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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

Camp Conspicuous

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.

Operation cross-wired

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 had missed.

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 eat."

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.

General mismanagement

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 been waived.

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 his advice.

Fighting words

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 new commissioner.

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 fight.

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.

Contract killers

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 second home.

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 players.

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 end.

- 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 contract.

- 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 gesture.

Don Meredith finally broke the stunned silence in the ABC booth. "He's telling us his team is still No. 1," Meredith explained.

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 was it.

- 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.



Seasons: 37.

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, 1969-72.


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 later.

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 Oilers.

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 1977-81.

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.

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