THIS PAGE | E-MAIL THIS PAGE
Monday, June 30, 1997
Oilers leave rich legacy of low-budget absurdity
The Houston Oilers, Texas' oldest professional football
team, have apparently played their last home game in the state.
The franchise that began in the American Football League
in August 1959 (predating the Cowboys' entry into the NFL by five
months) already has been approved to move to Nashville, Tenn.,
for the 1999 season, when a new stadium will be ready there.
But the Oilers are negotiating to leave this summer and
play for two seasons in Memphis, Tenn. A look at the 37-year history
of the Oilers in Houston.
By Al Carter / The Dallas Morning News
The Oilers were in business seven seasons before Bud Adams
decided to cough up for a permanent training site outside the
city of Houston. In 1967, after three years of holding camp at
the club's lot at Fannin and Braeswood, Adams took out a lease
on Schreiner Institute in Kerrville - where the original NFL Dallas
Texans had trained in 1952.
Security at the Fannin site was nonexistent. Fans cruised the
perimeter, their car horns blaring. At least, the Oilers figured,
they had fans. They also had spies. The adjacent Shamrock Hilton
provided the perfect perch for binocular-wielding snoops dispatched
by the Oilers' AFL rivals. At least, the Oilers figured, somebody
considered them a threat. Assistant coach Walt Schlinkman shrugged
off the espionage. "Let 'em," Schlinkman said. "They'll
never believe it anyway."
Catches on a shoestring
Bud Adams' favorite means of pinching pennies has always been
pinching players. Charlie Hennigan, one of the club's early receiving
stars, was a high school biology teacher in Louisiana before he
tried out and made the team in 1960. Hennigan kept a pay stub
in his helmet as a constant reminder that he made exactly $2,724.18
during his final year of teaching. In football, Hennigan knew,
he could make twice the money in half the time. Yet, in 1965,
Hennigan threatened to retire from the Oilers. Hennigan believed
his 1964 performance qualified him for a raise. Adams disagreed.
And just what had Hennigan done in 1964 that was so special?
He caught 101 passes - the most in pro football history.
Hennigan stayed on for two more seasons. Tight end Willie Frazier
wasn't sure he would make it through one. On a team flight in
1964, Frazier's rookie year, the plane was forced to return to
Houston shortly after takeoff. With one engine down and another
sputtering, the pilot come on the intercom and made a crackly
announcement that he was about to fly out over the Gulf of Mexico
and "drop fuel."
Frazier panicked. A teammate asked him what was wrong.
Frazier was only a rookie, he explained. And now the pilot
was going to have to "drop a few." Frazier figured he
was a goner, for sure.
For richer, for poorer
Mac Haik, a pass-catching standout at Ole Miss, was the first
player drafted by the Oilers in 1968. He caught Houston's first
touchdown pass in the Astrodome and proved to be a brilliant rookie.
Then injuries set it. Tired of "backing up to the pay window,"
as he put it, Haik retired after only four pro seasons.
He went into the real estate business and made a million dollars.
He branched out into the car business and got even richer.
Haik probably left the Oilers in the nick of time. In the early
1970s, Bud Adams decided to invest in a new isotonic drink called
QuicKick. It became the official thirst-quencher at Oilers practices.
Haik took a few swigs one day and declared for the press: "This
stuff works. I don't know if it really quenches your thirst -
or if it just tastes so bad that you don't want to drink any more."
Adams lost millions on QuicKick.
Bud Adams made his first fortune finding oil where no one else
cared to look. Figuring the world was similarly bloated with undiscovered
football talent, Adams set out to find it.
In 1966, he fired team scout "Red Dog" Ettinger;
the firing was all pretense. In reality, Ettinger was assigned
to head up Operation Cross-Check, a $250,000 scheme to locate
and sign all the great players Adams knew the rest of pro football
While Ettinger gathered 325 part-time agents and set up a minor-league
front in Arizona, Adams did his part. While dining out one night,
Adams took notice of the South American waiter. Might be a great
kicker, Adams thought. The owner invited the waiter out for a
middle-of-the-night tryout at Jeppesen Stadium. Adams turned on
the lights and, with the help of a friend, applied a rush while
the waiter took his whacks at the ball. Adams signed him.
More than 100 Cross-Check recruits showed up at training camp
in July. Nine failed their physicals. Twenty-nine were cut the
first day. Not a single Cross-Check discovery made the team -
and two of the rejects sued Adams.
Both Operation Cross-Check and "Red Dog" Ettinger
faded from the scene, much to the relief of Oilers coaches. Ettinger
had long been a source of irritation to the staff, partly because
of his habit of sneaking into the meeting room and drawing mice
on the chalkboard. One day, Ettinger left a drawing of a piece
of Gouda cheese. Asked to explain, Ettinger pointed to his mice.
"Well," he said, "them little rascals gotta
Deals of misfortune
The Oilers' contributions to the Pro Football Hall of Fame
can barely be called Oilers contributions. Consider the case of:
- Ken Houston. One of the NFL's best safeties, Houston was
traded by the Oilers to Washington in 1973 for five players and
a middle-round draft choice. The Oilers' only real dividend in
the deal was tight end Mack Alston, who caught 72 passes over
four seasons. Ken Houston played eight more seasons with the Redskins
and became a Hall of Famer.
- Charlie Joiner. A promising receiver, Joiner was traded by
the Oilers to Cincinnati in 1972 along with linebacker Ron Pritchard
for running backs Fred Willis and Paul Robinson. Willis gave the
Oilers 2,241 yards in five seasons. Joiner went on to stardom
with Cincinnati and San Diego, then went on to the Hall of Fame.
- Steve Largent. The Oilers drafted the Tulsa receiver in the
fourth round in 1976, then marked him for waivers in training
camp. With a shrug, they traded him to Seattle for an eighth-round
pick the following year. The Oilers used that pick to draft Steve
Davis, a wide receiver from Georgia. Davis didn't make the team.
Largent, the NFL's all-time leading receiver when he retired,
made the Hall of Fame.
- Willie Brown. A Grambling product, Brown was cut by the Oilers
as an undrafted free agent. Denver signed him in 1963. Within
a year, Brown was an All-AFL cornerback. Brown went on to Oakland,
where he completed a Hall of Fame career spanning 16 seasons.
Frustration by the sack
Run down the list of the best quarterbacks of the 1970s, and
the names Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw and Bob Griese immediately
come to mind. Many pro football experts think Dan Pastorini might
have joined the list - had he played for any team except Houston.
The Oilers' first-round pick in the 1971 draft, "Dante"
Pastorini weathered four head coaches in his first five seasons.
The Oilers' offensive line was replaced - in its entirety - each
of his first three seasons with the club.
Pastorini broke the NFL record for getting sacked as a rookie,
broke it in 1972 and again in 1973. During one game his rookie
season, he was sacked 15 times. Protocol in the Oilers' huddle
called for at least one lineman to say "I'm sorry" before
Pastorini called the next play. To protect Pastorini's ever-collapsing
rib cage, engineers invented football's first flak jacket.
Bruised, broken and underappreciated, Pastorini suffered his
greatest indignity in the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh
following the 1979 season. A blown call wiped out Pastorini's
apparent touchdown pass to Mike Renfro. The call kept the Oilers
from tying the score in the third quarter and effectively voided
Pastorini's best hope for playing in a Super Bowl.
Three months later, Pastorini was gone. At age 30, he was dealt
to Oakland for 34-year-old Ken Stabler. The Oilers, it was agreed,
had traded for a younger quarterback.
The Oilers' concept of what it takes to be an effective general
manager has long been a source of curiosity and amusement.
Bud Adams' first hire was John Breen, an able roster architect
who outhustled the rest of the AFL for the best available talent.
In 1960, Breen staked out Love Field, the best place, he figured,
to meet connecting flights ferrying home players cut from NFL
camps. Breen had them signed before anyone else knew they had
Breen was director of player personnel at the time. More than
a decade later, Breen became the Oilers' official GM. Adams groomed
him for the job by making him public relations director and then
head of the club's speakers bureau in the intervening years.
In 1966, Adams hired one of his best GMs - Don Klosterman.
After four years, two of them playoff campaigns, Klosterman lost
a power showdown with Adams' chief business adviser and left for
the Baltimore Colts. The adviser, John Collins, declared that
the Oilers did not need a GM. When the team won only three games
in 1970, he backed down and Adams hired Bob Brodhead, who lasted
46 days. He was around just long enough to attend league meetings
in Miami. Each club was limited to two representatives. Adams
and Collins told Brodhead to wait in the hall.
Ladd Herzeg took the cake - the wedding cake, that is.
An Adams accountant-turned-best-boy, Herzeg became GM in 1980.
By 1987, he was out of control. He was arrested after disrupting
a wedding reception at his hotel in Buffalo and punching the groom's
brother. He denied accusations he mooned the wedding party but
offered to resign anyway. Adams kept him. Later that year, Herzeg
was ordered to pay child support in connection with a paternity
suit. Two years later, he punched a sports writer in a Houston
restaurant. He offered again to resign. This time, Adams took
If the Oilers had been as tough on opponents as they were on
sports writers, they might have found their way to the Super Bowl.
Ladd Herzeg's resignation as general manager in 1989 was precipitated,
in part, by a public altercation with Fran Blinebury of the Houston
Chronicle. Giddy with champagne, Herzeg punched Blinebury during
lunch at a Houston restaurant. In 1980, Dan Pastorini shoved Dale
Robertson, then of the Houston Post, through a door and ripped
Robertson's jacket. Local TV caught most of the action.
But the team's penchant for fourth-estate fisticuffs was established
by Bud Adams himself. It happened in 1966 at a meeting of the
AFL brass at the Shamrock Hilton. Al Davis, owner of the Oakland
Raiders, had just been named the league's new commissioner.
Adams was called in from his ranch outside Houston to attend
to urgent league business. Jack Gallagher, the often-acerbic Post
scribe, showed up with a photographer to snap a picture of the
Adams greeted Gallagher with a crack about his bald top. Gallagher,
noting Adams' ranch attire, suggested that Adams might not want
to be photographed with the group. Adams retorted with an ethnic
slur, Gallagher challenged him and, in a flash, the two were rumbling
on the floor. Gallagher landed a punch to Adams' jaw. Adams caught
Gallagher in the nose with his elbow. Davis and Buffalo owner
Ralph Wilson jumped into the pile in an attempt to break up the
The Post carried shots of the tangled combatants across seven
columns on the front page. Other papers ran pictures of Davis
engaged in his first official act as the AFL's new boss - busting
up a brawl.
In recent years, the Oilers have struggled to get players under
contract. The problem in the Oilers' early years was players signing
too many contracts. The courtroom, in fact, became the team's
Minutes after the 1960 Sugar Bowl, the Oilers pulled off the
AFL's first coup by signing halfback Billy Cannon, LSU's Heisman
Trophy winner, under the stadium goalposts. Trouble was, Cannon
already had signed with the NFL's Los Angeles Rams. So the Oilers
went to court and got a California judge to rule that Cannon had
been unduly manipulated by Pete Rozelle, the Rams' general manager
and NFL's soon-to-be commissioner. Cannon quickly developed into
a game-breaker and gave Oilers fans the right to claim superstar
Five years later, the Oilers went to war with the Cowboys over
Oklahoma tackle Ralph Neely, another twice-signed player. The
Oilers won the case, but the Cowboys swung a deal that brought
Neely to Dallas. In return, the Oilers got three draft picks,
some cash - and the chance to play the Cowboys for the first time.
The agreement called for three exhibition games, beginning
in 1967. So began the Governor's Cup series, a mini-tradition
of Texas football plowed up by franchise free agency.
The ones that got away
The Oilers' best who's-who list probably consists of all the
great players who barely missed becoming Oilers. A few worth mentioning:
- Mike Ditka. The Oilers used their first-round pick to claim
Ditka during his senior season at Pitt. Bud Adams lost Ditka to
the Chicago Bears - but he didn't care. Adams made only a modest
bid for Ditka because he was secretly negotiating with Willard
Dewveall, the Bears' other end. Two days after Ditka signed with
Chicago, Dewveall, an SMU product, became the first NFL player
to jump to the AFL. Adams got the goat of George Halas, the Bears'
venerable coach. Halas had to settle for a Hall of Fame tight
- Tommy Nobis. In 1965, the Oilers used their first-round pick
on Nobis, arguably the best defensive player in Texas Longhorns
history. So did the NFL's expansion Atlanta Falcons.
Adams tried every ploy, including a late-night, heart-to-heart
with Nobis in a company plane flying circles above Memorial Stadium
in Austin. When the plane touched down, Nobis was still unsigned.
A low-profile type, Nobis was turned off by Adams' grandstanding.
He also worried about Adams' frequent coaching purges.
In the end, he opted to fly off with the Falcons. It was by
design, while in the air over Houston, that Nobis signed his Atlanta
- Donny Anderson. After losing Nobis, Adams shoveled out every
enticement to keep the Texas Tech star from signing with Green
Bay. Houston's offer included 16 gas stations, a dream house in
River Oaks and a lifetime job for Anderson's dad. Green Bay offered
only two-thirds as much. When Adams learned that Anderson was
talking to Green Bay anyway, he spitefully cut his offer by $230,000
to match Green Bay's. Anderson - surprise! - chose the Packers.
"My confidence in American youth," Adams said, "is
just about shattered."
- Joe Namath. The New York Jets used the No. 1 pick in the
1965 draft to claim Alabama's star quarterback. That pick had
belonged to Houston. The Oilers swapped it for the rights to quarterback
Jerry Rhome, who signed with the Cowboys instead.
Rhome later gave the Oilers one season as a player and two
as an assistant coach. Namath gave the 1960s an icon and saved
the Jets franchise. He became "Broadway Joe," quarterback
of the AFL's first Super Bowl champions.
"South Main Joe" just wasn't meant to be.
Saluting the nation
In 1972, the Oilers were billed on Monday Night Football opposite
the Oakland Raiders in the Astrodome. The Raiders won, 34-0, in
a game that saw Oilers fans hit the exits quicker than Oilers
backs were hitting the holes.
Late in the game, a TV camera panned the nearly vacant stands.
One fan saw the camera, raised one hand and gave an obscene, one-finger
Don Meredith finally broke the stunned silence in the ABC booth.
"He's telling us his team is still No. 1," Meredith
Turnover at the top
The Oilers have averaged one head coach every 2.3 years, making
Bud Adams the Henry VIII of team owners. No timeout has ever been
called in the Oilers' quest to think of ever more imaginative
ways to sink a head coach. Some examples:
- Lou Rymkus. The Oilers' first coach won a championship; so
began his demise. As a reward for winning the first AFL title,
Adams decided to hold his 1961 training camp in Hawaii. Rymkus,
a no-nonsense type, was aghast. How was he supposed to hammer
a team into shape in the middle of paradise?
Rymkus' worst fears were realized. The camp was one long curfew
violation. On top of that, Rymkus wasn't allowed to cut anyone
or add anyone. Why? Because Adams refused to fork over any more
money for air travel to or from the islands.
The Oilers won only one of their first five games. Rymkus,
who hadn't been shy about blistering the front office, was fired.
- Frank "Pop" Ivy. Ivy's crime was simple. In 1963,
he coached Adams' team to its first losing season. Ivy came to
work one day, and his secretary handed him his desk drawer. That
- Hugh "Bones" Taylor. Even with a single season
of 4-10 under his belt, Taylor felt he was on firm ground in January
1966 to demand the departure of George Blanda, the Oilers' ageless
quarterback. Taylor had just been promised a three-year contract
extension by Adams. With that, Taylor triggered the showdown with
Blanda. "It's him or me," Taylor told the press. Blanda
stayed another season. One week after his issuing his ultimatum,
Taylor was out of a job.
- Jerry Glanville. "The Man in Black" created a monster
from Houston's rich talent acquisitions of the 1980s, but he also
transformed the Oilers into the most narcissistic team in football.
Glanville glowed in the publicity generated by the Oilers'
"House of Pain" image. When Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll
confronted him in 1987 with a warning about the dangers of his
bad-boy tactics, Glanville paid no heed.
The following January, Noll tipped off the Denver Broncos about
one of Glanville's trick plays. The Broncos got a turnover, an
easy touchdown and a playoff rout.
Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche swore revenge and got it in 1989
by handing the Oilers their worst loss ever, 61-7. Afterward,
Wyche called Glanville a "phony" and a "liar."
Harvey Salem, who once played tackle for Glanville, called
him "an evil little toad."
Glanville tried to deflect growing criticism with publicity
gimmicks. He left comp tickets for Elvis Presley and other dead
celebrities. But he was also forced to add a bullet-proof vest
to his coaching wardrobe. After losing to Pittsburgh in a 1989
wild-card playoff game, Glanville, as an Oilers coach, became
eligible for comp tickets.
THE HOUSTON OILERS: HIGHS AND LOWS
BY THE NUMBERS
Head coaches: 16 (Wally Lemm counted twice).
Overall record: 260-304-6 (including playoffs)
Super Bowl championships: 0.
AFC championships: 0.
AFL championships: 2.
Playoff appearances: 15.
Playoff record: 9-13.
Home stadiums (3): Jeppesen (Robertson) Stadium, 1960-64; Rice
Stadium, 1965-67; Astrodome, 1968-1996.
Hall of Fame members (4): QB George Blanda, 1960-66; S Kenny
Houston, 1967-72; RB Earl Campbell, 1978-84, WR Charlie Joiner,
BESTS AND WORSTS
BEST PLAYER: The head, not the heart, will tell you it's Bruce
Matthews, the club's current left guard. A 14-year veteran, Matthews
has played more games for the Oilers than anyone. Moreover, his
ability to handle the guard, center and tackle positions - all
at an All-Pro level - ranks him among the best linemen ever to
play the game.
BIGGEST HERO: Oiler hearts still cry out for Earl Campbell,
the Tyler-born battering ram of the team's "Luv Ya Blue"
glory days. The former Heisman Trophy winner from Texas rushed
for 8,674 yards in seven Oilers season. That was his football
life span. He bowed out with New Orleans, then stiff-armed his
way into the Hall of Fame. "He sure gets up slow," someone
commented once to his coach Bum Phillips. "Yeah," Phillips
said, "but he goes down slow, too."
BEST COACH: O.A. "Bum" Phillips may have been a good
ol' boy, but he was one great coach for the Oilers in the last
half-decade of the 1970s. An itinerant Texas high school coach
and college assistant, Phillips gave Oilers players the best insulation
they ever had from owner Bud Adams. With his flat-top haircut,
blinding belt buckle and snakeskin boots, Phillips out-Texaned
Adams and forced him into the shadows. The team prospered with
the new-found security and, when Earl Campbell joined the team,
in the simplicity of Phillips' offense. Adams calmly waited for
Phillips to hit his peak. It happened in 1979 when the Oilers
reached the AFC title game for the second straight year - and
for the second straight year lost to Pittsburgh. The next year
the Oilers lost a first-round game to Oakland. Three days later,
on New Year's Eve, 1980, Adams fired Phillips.
WORST COACH: Bill Peterson. Bud Adams had to jump through hoops
in late 1971 to separate Peterson from his Rice University contract
and keep Peterson out of the clutches of other NFL teams. Adams
got his man, then proclaimed: "We've hired our last coach
for some time." Peterson, in return, gave Adams one victory
in 19 games. Then Adams found another coach.
BEST MOMENT: It wasn't a game. It was a funeral - a funeral
disguised as a pep rally. The Oilers' 1979 season ended with a
controversial call and a 27-13 loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC title
game. The team returned to Houston after midnight - and was immediately
bused to the Astrodome, where more than 70,000 fans had turned
out for a rousing welcome-home bash.
WORST MOMENT: The Oilers jumped to a 35-3 lead on Buffalo in
a 1992 AFC wild-card game in Buffalo - and lost in overtime. The
blown lead was the biggest in any game in NFL history. For two
Oilers assistant coaches, the loss meant going from the Super
Bowl fast track to the unemployment line. Neither did head coach
Jack Pardee completely recover from the loss. He was fired a season-and-a-half
BEST TEAMS: Oddly, the Oilers' two best teams played to different
extremes in style, and both met their demise because of it. Phillips'
1980 team won 11 games behind a two-wide receiver, two-tight end
alignment. Houston's "Ace" offense was just about unstoppable
- until All-Pro tackle Leon Gray went down to injury late in the
season. In the Oilers' first playoff game, Oakland blitzed Houston
quarterback Ken Stabler into submission. All too methodical in
getting to the end zone, the Oilers fell behind and lost, 27-7.
In 1991, Jack Pardee seemed to be on the verge of working the
kinks out of his volatile Run-and-Shoot offense. Star quarterback
Warren Moon passed for a team-record 4,690 yards. The 11-5 Oilers
won their first AFC Central crown and, in a second-round playoff
game at Denver, jumped to a 21-6 lead. But Broncos quarterback
John Elway was keen to the frantic tempo. He rallied his team
to two scores late in the fourth quarter and a 26-24 victory.
Q. Texas millionaires Bud Adams and Lamar Hunt organized the
AFL in 1959 after failing in separate bids to buy the same NFL
team. What was the team?
A. The Chicago Cardinals.
Q. The first player ever signed by the Oilers was Don Hitt,
a highly regarded Oklahoma State center who didn't last long.
Because Hitt needed help driving to Houston to sign his contract,
he took along a teammate who turned out to be an All-AFL cornerback.
Who was this seven-year Oiler veteran?
A. Tony Banfield.
Q. The last original Oiler to hang up his uniform had his jersey
retired by the team. Who was this one-and-only No. 43?
A. Safety-punter Jim Norton, who played nine seasons for the
Q. Because of a locker room theft, the Oilers were forced to
play their first game with 20 players decked out in jerseys belonging
to what team?
A. The Dallas Texans. The Texans beat the Oilers, 27-10, in
the first exhibition game for both clubs.
Q. Who was the only Houston Oiler never to play college football?
A. Toni Fritsch, an Austrian who kicked for the Oilers from
Q. In 1964, the Oilers traded a quarterback to the Denver Broncos
for a first-round draft pick, defensive tackle Bud McFaddin -
and also for the quarterback they were trading away. Who was he?
A. Jackey Lee. Under terms of the deal, Lee was to get some
seasoning in Denver, then return to Houston in 1966. He did, but
played only sparingly for the Oilers.
Q. In 1968, a just-waived rookie pulled a gun on Oilers general
manager Don Klosterman and demanded immediate payment of his salary
for the rest of the season. Who was the Oiler rookie?
A. Charles Lockhart. A bystander wrestled the gun away.
Q. Who was the long-time Oilers equipment assistant who specialized
in tumbling kicking-tee retrievals.
A. Bill Lackey. Better known as "Mojo," Lackey died
of a stroke in 1995.
(c) 1997, The Dallas Morning News.
Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com/
Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
a Letter to the Editor about This Story | Start or Join A Discussion about This Story
Abilene Reporter-News / Texnews / E.W. Scripps Publications
Send the URL (Address) of This Story to A Friend:
the URL (Address) of This Story to A Friend: