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Luv Ya Blue

  • Mar 10, 2012
As I mentioned in my review of the Houston Texans, the city of Houston, Texas once had one of the great football teams of the AFL/AFC. Its history is linked to the Tennessee Titans, since this team has been the Titans only since 1997. Actually, going into even more detail, they moved to Tennessee in 1997 and became the Tennessee Oilers until 1999, when they changed their name to the Titans. Team owner Bud Adams did that in response to fan requests, but announced that the renamed team would be holing on to the history, heritage, and records of their Houston days. (A mixed blessing, really.) The new name came through an advisory committee, and Adams said he wanted the name to reflect power, strength, leadership, and other heroic qualities. The committee came up with the Titans nickname, which not only fit with those qualities but also kept in line with the nickname of their new home in Nashville, Tennessee, which is nicknamed The Athens of the South for its higher learning institutions, classical architecture, and full-scale replica of the Parthenon.

That original team from Houston is inextricably linked to the Titans because they played such a huge role in the history of the AFL. When Lamar Hunt decided he was going to undercut the NFL and form the AFL, in fact, team owner Bud Adams was one of the first people he called. In 1960, Adams set up his AFL team: The Houston Oilers. The Oilers were an immediate success in he AFL, winning the first two AFL Championship games and playing in the third, which they lost to their cross-state rivals, Hunt's Dallas Texans. During their initial AFL years, the Houston Oilers Jeppesen Stadium first, then Rice Stadium, before moving to their permanent home in the Astrodome, making them the first professional football team to play in a domed stadium. You now know who to blame.

The Oilers scored a major victory over the NFL when they managed to lure LSU running back Billy Cannon, who had won the Heisman along with All-America honors, joining other offensive stars like George Blanda, Charlie Hennigan, Charlie Tolar, and Bob Talamini. After those first titles, the Oilers proceeded to win their division in 1967, but began a tumble in 1969, which was their last year as an AFL team. They began 3-1, but stumbled to go 6-6-1.

The trend continued when the Oilers spent the first few years of their existence in the NFL bottoming out. their best season being a four-win year in 1971, accented by a pair of one-win seasons the following two years. In 1974, Hall of Fame coach Sid Gilman managed to crack the .500 mark again, but it was the next year the Oilers got their new coach Bum Phillips, who would spend the next six years guiding talented players like Elvin Bethea and Billy Johnson. Under Phillips, the Oilers had their first winning season in the 70's in 1975, stumbled the next year, and returned to winning in 1977. Then in 1978, one of the defining Oilers players of all time arrived when University of Texas football legend Earl Campbell donned the columbia blue uniforms of Houston. They went to the AFC Championship that year, but were beat by the Pittsburgh Steelers, denying them entry to their first Super Bowl.

The 80's saw a bunch more lean years in the early goings and one of those uber-annoying coach carousels. No one could seem to have any luck with the Oilers, but they did do something in 1984 that improved them substantially for the next decade when they won a bidding war for Warren Moon, a CFL legend who had set nearly every significant passing record in the league while leading the Edmonton Eskimos to five straight Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982. Although the Oilers continued to flounder under another bad coach - Hugh Campbell this time - and the aging Earl Campbell was traded, sunnier days were on the horizon when the Oilers fired Hugh Campbell and replaced him with Jerry Glanville, who had them back in the playoffs by 1987. Glanville was a good coach, but he wasn't great, and so the Oilers let him go after the 1989 season and replaced him with Jack Pardee, who transformed the Oilers into a a real contender in the early 90's.

Bud Adams was seen as an instigator of his team's many misfortunes because he has a tendency to try to manage the team instead of just sitting on his ass, writing checks, and watching football. In 1993, he displayed this tendency at its worst and most arrogant. By 1993, the Oilers had made six playoff appearances, losing three times in the Wild Card round and three times in the Divisionals. And Adams, fed up, decided that if the Oilers didn't make the Super Bowl in 1993, he would break the team. The Oilers went 12-4 that year, which was their best record in Texas, but lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Kansas City Chiefs. After that, Adams held a fire sale and traded Moon to the Minnesota Vikings. Moon was the heart and soul of the Oilers, and without him, they fell to 2-14 the next year and, despite a couple of respectable outings the next two years, never went back to the playoffs during their tenure in Houston. They did make a smart move in the 1995 draft, however, by drafting a quarterback named Steve McNair, who would soon prove to be a worthy successor to Moon.

Around that time, Adams also began throwing a hissy about a new stadium with the little bells and whistles of other new NFL venues that, you know, generated (more) revenue. Houston's Mayor said no right off the bat and doing that thing owners always do, which is threatening to move if they don't get a new one. Houston wanted to keep the Oilers, mind you, but it wasn't ten years ago when they invested $67 million for improvements to the Astrodome, and with the city still trying to recover from the oil crash of the 80's, they weren't up to giving more money to Adams. Adams, for all his faults as an owner, managed to sense this and began shopping the team around. At the end of the 1995 season, Adams said the Oilers would be headed to Nashville for the 1998 season, and no, that's not a typo. It was certainly nice of Adams to apparently give Houston a little time to see if they could drum up enough support to keep the Oilers around, and the city tried. They promised $144 million for the stadium and another $70 million in ticket sales, but at that point the Dallas Cowboys had emerged as a dynasty and support for the Oilers in Houston was almost gone. 1996 was decent enough on the gridiron; the Oilers had gone 8-8, but they did it while averaging a paltry 20,000 per game in attendance, and the games were so quiet that it was possible to hear on-field conversations in the grandstand. Meanwhile, the team's radio network, once statewide and competitive with the mighty Cowboys, had been reduced to the Houston flagship station and a few places in Tennessee. They were actually cutting off games early in football-crazed Texas for - get this! - preseason basketball. Adams, the city of Houston, and the NFL all agreed that they didn't want this to go on for another season. A rally to save the Oilers drew only 65 people, and so everyone came to an agreement to let the Oilers go a year early.

The arly Tennessee years began with a small problem: The new stadium being built for the Oilers wouldn't be ready until 1999. The largest stadium in Nashville then was Vanderbilt Stadium on the university campus, and it only seated 41,000 people and didn't sell alcohol. Adams rejected it, and instead pulled a very dumb move when he announced that the newly-renamed Tennessee Oilers would spend the next two years BASED in Nashville, but PLAYING in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis. The NFL accepted this, but the good folk in both Memphis and Nashville didn't. The two cities were rivals rather than friends, and while Memphis had applied for an NFL team several times, the people there couldn't be bothered about a team that would be leaving for Nashville in two more years. The people of Nashville weren't happy about the idea driving over 200 miles down the road to watch "their" team play in person especially not with Interstate 40 going through a major reconstruction near Memphis which made a five-hour commute out of a route which was ordinarily three hours long by itself. In 1997, the Oilers spent the year playing in front of small crowds of 27,000 people on their best days, in front of fans who were either indifferent or there to cheer on the other team. (Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium could hold 62,000.) Adams was stubborn, proud, and bull-headed about it, though, and so he announced that the Oilers would return to the Liberty Bowl the next season no matter what. But in the last game of the 1997 season, the Oilers did manage to draw a crowd that would have been too large for Vanderbilt Stadium when 50,677 fans showed up to see them. Or, more accurately, the crowd showed up to see the Pittsburgh Steelers. By one estimate, three-fourths of the crowd were there boosting the popular Steelers. Adams was finally embarrassed enough to scrap the plans for Memphis and let them play at Vanderbilt.

During the 1998 season, Bud Adams decided to listen to his fan requests and change the team name to coincide with the opening of the new stadium and to better connect with the fans in Nashville. In 1999, the former Houston Oilers and former Tennessee Oilers were rechristened with identity they still have today and ran onto the gridiron for the first time as the Tennessee Titans. The people of Nashville appreciated the connection and have responded by selling out every Titans game in Nashville to this day. The team responded with the best season in its history in either Houston or Nashville, going 13-3 and winning the AFC Championship. Although they lost the ensuing Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams, it was one of those rare instances in which the losing team had nothing at all to be ashamed of. The teams were very evenly matched, and played like it. In the end, it seems like the Rams just wanted it more. Over the next few years, the Titans were one of the most dangerous teams in the league, and they took a division title while Steve McNair won an MVP, and in 2002 they went to the AFC Championship. They floundered until 2007 from there, and even let McNair go in 2006. In 2007 they went 10-6, followed by a 13-3 year in 2008, falling into average-ness the next few seasons. Along the way, they drafted Vince Young as their future quarterback, who had his moments and made the Pro Bowl but wasn't quite the franchise guy they were looking for. Between their current running back Chris Johnson and their current quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and their 9-7 record in 2011, things are looking upward for the Titans, if not straight up.

The legacy of the Tennessee Titans is one of a lot of heartbreak and frustration. Some years ago, an Oilers diehard by the name of John Pirkle took it upon himself to write a detailed chronological history of the team, and his book, Oiler Blues, was subtitled "The Story of Pro Football's Most Frustrating Team." As a person who watched and cheered the Buffalo Bills growing up, I know a lot about frustration, and I can authoritatively say Pirkle has every right to call them that. Despite the early AFL successes, the legacy of this team is rife with brief periods of success interspersed with periods of not only futility, but total dysfunction. In their first 27 years in professional football, the Oilers had a whopping three stretches where they had five head coaches in six years. Even in good years, the team was never good at closing. In one year in the 80's, the team's fortunes for the postseason once rested on a single play known as Stagger Lee, a risky maneuver depending on mismatches which the team had never used. It backfired and the team ended up being embarrassed. In the 1991 playoffs, the Oilers were leading in the Divisionals with two minutes left in the game when they fell victim to one of John Elway's final-minute heroics. The next year's Wild Card round was even worse; Houston ran up a 35-3 lead early in the third quarter which they proceeded to totally squander, losing to an injury-riddled Buffalo Bills team which had been forced into fielding its backup quarterback, running back, and several defensive players. Known as The Comeback in football parlance, Houston nicknamed that terrible loss The Choke, and Pirkle writes - without the slightest hint of irony, cynicism, or sarcasm - that it was the cause of several broken television sets and at least one suicide.

In 1999, the Oilers were the Titans but they did manage to extract their revenge over Buffalo for The Comeback. In the Divisionals, the Titans and Bills battled it out, and Buffalo managed a touchdown with 16 seconds left to take a 16-15 lead. On the ensuing kickoff return, Frank Wycheck, who had received the ball, tossed a lateral to Kevin Dyson which Dyson ran in to score the winning touchdown. A review was called to see if the lateral was directed forward, but evidence was inconclusive, so the play stood. The play is known as the Music City Miracle in football parlance, although we in Buffalo refer to it as The Forward Lateral. The Titans went on to win the AFC Championship that season, putting them into the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams and their mighty Greatest Show on Turf offense. Tennessee was ready for them, though, and what came of the situation was arguable the greatest Super Bowl ever played. In a game that absolutely lived up to its hype, the Rams would drive deep into Tennessee's territory on every possession, only to be forced to take the field goal by the Titans' top-ranked defense. They didn't manage a touchdown until the third quarter, when they took a 16-0 lead. After that, the Titans managed to score a touchdown of their own, after which they went for two points but failed the conversion. Even so, it sparked them into a rally, and the Titans tied the game with just over two minutes left. Next time the Rams had the ball, Kurt Warner threw a 73-yard touchdown to make it 23-16, and the Titans got the ball back with 1:48 left in the game. On their drive, St. Louis was penalized for some dumb moves, and Titans quarterback Steve McNair sparkled and shined as he passed, ran, shifted, and escaped the Rams defense time after time. Tennessee was at the St. Louis ten-yard line with six seconds left, time enough for one last play. And that play, a slant pass to Kevin Dyson, was executed perfectly. Dyson made the catch and was charging those final few steps into the endzone when he was tackled by Mike Jones and, trying to get the ball over the goal line, he was brought down one yard short of the tying touchdown. Time expired, and the Rams won.

In 2002, the Titans were back in the AFC Championship, but lost to the Raiders. This is pretty much the team's history, whether Houston or Tennessee: Missed opportunity. Granted, they've been much better as a whole since the move to Nashville. The team's coach during that Super Bowl run, Jeff Fisher, actually enjoyed a kind of stability with the team never granted to any of its other coaches. He took over the reins in 1994 and stayed with the Titans until 2010. In a bit of irony, he was just hired as the new coach of the St. Louis Rams.

The league isn't playing any weird games with this team's history and mascots. Those early AFL titles won as the Houston Oilers still belong to the team as the Tennessee Titans. The team's Hall of Famers - Elvin Bethea, George Blanda, Earl Campbell, Ken Houston, Bruce Matthews, Warren Moon, and Mike Munchak - are all equal parts Oilers and Titans lore. Their retired numbers as the Oilers are still retired as the Titans. And when NFL football returned to Houston in 2002, the Houston Texans came into the league totally out of the blue. They are exactly what they are: A new team, and Houston has embraced them as just that, cutting all ties to the Oilers and appreciating their new team for the future of professional football in Houston the Texans will create.

As for Tennessee fans, they seem content with what they have too. Nashville is known as one of the great cities to see if you like music. It's not a bad place to be if you're into football, either.

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Nicholas Croston ()
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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The Tennessee Titans participate in the National Football League (NFL) and are based in Nashville, Tennessee. Tennessee plays its games in the South of the AFC. The Tennessee Titans, founded in 1960, play home games at LP Field and have won two NFL Titles (1960, 1961).
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