As has been well reported by now, Kenneth Stanley "Bud" Adams, Jr., the only owner the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans have ever known, passed away Monday of natural causes at his home in Houston. He was 90.
Summarizing Bud Adams' career and what he meant to the franchise is a challenge, one I've wrestled with since I first sat to try to write this post on Monday. Part of the challenge reflects the differing perception of Bud in the two cities the franchise has called home. Moving the Titans to Nashville was A Big Deal for Nashville, and an event that is seen as reflecting Nashville being something other than a regional capital. The comment I heard on one of the reflections on his passing summed it up best-once you have an NFL team, they don't need to put the state after the city name. I'm not sure this is exactly true, but that would be a long and irrelevant digression even for a Neal Stephenson novel, and I think the general point still stands. For Nashville, Bud was an absentee owner, one who stuck his nose in (most notably, the drafting of Vince Young and the Peyton Manning chase), but one who was content to cut checks.
I'm a former Houstonian. In House, the view of Bud Adams is less charitable. The franchise move is a big part of that, as regular Texans Q&A person Steph Stradley will be glad to tell you. But it started before then. Bud was preceded in death by a couple days by coach O.A. "Bum" Phillips, whom he unceremoniously fired after three straight playoff appearances. Bum was beloved in Houston for his role in resurrecting the team from its dark period in the early 1970's (back-to-back 1-13 seasons in 1972 and 1973). But it started before then.
The Houston Oilers started off on the right foot., as Bud hired NFL personnel man John Breen, who did a superb job of stocking that initial squad with talent. George Blanda and 1959 Heisman winner Billy Cannon were the biggest names, but Breen also found the quality depth he needed to build a very strong team. And the Oilers were a strong team-they won the first two AFL titles and lost the third in double overtime. Those three championship game appearances came under three different coaches-first Lou Rymkus, then Wally Lemm after Rymkus was first during the 1961 season, and finally Pop Ivy in what amounted to a trade with the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals (Lemm would go 27-26-3 in St. Louis and return to Houston as the head coach in 1966).
That sort of coaching turnover spoke to a certain measure of dysfunction behind the scenes, and building on the initial success proved difficult. The NFL and the AFL began competing for players, most notably draft picks, and it quickly became known that the Oilers had an owner who was willing to spend money but very little else going for them. The anecdote that stands out in my mind as most indicate of what the situation in Houston was like by even the mid-1960's is that Ivy's successor as coach Sammy Baugh fined a player for not knowing the playbook. Starting quarterback Blanda informed a friendly media source (one not friendly to Baugh or Bud) that Baugh's Oilers did not in fact have an offensive playbook. He got the fine rescinded, and Baugh had to find some other way to punish the alleged transgressor.
Approximately all NFL franchise moves have been driven by the stadium situation. As fun as all the dysfunction involving the team was, the story of the Oilers and their departure from Houston is as much about the stadium as anything else. Rice had a fine stadium, one that would eventually host a Super Bowl, but the Houston powers that be had their eyes on the NFL, not some startup league created by a couple oil millionaires, and that was out. The Oilers began at Jeppesen Stadium, a high school stadium. They were eventually permitted to play at Rice Stadium and later moved into the Astrodome. But make no mistake-the Astrodome, while perhaps conceived and built as a multi-purpose stadium, was a baseball stadium where you could also play football games.
By all accounts, Bud was a tough negotiator who liked to do things his own way. Some, perhaps a good many, of his problems with the Rice University regents and Roy Hofheinz and the HSA assuredly stemmed from the fact that he was Bud Adams and he did not care to be a part of the Houston establishment. In a way, he probably was, by dint of his money, but he apparently was never the type of go along to get along personality he needed to be to have the situation he wanted. And in a page right out of the Hirschman playbook, when he didn't get what he wanted, he wanted to take his ball and play elsewhere. Unsatisfied by the proposed lease terms, he spent a couple seasons playing at Rice even after the Astrodome was opened. He reportedly contemplated selling the team, whether to HSA or someone else.
And he threatened to move. Atlanta first. Then Seattle. Things got kind of serious with Jacksonville in the late 1980's, a move that led to an expansion of the Dome (yet more end zone seats, in a stadium that already had too many) and the removal of my beloved exploding scoreboard. When just a couple years later, with the bonds for that not even paid off, Bud started talking about a new stadium, built with somebody else's money, the die had been cast. Bud Adams had approximately zero chance of getting a publicly-funded football stadium in Houston. Since Al Davis won his court case, the NFL couldn't prevent a move, so finding a new place for the team to play became a matter of time, and Nashville ended up being the destination.
Being who I am, I don't have a lot of romance for the move to Nashville. Bud was a Houstonian-he'd move to Houston when he came out of the Navy after World War 2, and it was where he chose to make his professional and personal life. He wanted the Oilers to be successful in Houston. When it came time to make that move, it was a business proposition with all the sentiment of Andy Levitre's signing in free agency. Here's what you can do for us. Here's what we can do for you. Sound good? Nashville came up with the right package, and that was that. The process of getting there was interesting, to say the least, with the condition of the Astrodome inducing a quick move, the Memphis disaster, plenty of empty seats at Vanderbilt in 1998, and finally, at long last, the stadium now known as LP Field coinciding with the best record in franchise history in 1999. Winning produces results, and the Titans became the sort of regional draw they needed to be for the move to Nashville to be the kind of success Bud wanted and needed. Thus began the last chapter of Bud's football life.
And after all those Houston chapters, it was a needed step. There's no denying what Bud meant to the early AFL. If Lamar Hunt doesn't find him, somebody else willing to spend and lose money on pro football, the league probably never gets off the ground. And Bud's money meant an awful lot for the AFL. He lent money to other AFL owners, to keep teams afloat. He traded the draft rights to Joe Namath to the Jets for a paltry sum considering what trades of star players normally fetched, just to give his league a chance to get their hands on Joe Willie. When the AFL started to go after NFL players directly, after the Pete Gogolak signing opened the active player front in what had just been a draft struggle, it was Bud Adams and the Oilers that cut some of the biggest checks, most notably to future Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka, who cashed the check but never played for the Oilers after the merger was announced.
In trying to think of who to compare Bud to, three owners came to mind-longtime Raiders owner Al Davis, Redskins owner Dan Snyder, and former Chicago Blackhawks owner "Dollar Bill" Wirtz. I noted Sammy Baugh earlier-Snyder in his early years as owner of the Redskins was very much like a young Bud Adams, throwing his money around, wanting to win, win quickly, win immediately, win now. Always in search of the next franchise savior, and always moving on to the next franchise savior after the current one failed to win on his preferred timetable. A would be-collegiate player at Kansas who failed to make the team, like Snyder, he sometimes thought he knew more about football than he probably did; it was Breen's knowledge of the marginal players around the NFL that built those earlier champions more than Bud (officially) signing Billy Cannon under the goalposts after the Sugar Bowl.
Like Davis, Bud didn't care who what the players looked like as long as he thought they could help him win. He twice made Warren Moon the highest-paid player in pro football, the first at a time when the NFL was almost completely bereft of black quarterbacks. Twice more his team would use the third overall pick on a black quarterback. Talking about race is something I try not to do hard; it's a hard topic to talk about well. But not everybody born in 1923 and lived in Houston would have been as tolerant as Bud was.
Like Dollar Bill, Bud had a reputation as a cheapskate. He earned the nickname "Bottom Line" Bud for a reason. Jeff Fisher talked about how he bought laser pointers out of his own pocket, but Bud would sit on that purchase order for two months rather than approve the expense. Paul Kuharsky wrote about what a dump the Oilers' practice facility in 1996 was, and that wasn't the only time the Oilers practiced in sub-ideal conditions. Training camp, not just in the early days of the AFL but later as well, was an exercise in spending little money. Floyd Reese told the story about getting a call complaining that he'd used FedEx to send a contract instead of the U.S. mail, a move that would have saved $10.50. At the same time, like Dollar Bill, he combined a deserved skinflint reputation with profligacy. There were those big contracts to Warren Moon, and the league's highest payroll in the early 1990's. There was the $100 million spending spree this offseason. There was the money he spent in the early 2000's to keep an expensive veteran team together for 2002, 2003, and 2004 instead of breaking apart the core. Both Fisher and Reese noted the contrast, that unlike facilities and supplies, he was always ready to spend money on the players he thought could help the team win.
Did Bud always or even necessarily often spend his money wisely? Certainly not. For much of his time in charge, he teetered between being a not very good owner and an actively harmful one. Some of the blame for the long franchise history of mediocrity falls on his shoulders. He wanted to win very badly, but figuring out how seemed like a challenge for him.
Outside of the gratitude in the Nashville area, I'm not sure how many fans of the team associate Bud with strong positive memories. There certainly aren't many to be found in Houston, and he was an absentee owner in Nashville, removed from the hurly-burly of things. I never met the man, or had any contact with him or the organization, so people with personal memories may feel differently. I've covered what I saw of his career as an NFL owner. I can't speak to him as a person, with respect to his non-football business operations, or the Cherokee heritage that led him to spend a great deal of money collecting Native American art. I've tried to make it clear in this post that, like most people, he didn't leave a straightforward legacy, and I think that has to be shown for a true reflection of the man.
Requiescat in pace.