April 25, 2000
The Oilers needed to upgrade their running game but the player they wanted seemed out of their reach. RB Earl Campbell was the consensus top collegian in 1977. The University of Texas back had led his team to the top of the rankings and earned the Heisman Trophy. A Cotton Bowl loss soured the storybook season for the kid from Tyler. Earl, like Bum Phillips, was a laid-back Texan who loved country music, pickup trucks and a plug of tobacco. He was just what Bum wanted.
“I remember Franco Harris having a great night (against the Oilers in 1975),” said Phillips. “That might have been the night I made up my mind that I wanted a back like him. I wanted those other coaches to have to face that every week.”
Campbell played like a man against boys. At 5′ 11″ and 230 lbs, Campbell possessed the power to fight off tacklers running inside and the speed to elude them running outside. Combined with the toughness and dedication to meet any challenge, 29 other GMs drooled at the idea of having Earl in their backfield. With the 17th pick of the first-round, there was no way Campbell would be available when it was Houston’s time to choose.
Tampa Bay had the top choice and they had the previous year’s top collegiate runner, Ricky Bell. Rumors swirled that the Buccaneers would trade away the top pick but the price would surely be steep. Two weeks before the draft, Phillips called his Tampa counterpart, John McKay, to see what it would take to get the top pick. He was surprised to hear that the asking price was a first and second rounder, a third-round choice the following year, and the Bucs wanted TE Jimmie Giles. Bum agreed on the spot. McKay said he’d talk to the owner and call back. When they talked again, McKay had added a new demand – a fifth-round pick. Bum didn’t blink. The Oilers were getting Earl Campbell.
The news spread through Houston and the switchboards buzzed with ticket requests for weeks afterward. The Oilers managed to make some other sound picks on draft day that went unnoticed. Their third-round choice was QB Gifford Nielsen. WR Mike Renfro was selected next and later the Oilers nabbed DB J.C. Wilson. Through a trade, Houston got WR/TE Rich Caster from the Jets.
Bum didn’t emphasize winning pre-season games and the Oilers went through another 1-3 exhibition schedule. That one win was against the Cowboys and Campbell rambled for 151 yards. Excitement around Houston had not dulled. The NFL expanded the regular season from 14 to 16 games. Bum was going to find out just how strong a horse he had claimed.
There were some concerns about Earl’s hamstrng injuries in college. In his senior year, Campbell wore support panty hose under his pants – a product which kept his massive legs from pulling muscles as he ran. While Joe Namath had donned them for commercials, Earl was the first to wear them on the field. Now a pro, Campbell also grew a beard during the season to ease the discomfort of wearing a chinstrap.
The season opened in Atlanta and Campbell opened eyes catching an outlet pass from QB Dan Pastorini, dashing 73 yards for a score. The pass was later officially changed to a lateral, becoming part of Campbell’s 137 yards rushing on the day. In a sense, the play was misleading. Campbell never showed much skill catching the ball and would have just 12 receptions his rookie year. Houston lost to Atlanta, 20-14.
Earl displayed his power two weeks later against the Rams. Lowering his shoulder into LB Isiah Robertson, Campbell flattened the All-Pro, dragged a safety for five yards and clobbered DE Jack Youngblood. His powerful stiff-arm and his frequently-tattered tear-away jerseys made him a nightmare for defenders who could hardly grab him high or low. One man wasn’t bringing him down.
Campbell rushed for over 100 yards five times in their first seven games. It wasn’t all roses. Campbell missed one game with a pulled hamstring. His goal-line fumble against Oakland sparked a Raider rally that humbled Houston, 21-17. The Oilers had dominated nobody and clung to a 4-3 record going into a Monday Night game at Pittsburgh against the 7-0 Steelers. Campbell punished the mighty Steeler defense for 89 yards and three scores in a 24-17 upset.
“I’ve been here eight years,” said Pastorini, who completed 13 of 19 passes. “I’ve never had a more satisfying victory.”
Three weeks later, the Oilers trailed New England, 23-0, at halftime. By now, defenses stacked the line to stop Campbell and this opened up the passing game. Pastorini sparkled as the Oilers roared back for a 26-23 win. They were now 7-4.
The next game was a Monday Night affair against Miami at the Dome. The ABC program had become a frenzied circus that centered around outspoken commentator Howard Cosell. In the prime-time spotlight, Campbell and Miami’s Bob Griese were both masterful. Tied at 14 at the half and tied at 21 after three quarters, the game was in doubt until late in the fourth quarter when Campbell took a pitchout and dashed down the sidelines for 81 yards and a clinching score. Columbia blue pom poms waved everywhere as Cosell gushed about Earl’s outstanding performance – 199 yards and four TD’s. Houston won, 35-30. The game is still regarded as one of the best in NFL history. It left no doubt that the Oilers had joined pro football’s elite.
Campbell’s night returned him to the league’s lead in rushing yards. He would eventually win the crown with 1,450 yards, a 4.8 average, 13 TD’s and a slew of post-season hardware.
Houston split the final four games to finish 10-6. It was a deceptive record. The average margin of victory in those ten wins was 4.5 points. They were outscored during the regular season, 298-283. Still, it was enough to reach the playoffs as a wild card team and Houston fans considered it a satisfying year.
The Oilers’ first post-season game since 1967 was in Miami where the Dolphins sought revenge. The home team struck first on Griese’s TD toss but the Oilers responded when Pastorini hit FB Tim Wilson for a 12-yard score.
Pastorini had been in the hospital for three days the week of the game. He had a strained hamstring, a bruised elbow and a sore knee. Worst of all, he had three broken ribs suffered in a 13-3 Steeler mauling three weeks before. As legend has it, an inventor came to Pastorini’s room to show him some special padding. He coaxed the quarterback to try on the pads which fit around his midsection. The stranger then attacked it with a baseball bat. Dan felt no pain. The “flak jacket” soon became standard NFL equipment.
The 7-7 deadlock held until the fourth quarter. A 35-yarder by Toni Fritsch gave Houston the lead then Campbell sealed it with a one-yard plunge. Houston advanced, 17-9. The flak-jacketed Pastorini threw for 309 yards. Ken Burrough and Mike Barber both gained over 100 yards. The Houston defense forced five turnovers.
New Year’s Eve in New England was the next assignment. The Oilers already knew how to attack the Patriot defense. Pastorini hit Burrough with a 71-yard bomb. Two TD tosses to Barber led to a 21-0 halftime lead. The Oilers could then run the NFL’s best back at them to coast to a 31-14 victory. It was, by far, their easiest win all season.
The AFC Championship Game against arch-rival Pittsburgh was all that stood between the Oilers and their first trip to the Super Bowl. Dreams of an All-Texas match up with the hated Dallas Cowboys became the talk of Houston.
“The world’s not ready for it,” joked Bum. “You think we’re obnoxious now, you just wait and see.”
Pittsburgh’s winter weather was wet, cold and nasty but the Steeler defense was even nastier. The icy field was all the advantage the Steelers needed as they bottled up Campbell, devoured Pastorini and cruised to a 34-5 thrashing. Nine turnovers hurt the Oiler cause.
“You gotta look it square in the eye,” proclaimed Phillips afterwards. “They had their best day. We didn’t. The behinder we got, the worse it got.”
The Oiler ride, so bumpy over the course of the year then unexpectedly awash in playoff success, had fallen flatter than a bad souffle. But it wasn’t quite over.
The bad weather in Pittsburgh led to a three-hour delay returning to Houston. A pep rally, win or lose, had been organized at the Astrodome by a Houston radio station. Such a thorough beating would have expectedly muted the turnout but such was not the case. Houston’s love for Bum and his Oilers had become so deep that a mob greeted the team when it arrived at Houston Intercontinental Airport, followed them to the Dome and became part of a packed house that poured out their appreciation for their vanquished warriors. It was, to all, a moving experience.
“This wasn’t the end of the world,” remarked Campbell, “just the end of the season.”
“This is the beginning of 1979 for us,” added Barber.
The City of Houston, long the butt of sport jokes, suffering through not only the shortcomings of the Oilers but also the Rockets and Astros, embraced their team with heads held high. One bad day in January wasn’t going to deter their enthusiasm.
The future of the Oilers suddenly seemed as bright as ever.
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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