Houston Oilers' strange lame-duck season gave NFL a blueprint in how not to do relocation
HOUSTON – In one key way, Houston is the perfect place for Super Bowl LI: The city loves its football.
The Houston Texans have sold out every game since their first season in 2002. This week, you can’t go anywhere without a reminder that the Super Bowl is here. Everyone seems to be enjoying the attention as the center of the football universe.
It makes the Houston Oilers’ awful, lame duck season here a little more than 20 years ago seem even more surreal.
The 1996 Oilers provided a sad and weird final chapter for a team that was once beloved. The Oilers were supposed to play in Houston again in 1997, but it was so bad in 1996 that owner Bud Adams decided to buy out its lease and move instead of doing it all over again.
The early move led to two more awkward seasons as the Oilers awaited completion of their permanent stadium in Nashville. Franchise relocation is never easy, and the NFL is dealing with it again.
“It was handled so poorly,” Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews said. “If anything – I think about the Rams and Chargers – we set an example in how you don’t want to move a franchise. It was a wreck.”
“It was weird,” 1996 Oilers safety Blaine Bishop said. “I feel for the teams moving now, but I’m sure they won’t go through what we went through.”
It was so bad, general manager Floyd Reese apologized to the players at one point.
“I told the team once that season, ‘The NFL environment is not like this,’” Reese said. “’What we’re going through is not the NFL.’”
One thing everyone associated with the 1996 Oilers remembers is how quiet the games were. They had to be careful about what was said during home games in the Astrodome that season because everyone could be heard.
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“I was up in the coaches’ box in the press box, and the windows were open. I remember calling down to the offensive coaches on the sideline to tell them to quiet the quarterback down – when he called plays in the huddle, I could hear them in the box,” Reese said.
“[Wide receivers/tight ends coach] Les Steckel tells a good story, he was on the sideline for pregame warmups, having a regular conversation with his wife who was 30 rows up,” 1996 Oilers tight end Frank Wycheck said. “He wasn’t yelling, it was just a normal conversation.”
Only 15,131 people showed up to the final Houston Oilers home game. The Houston Dynamo Major League Soccer team has never averaged less than 15,883 in a season here. The University of Houston’s football team never played in front of a home crowd smaller than 35,846 last season. The Oilers played in front of five regular-season crowds of less than 28,000 in 1996.
For years the Oilers were a huge draw in Houston, and many people here still love those teams. How did it get that bad in 1996?
Through most of the Oilers’ existence Houston was known as one of the best and loudest crowds in the NFL. The Astrodome shook in 1978 when Earl Campbell made himself a star while Howard Cosell had to scream to be heard on “Monday Night Football.”
“So they stand as one … look out America, here comes Houston!” Cosell exclaimed over the din after a Campbell touchdown in a famous win over Miami. “America’s fastest growing city, and right now, in this arena, America’s football team!”
In 1993, the Astrodome was on fire as Warren Moon led the Oilers to 11 straight wins and an AFC Central title.
“When the dome was rocking like that, you’d feel it in your neck hairs,” said Matthews, who was drafted by the Oilers in 1983 and has a book about his career called “Inside the NFL’s First Family.”
“The energy was great.”
“I lived off the fans,” said Bishop, whose rookie season was 1993. “I did things I didn’t think I could do. It was awesome.”
It went bad quickly. The reason the Oilers’ situation turned south is familiar: It was over public money for a new stadium. The Astrodome was falling apart and the Oilers wanted something better.
“It was a dump,” longtime Houston Chronicle writer John McClain said. “When it opened, it was known as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.’ When it ended, it was the eighth best dome in the NFL.”
McClain said the Oilers had a terrible lease as well, and Adams saw how the relocated Rams had a favorable deal in St. Louis, their new city. Adams wanted something better for himself and his team in Houston. He wanted $186 million in public money for a new stadium, McClain said. Politicians dug in against Adams, who was awkward at public relations, and the tide shifted against him quickly. Anyone who spoke up publicly for Adams was ridiculed.
“Nobody came out and said, ‘Let’s at least listen to what Bud has to say,’” McClain said.
A 2-14 season in 1994, when Adams was trying to get public money for a new stadium, was terribly timed. Adams was quickly becoming the enemy in Houston.
“People cared about the Oilers. People did not care about Bud Adams,” McClain said.
Then Nashville entered the picture.
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“Bud called me up to his office and asked, ‘What do you know about Nashville, Tennessee?’” Reese said. “I said, “Well, there’s country music. That’s about it.’ He said, ‘There’s a good chance we’ll be moving there, so you need to familiarize yourself with it.’ It happened so fast.”
The rumors became reality during the 1995 season when Adams agreed to move his team to Nashville. The Oilers didn’t deal with just one lame duck season in Houston; they had two.
“It deteriorated so quickly,” Reese said. “It seemed like it happened overnight. You went from not being able to get a ticket to having any section you wanted.”
Matthews remembers a home game in 1995 against the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, when the Jaguars got their first-ever win. The Astrodome held more than 60,000 for football, but only 36,346 were there to watch the Oilers lose to the lowly Jaguars. That day was a sign that things were changing for the worse.
“Even the booing wasn’t as passionate,” Matthews said.
The 1996 Oilers players interviewed credited coach Jeff Fisher with trying to keep the focus on football. But the fight between Adams, the city and the fans was hard to ignore. It was the main topic in Houston day after day.
“We weren’t getting any feedback about if we were going to move,” said Jon Runyan, a rookie offensive tackle on the 1996 Oilers. “All the info you were getting was from the newspapers.”
The crowds thinned in a hurry. It didn’t feel like the NFL anymore.
“You’re doing your dream job, but nobody was showing up,” said Runyan, who played the previous year in front of huge crowds at the University of Michigan. “It was like being in high school.”
When professional teams relocate, a lot of attention is paid to the politics of the move, the fans left behind or the reception the team will get in its new city. What’s rarely discussed is how many employees are forced to move. Runyan said he was dating a mechanical engineer he met at Michigan, and she asked him in 1996 if she should move to Houston or take a job with Boeing in Seattle.
“I said, ‘Don’t come to Houston, I could be out of here in six months,’” said Runyan, a former U.S. Congressman who is now the NFL’s vice president of policy and rules administration. “She moved to Seattle and that was the end of the relationship.”
The players were obviously affected, as were many behind the scenes.
“I’d have people coming to me daily – an equipment manager or a ticket manager – and asking, ‘Am I going to go or stay?’” Reese said. “And I’d tell them the truth: I didn’t know.”
Some players were young and hadn’t set deep roots in Houston. But Matthews had five children and had lived in Houston more than 10 years. The team was moving to Tennessee but his family and children were happy in Houston.
“I was like, what do I do?” Matthews said.
The first Oilers season in Tennessee, Matthews’ family stayed in Houston. He had a three-bedroom apartment in Nashville and his family would fly in for home games. The rest of his career, the kids’ first semester would be spent in Tennessee and they’d go back to Houston for the offseason and their second semester. Matthews played through the 2001 season, when he was 40, and while he admitted that he might have retired no matter what, the moving erased any doubts.
“I didn’t want the kids switching schools anymore,” Matthews said.
During all the turmoil, in front of the disappearing crowds, a funny thing was happening on the field: The Oilers had become a talented team. They had a young quarterback named Steve McNair and a rookie running back named Eddie George to headline a suddenly competitive roster. But how could a good team focus though all that uncertainty? The Oilers had a very unusual split in 1996: 6-2 on the road, 2-6 at home. They lost their last five home games.
“It was an emotionally empty dome,” Matthews said.
The Oilers played their final game in Houston on Dec. 15, 1996 in front of a crowd that minor league baseball teams might appreciate, but was shocking for an NFL game. The crowd of just over 15,000 was the smallest in Houston Oilers history and looked especially bad in the large Astrodome. The Oilers lost 21-13 to the Cincinnati Bengals.
McClain went outside of the stadium after the game to see Adams leave. He says about 100 fans were there to boo and yell at Adams, and that angry group ended up throwing whatever they could at Adams’ limo while trying to block it.
“I thought at the time, what must it be like to be Bud Adams, the most vilified man in Houston,” McClain said.
It was no surprise Adams made sure there would not be another season in Houston. He had to buy out the lease and the Titans had to play in Memphis, which was more than 200 miles from what would be their new home in Nashville, but at least it wasn’t Houston.
Some players thought that Memphis season was far worse than the last Houston season. Memphis didn’t land the Oilers; Nashville did. There was little reason for people there to support the team. The Oilers had their day-to-day operations in Nashville, and would fly to home games in Memphis. Their families would bus three-plus hours to see the games. They played under the awkward “Tennessee Oilers” name for two years before rebranding.
The temporary practice facilities in Nashville were not up to NFL standards. They shared a building with a doctor’s office and had temporary trailers for meetings, without much in the way of walls between meeting rooms.
“You could hear the offense talking while we were talking in our room,” Bishop said. “It was like, what? But you’d focus on what you could control.”
Wycheck remembered that there was only one practice field, and one day when there was bad weather, the team had to practice in the parking lot.
“That was professional football with a lowercase ‘p,’” Matthews said.
“It was crazy,” Bishop said. “It was like, this is how it goes down? This is the NFL? This is ridiculous.”
The Oilers moved to Nashville and played at Vanderbilt University for the 1998 season. In 1999 they were finally in their permanent home with a name change to “Tennessee Titans.”
The Titans made the Super Bowl in 1999, and they credited the adversity of the previous four years for building an AFC championship team. A young team was dealing with ridiculous circumstances, but at least they were doing it together.
“It built our resiliency,” Bishop said. “It made us closer, naturally. We felt like there was nothing we couldn’t overcome.”
Houston bounced back too. McClain said he didn’t think NFL football was ever coming back to Houston when the Oilers left. The league wanted to expand to Los Angeles but L.A. couldn’t get its stadium situation settled. Houston, with new owner Bob McNair, ended up with the Texans. McClain remembers the day Houston was awarded the Texans: March 16, 1999. This time, it was done right.
“McNair was the antithesis of Bud,” McClain said. “Everyone loves McNair. He’s the most unassuming billionaire I’ve ever met.”
The Texans got a new stadium, thanks in part to public financing. The Houston Rockets, Houston Astros and Houston Dynamo have relatively new stadiums too, all built with the help of public financing. It’s easy to look at those stadiums and wonder, why couldn’t that have happened for the Oilers?
“I guess I don’t even know why they couldn’t have gotten it done,” said Wycheck, who co-hosts a radio show in Nashville. “Why did we have to move? I don’t understand how it got that bad, that an NFL team moved away.”
It all worked out eventually. The Titans’ results on the field have been uneven but they draw good crowds. Houston got another team and a beautiful stadium that will host Super Bowl LI. Even though there is a new chapter in Houston football, people still remember the Oilers fondly.
Matthews still lives in the Houston area and said he’s amazed how many people still want to talk to him about the Oilers. And even though the crowds were small that final Oilers season in Houston, Matthews looks at those final games a different way.
“I remember the loyal fans were loyal to the end,” Matthews said. “Maybe it was only 15,000 people, but they were loyal. And I was appreciative of it.”
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