Even the humorless suits at the National Football League would have to admit that the uniforms the University of Houston debuted at this season’s opening game were spectacular.
Were they blatant rip-offs of the powder-blue threads and red striping that will forever occupy a special place in the hearts of Houston Oilers fans of a certain age? Of course they were. That’s why the Cougars did it. It was a great idea when the good folks at UH came up with it, and it’s still a great idea, even if the NFL and the Tennessee Titans (which retained the Oilers’ history and trademarks when the franchise left Houston after the 1996 NFL season) can’t get over themselves.
Turns out those classic threads are the gift that keeps on giving, now that lawyers have gotten involved. Rather than UH being forced to focus on a dismal first football season in the Big 12 (the 3–5 Cougars’ most recent loss was a 41–0 shellacking against Kansas State), the school is getting a dose of free publicity after the Houston Chronicle reported that the NFL fired off a cease-and-desist letter.
Seriously? One middling college football program that’s been struggling for years to draw fans and win games and become relevant; one little team looking for a memorable way to celebrate an end to almost three decades in major-conference exile—that’s enough to get the world’s richest pro sports league in a lather? Petty doesn’t even begin to describe how this makes the NFL and the Titans look.
UH already wore the uniforms once this season and surrendered any attempt to monetize the look, making it no threat to the NFL’s $18 billion annual revenue. Chris Pezman, UH’s vice president for athletics, told the Chronicle that the school “hit some roadblocks” while exploring merchandising opportunities and that the school’s licensing division refused to approve any such sales.
(Don’t anyone breathe a word about another Houston school also ripping off the Oilers look. Where UH officials were careful not to mention the Oilers or their “Luv Ya Blue” rallying cry, the Rice Owls were all in, promoting a video ending with the words “Luv Ya Owls!” for their September 30 game against East Carolina. “We’ll be wearing special jerseys to pay homage to our NFL ties in this town,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said at the time.)
These uniforms are no laughing matter to a generation or two of Houstonians who will never forget the gut punch of seeing their Oilers pack up and hightail it to Tennessee. That team and its powder-blue look had a cultlike following and a corral of superstars—Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini, Bum Phillips—who remain revered figures.
If the NFL didn’t know about the University of Houston’s long road back to major-conference affiliation after being shut out of the Big 12 when the league came together in 1996, then the Titans surely did. The Cougars’ September 2 season opener against UTSA was the beginning of a new chapter for the school, which has poured resources into building the school’s athletic department in recent years.
Houston is not Penn State or Alabama. Lordy, it’s not even close, but membership in the Big 12, with its larger media-rights checks and games against Texas Tech, Baylor, and other familiar opponents that should attract fans is a step in the right direction. UH is hoping the new status will lead to alums opening their checkbooks and showing up at games. Those powder-blue uniforms represent a step up that daunting ladder.
For the five seasons prior to this one, UH’s average home attendance of 22,802 was seventy-third of 133 FBS schools, according to College Football News. Even this season, when average attendance has increased into the 30,000 range—and the school drew 42,812 for a home game against Texas—UH still ranks at the bottom of the Big 12.
UH officials probably knew they were on thin legal ice with the Oilers-style uniforms. In apparent attempt to skirt trademark infringement, they called the color scheme a salute to a Houston football history while, as the Chronicle reported, “also recognizing the city’s connection to the light blue that was a recognizable fixture for years in the Houston Police Department.” All true, tee-hee.
This week the Chronicle reported that the NFL threatened legal action for “blatant copying” of the Oilers uniforms and demanded an end to merchandise sales, promotional campaigns, and social media posts.
“The Houston Cougars’ attempt to free ride on the popularity of the NFL and the club violates the intellectual property rights of the NFL and the [Tennessee] Titans,” attorney Bonnie L. Jarrett wrote in an October 13 letter obtained by the newspaper. That it does, Bonnie, that it does.
For 37 seasons, the Oilers belonged to Houston, first as a two-time champion of the American Football League in 1960 and 1961, then as a member of the NFL after the leagues merged in 1970. No, the Houston Oilers did not win a Super Bowl. They did not even play in one. The Lone Star State has five Lombardi Trophies, all of them on display at Dallas Cowboys headquarters, in Frisco.
But in some strange way, the Oilers’ failures were part of their appeal. Back-to-back playoff losses to the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers in 1979 and 1980 created a bond between the city and its team. After that first Pittsburgh loss, 45,000 fans packed the Astrodome for an impromptu pep rally to honor a team that had performed with such heart as to make a city proud. When the Oilers lost in Pittsburgh again in 1980, this time assisted by a bad call, Phillips, the head coach, promised: “One year ago we knocked on the door. This year we beat on the door. Next year, we’re going to kick the son of a bitch in!”
The Oilers never did kick that door in, and team owner Bud Adams fired Phillips after the 1980 season. Then, frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations for a new stadium, Adams moved the franchise to Tennessee for the 1997 campaign. He took the Oilers name and those power-blue uniforms with him.
Never mind that the Oilers were renamed the Titans in their third season in Tennessee. Adams, who died in 2013, and his family owned the name and the colors and were never sending them back to their original home. When the possibility of the Houston Texans occasionally wearing Oilers colors was floated four years ago, Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk responded: “Very interesting. Except the Oilers don’t have anything to do with the Texans, so . . . that’s a hard no.”
That was that, until this summer, when the Titans announced they would bring the powder-blue uniforms back for a special occasion or two this season. They wore them for Sunday’s game against Atlanta and are expected to don them again on December 17, when—wait for it—the Texans play in Nashville.
University of Houston fans apparently loved the powder-blue look earlier this year. The school’s women’s golf team wore Oilers colors at a recent tournament, and the athletic department has toyed with making the new design an official alternate jersey. That’s probably not going to happen. Dona Cornell, UH’s vice chancellor for legal affairs, informed the NFL the powder-blue look was being shelved. “When and if we plan to market merchandise, I remain committed to coming to you for further discussion prior to implementation if it becomes necessary,” she wrote in an email to the league.
Former Texans defensive end J. J. Watt spoke for a slew of Houstonians last week when he told ESPN’s Pat McAfee: “Having lived in Houston for ten years and [seen] the people there, and the connection that they have to Earl Campbell, to Warren Moon, to these guys that wore those—to Billy “White Shoes” [Johnson]—these guys that wore those uniforms, and what that meant when they played in that Astrodome, it hurts to not have been able to wear those in Houston, and it hurts to see them being worn somewhere else.”