October 14, 2004
by Bob Hulsey
It’s football season but a lot of Houston’s sports fans are paying less attention than usual. The torrid ascent of a left-for-dead Houston Astro team that finally ended their 42-year frustration over postseason failures has distracted even many Texan fans who looked forward to the third-year franchise’s transition from expansion team to playoff contender.
But the Astros’ fortunes are good news for the Texans. Houston’s sports franchises have tended to mimic the successes and failures of their counterparts in other major professional sports.
The Houston Oilers and the Houston Aeros won championships in the old American Football League and World Hockey Association, respectively. While both championships were nicely received locally, they were looked upon as equivalent to winning an Arena Football League or WNBA title now. For the top tier of sport leagues, Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, Houston might as well have been Loserville. The Astros, Oilers and Rockets were as far from prime time in the 1960s and 1970s as Houston is if you walked there from Dallas.
The first rumblings of change began with the NBA Rockets in 1977. Positioned in the Eastern Division back then, the Rockets fought the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference semi-finals behind the still-familiar names of Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich. Next, the NFL Oilers rode into the 1978 playoffs behind a drawling coach named Bum Phillips and a hoss named Earl Campbell. Last to join the surge to respectability were the Astros who led their division most of the 1979 season with talent like Jose Cruz and J.R. Richard before coming up short at the end.
The next couple of years were heady times for Houston sports fans. The Oilers made it to the AFC Championship game twice, the Astros won their first division crown and made their first two playoff appearances and the Rockets rebounded behind Moses Malone to make the NBA Finals in 1981. None made it to the Promised Land but they all provided excitement for Houston fans that they’d never before experienced.
Then they all went noticeably downhill together. But the Rockets led the charge again, reaching the NBA Finals in 1986 behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. The Astros returned to the playoffs behind Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan. The Oilers? Ehh, that took a little longer but they progressed under Jerry Glanville and Jack Pardee to make a run of seven straight years in the playoffs beginning in 1987.
All those achievements lacked something: a league championship. In some cases, glory was denied in excruciating fashion – blowing a 5-2 lead with six outs to go, blowing a 3-0 lead with three outs to go, blowing a 32-point second half lead. Even the University of Houston Cougars weren’t immune to the disease, losing the 1983 NCAA Basketball title to a heavy underdog on a flukish buzzer-beater.
Houston had become "Choke City".
The Rockets finally restored the city’s pride with an NBA title in 1994 and made an improbable run to defend their title in 1995 with Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler winning for Houston the championship they failed to win as Cougars in 1983. The Astros were building up to their playoff run of 1997-1999 with Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell the stars.
The Oilers? They stunk again. And then they left town which led to the birth of the Texans.
Nobody is predicting the Texans for instant fame and glory. Getting to .500 or a playoff berth is as much as we could hope for this year and possibly next. But the energy and enthusiasm generated by the Astros’ late-season magic and the prospect of new horizons for the Rockets behind Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady signal an upswing in optimism and good karma that should infect the Texans as well.
The Texans play to full houses every week and are already developing a fan base that makes Reliant Stadium a tough place for opponents to succeed. They’ve already pulled off some amazing upsets and soon the rest of the league won’t be shocked when the Texans knock off good teams.
Psychologically, it will only help the Texans that the Astros and Rockets are on the upswing. How quickly the Texans join them in this cycle of winning is hard to predict but a high tide of civic enthusiasm lifts all the local boats. I expect the Texans to be winners sooner rather than later.
The typically negative Bob Hulsey was seized by aliens and replaced by this kinder, gentler, more optimistic one. At least till the next postseason choke.
Rudy Tomjanovich Home