gaining 1,368 yards rushing during the season. McNair started four games, twice as many as his rookie campaign.
And so came the divorce – one that left both sides a little frosted. Adams had always been a target for the locals who felt he never spent what it took to reach the Super Bowl. Their viewpoint was perhaps agitated by the constant Super Bowl appearances of their big-spending neighbors to the north. Adams cited the seven-year playoff run and claimed that the team had the fourth-best overall record in the NFL from 1986 to 1995.
“If we had made it to the Super Bowl one time, people wouldn’t keep harping on it,” remarked Bud. “I think the perceptions of our organization would have been different.”
Meanwhile, Nashville had to put a new stadium together. The Oilers rejected the field used by Vanderbilt University and, instead, chose to play at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Someone forgot to tell Bud that there’s a fair amount of driving between the two cities and neither much cared for the other. The “Tennessee Oilers” played before sparse, indifferent crowds and finished 8-8 in what seemed like a season with 16 road games. The highlight was a Thanksgiving drilling of the Cowboys in Dallas where the Oilers could be honorary Houstonians in the hearts of many for the final time.
Realizing his mistake, Adams relented and the Oilers played at Vanderbilt’s smaller home in Nashville in 1998. They were inconsistent in going 8-8 yet again.
But 1999 would change everything. The Oiler name was gone, the logo and uniforms changed and the “Tennessee Titans” opened their new Adelphia Coliseum in downtown Nashville. They did not lose a home game all year. In the playoffs, you just knew the old Oiler ghosts would rise again. Buffalo punched through a dooming field goal in the wild card game to end the Titans’ season on a sour note.
Only that’s not what happened. Instead, Frank Wycheck and Derrick Mason teamed up for an improbable lateral-return on the ensuing kickoff to pull off an incredible win. The “Music City Miracle” gave those that still cared in Houston, a chance to finally repay the Bills for their 1993 playoff comeback at the Oilers’ expense.
The Titans built from that win road victories over Indianapolis and Jacksonville to reach the Super Bowl in Atlanta. Reaction in Houston was mixed. Some were glad to see many of the old Oilers finally make the “Big One”. Some were miffed that Nashville got to revel in a Super Bowl after two years while Houston fans had waited more than 30 with nothing to show for it. Others had forgotten the Oilers entirely.
It was the Carpetbagger Bowl as Tennessee, nee Houston, met the St. Louis Rams, nee Los Angeles and Cleveland. Here, the Oiler tradition rose again as the Titans’ comeback fell one lousy yard short at the final gun.
Houston was warned that they’d be locked out of the NFL for many years if they let the Oilers leave. As it turned out, the wait took only six. And they didn’t have to steal a team from somewhere else to do it. Instead, they took it from a city that didn’t want one.
Bob Hulsey has a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked in print and radio covering sports throughout Texas since 1976. He presently works for a telecommunications company in Austin.
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