When legendary Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips died on Friday, the reverent obituaries flowed easily: He “spent every waking moment as the personification of all things Texan“; he was a “folksy Texas football icon” and “the homespun coach behind the Oilers’ rise,” “known for Stetsons and truisms“; he “was a Lone Star original in his blue jeans, cowboy boots and white Stetson.” Bud Adams, the Oilers owner who gave Phillips his shot as a head coach, described the time they spent building the team as “such magical years.”
Three days later, when Adams himself passed away, also at 90 years old, the obituaries didn’t have the same rich, colorful material to work with. And in Houston—where Adams both introduced professional football in 1960 and, in 1996, took it away—his legacy is mixed.
The obituaries, of course, are kind—who wants to dump on a 90 year old man the day after he died? When KHOU interviewed former Oilers players about Adams after his death, they all stressed that they were ready to let bygones be bygones that day, and that the city should let go of some of its resentment toward the man who moved the team to Tennessee.
“I don’t have a home anymore. I don’t have a team. I have a little bit of that animosity as well but I do give the man the respect that he deserves,” said former Oiler David Carter.
“As a man who attempted to do right, really, by the city of Houston, by bringing the team here in the first place,” said former Oiler Charley Frazier.
Longtime University of Houston football coach Bill Yeoman agreed.
“I think by the fact that he got the Oilers here, got us a professional team, got us started, was a debt that the Houston people owe him,” Yeoman said.
It’s a bit more faint than the hagiographies that followed Phillips’s passing. But Adams is a complicated figure.
After starting the Oilers in 1960 as part of the American Football League, Adams moved the team into the Astrodome in 1968, two years before the merger with the NFL would take place. The stadium, which was intended for baseball, was never an ideal place to host a football team (5,000 seats had to be moved to make room for the field), and it was a source of contention for much of Adams’s tenure in the city: in 1987, he threatened to move the team to Jacksonville, Florida, unless renovations were made. The city responded by investing $67 million in upgrades, which satisfied Adams for a few years—but by the early 90’s, Adams decided that he wanted an entirely new stadium.
Houston voters weren’t interested in building Adams another stadium so soon after renovating the Astrodome, and Adams responded by picking up the team and moving them to Nashville. The team then spent two seasons as the Tennessee Oilers, before they were renamed the Tennessee Titans. It would take five years for the Texans to arrive via league expansion, and for Houston to have another NFL team.
Adams was reviled in Houston for moving the team. A 2012 website poll from the Houston Chronicle that asked if Adams was “the most hated sports figure in Houston history” saw him get a whopping 85% “yes” vote. (Presumably even Matt Schaub following his fifth pick-six of the season would fare better.) On the Texans’ official message board, a post entitled “Titans fans—why we hate Bud Adams” linked to a Dallas Morning-News story from 1997 highlighting Adams’s mismanagement on the field and off. A 1996 story from the Houston Press declared:
All that’s left between Houston and Bud Adams is a smoldering hatred—and maybe a deep, unrelieved hurt on both sides.
But Adams’s legacy is more complex than just that of the man who moved the Titans away. Not only did Adams bring football to Houston, he brought professional sports to a city whose previous claim to fame was minor league baseball’s Houston Buffaloes. The Astros followed in 1962, after years of effort on behalf of the city to claim a major league baseball franchise, and the Rockets debuted in 1967.
And, as a founding owner in the American Football League, Adams is also an important figure in the history of the NFL. Texans fans may loathe the man with a fiery passion, but without men like Adams, the NFL they love would look very different. Ultimately, Houston will have to accept that the boldness that led Adams to bring a professional football team to the city is part of the same character that led him to move that team to Tennessee. Perhaps now, they can let him rest in peace.
AP Photo | Joe Howell