Remember the 1996 Houston Oilers season? The team was quarterbacked by a young Steve McNair, who handed the ball off to a young Eddie George. The entire team was young, and it was full of promise, and it finished the season 8-8. The only problem was that the Oilers went 2-6 at home and played in front of Astrodome crowds that were only in the 20,000-fan range.
The Oilers announced after the 1995 season that they were leaving town for Nashville for the 1998 season. The 1996 and 1997 seasons were supposed to be played in Houston while Nashville built a stadium for the team to play. But because the people of Houston didn’t come to games, the Oilers actually left after 1996 and played in Memphis until the Nashville stadium was ready to go.
With Rams, Chargers and possibly Raiders on the move now, this 1996 Oilers season has become the benchmark for how not to handle a relocation. But this benchmark has come with a bit of revisionism. Revisionism such as Bud Adams and the Oilers’ being totally without fault and victims of a vindictive Houston populace.
“It was handled so poorly,” Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews told Yahoo! Sports last week. “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.”
The Astrodome was unfit for football. But Houstonians' hatred of Bud Adams topped everything else.
“It was a dump,” longtime Houston Chronicle writer John McClain said to Yahoo! Sports. “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.”
But this bit of revisionism forgets one basic thing: Bud Adams blackmailed Houston in 1987, threatening to move the team to Jacksonville if $67 million in upgrades were not made to the Astrodome. These improvements included new luxury boxes and additional seating that resulted in the dome’s iconic scoreboard being destroyed. A new turf was also installed. The finished result, which went online for the 1989 season, was what Bud Adams called the best stadium in the NFL.
Then Adams saw the deal the Rams got for relocating from Los Angeles to St. Louis, and suddenly he wanted more. So even though Houstonians were still paying off all of the work done to the Astrodome, and even though the team had fallen into disrepair, Adams demanded that the people of Houston build him a brand-new stadium.
In fairness to Adams, he actually offered a good deal to Houston. He proposed a downtown stadium that would host not only the Oilers, but also the Rockets and any hockey team that would come to Houston, along with concerts. He devised a plan that would allow for a reconfiguration of seats from the floor to the ceiling. And he offered to put up $75 million for the estimated $235 million stadium. That’s a great deal looking back at it now, especially seeing as how Houston and Harris County have built brand-new venues for the Astros, Texans, Rockets and Dynamo.
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But Adams decided to plead for a new stadium less than a decade after blackmailing Houstonians over the Astrodome. He also failed to let Rockets owner Les Alexander in on his plan, and Alexander wanted nothing to do with sharing a facility. Adams also went public before trying to get any kind of political backing. And he did this as the team was going through a 2-14 season.
This history lesson needs to be remembered. The Oilers were loved by Houstonians, more than the Texans have been loved to date. This was a fanbase that packed the Astrodome for a pep rally after the team lost a playoff game. It made Earl Campbell and Bum Phillips folk heroes and embraced Warren Moon and the run-and-shoot. And no fanbase should be blamed for not showing up to watch a lame duck and on-the-move-to-another-city football team play games.
So it’s okay to use the Oilers as a guide for what not to do when relocating a NFL franchise. But never, ever blame the move on the Houston fanbase. It wasn’t the fans who threatened to move the team in 1987 if stadium upgrades weren’t made. It wasn’t the fanbase that got suckered on the lease terms, or that failed to see if the city’s politicians and other pro sports teams owners were onboard with building and sharing a new stadium.
This is all on Bud Adams. And don't ever let any attempt at revisionism change that.