by Bruce Dobie
The Adams Chronicles
A new book suggests Nashville may be stuck with one of the worst owners in the NFL.
by Bruce Dobie
d Fowler, a longtime sports columnist for the Houston Chronicle, has written a new book that will be of interest to Tennessee sports fans. Loser Takes All: Bud Adams, Bad Football & Big Business is a history of the Houston Oilers football organization, with lots of space devoted to the team's owner, Kenneth Stanley "Bud" Adams Jr.
Fowler writes with a Texan's bravado, filling his book with outsized tales of greed and ego, drinking and brawling. While that makes the reading all the more pleasurable, the occasional bursts of cowboy lunacy do not soften the basic message of the book. To wit: Bud Adams really doesn't know what he's doing.
"By himself, Bud Adams started the Houston Oilers," states the second paragraph of chapter one, and it is just about the nicest thing Fowler has to say about the Oilers owner. Right away, he digs in: "Also single-handedly, [Adams] operated for 37 years a franchise with a franchise on turmoil, intrigue, back-stabbing, and buffoonery.... Bud spent so much time clowning around he forgot to win. Not once has anyone associated with his team attended a Super Bowl without a ticket."
The bashing continues.
* Regarding Adams' management style, Fowler writes: "Never has he taken a role like that assumed by some of the new-breed owners such as Jerry Jones of Dallas and Edward DeBartolo Jr. of San Francisco, who bounce along the sideline dealing hugs and high-fives like bags of gumdrops. On the other hand, neither does he demonstrate the quiet grace of the late Art Rooney of Pittsburgh or Adams' AFL co-founder, Lamar Hunt of Kansas City. Throughout his life in football, Bud has always seemed to be caught in between, unable to decide if he wanted to be involved or aloof, on the point or bringing up the rear."
* As for Adams' actual knowledge of football, Fowler reports that the Oilers owner once ordered one of his former coaches, Jack Pardee, to wear a headset. As Adams explained to reporters later, "I don't care whether it's turned on or not.... I just think it looks better if he has a headset on."
* As for Bud's relations with the media, Fowler reports that Adams had to be kept on a virtual leash because of his propensity for making stupid statements. He writes that Adams' relations with the media were always poor, and describes the time he got into a "scuffle" with a Houston Post reporter at an AFL executive committee meeting. The confrontation, which grew out of an argument over who would be included in a group photograph, was broken up by another team owner.
* Regarding Adams' reputation for being miserly, Fowler writes that in the 1980s the Oilers front-office staff went three years without raises. He adds that "the team's training facility was only replaced years after it had become worse than an eyesore, with players complaining of furry creatures that shared their quarters and toilets that broke down so often that at times only one was available to more than 50 men." To be fair, Adams has apparently not been cheap when it comes to paying his players -- over the years, player payroll was often "among the top 10 in the league." Apparently, he just chooses to save on overhead, and anywhere else too.
Overall, Fowler describes an Oilers organization that is replete with "inner squabbling between front office and coaches." Adams is described as indecisive, a man who has poor management skills and a propensity for bungling. As a result, the Oilers have suffered on the field, even when they have had solid teams and coaches.
As far back as the Oilers' early years, Fowler writes, Adams was never able to "settle on a style for running his organization." While Fowler gives the impression that Adams is not necessarily a lying, malevolent beast driven by outright dishonesty, he describes a man who fell into owning a pro football team and has done a poor job of running it.
And that portrait appears more accurate every day.
In their move to Nashville, the Oilers were driven by the economic principle that governs professional football today: Show Me the Money.
Unable to get Houston to build the new domed stadium he wanted, Adams uprooted a team that, at least from time to time, had been fundamentally connected to the city in which it played. Especially under the direction of Coach Bum Phillips in the late '70s, the Oilers were beloved in their hometown. Even when the team lost to Pittsburgh in a playoff game in 1977, some 55,000 fans crowded into the Astrodome for a post-game pep rally. After Phillips took off his cowboy hat upon entering the domed field -- his mother always told him never to wear a hat indoors -- he shook the rafters of the place with his post-game speech.
About the playoff game he had just lost, Phillips said, "One year ago, we knocked on the door; this year, we beat on the door. Next year, we're gonna kick the sumbitch in." It was utter Texas. Fans screamed. Players wept.
On that affective level, and despite Adams' ineptitude, the Oilers connected with Houston. Phillips called off practice every day by 5 p.m. so he could get to his nearby ranch and tend his cattle. Amid the go-go economics of the oil business and the Urban Cowboy phenomenon, the Oilers players partied themselves silly.
Much like the Browns' escape from Cleveland and the Colts' departure from Baltimore, the Oilers' move from Houston left a void, not only among fans but in the landscape of American sports as well. Predictably, the hometown fans were pissed off when they lost their teams, but what's really worrisome is that the team owners and the league officials seem to have forgotten, in the midst of all this transition, that they were sacrificing the league as a whole for the benefit of a few team owners. For longtime fans of professional football, it is virtually impossible to take seriously a team like the Indianapolis Colts without feeling as if Johnny Unitas has somehow been defiled. Sports teams are supposed to be a constant in the complex world that surrounds us. Now, however, they change more quickly than the logo on a box of detergent.
And so the Oilers -- a team founded in a city of oil barons and roughnecks -- have come to Tennessee, and, thus far, they've foundered. The team management has completely missed the mark. They may have believed they could move to another market without making changes in the profile of their organization. But if that's what they believed, they were wrong. Their fan base is small. Their ticket sales are the lowest in the NFL.
Of course, the antipathy between Memphis and Nashville has been an initial problem. If the distinction between Houston and Nashville wasn't sharp enough, the cultural lines that divide Memphis and Nashville have been deep and wide for centuries. Memphis, which views Nashville as the gifted older brother who gets everything he wants, would like nothing better than to shove it where the sun don't shine.
It shouldn't have been surprising that, when the Oilers took the field for its most recent home game against the Washington Redskins, fans didn't cheer for them at first. When the team came on the field, it was booed. If there is any energy out there among sports fans in Memphis, it is negative.
The Memphis problem notwithstanding, the Oilers' snafus are almost too numerous to mention. Many of their flub-ups stem from pledges Adams made earlier, then conveniently forgot or simply abandoned.
During his dalliance with Nashville, Adams said he wanted to change the team's name. Later, he stated he had kept the name for over three decades and probably wouldn't change it. Even Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen and Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist, whose history is marred by public disagreement, agreed that Adams was wrong. A name change, they said, was important.
Another champion for the name change has been Gerry House, the WSIX-FM disc jockey who commands a larger following than Bredesen, Sundquist, and the city's two daily newspapers combined. Departing from his usual role as the city's lighthearted philosopher king, House has waded into the Oilers debacle with the boldness of a political activist.
House's station is circulating a petition advocating a name change for the team. WSIX is trying to round up 98,000 signatures (the station's frequency is 98 FM), a staggering goal. If successful, the petition drive will show that people really want a new name for the Oilers. It may also suggest that House has a future in politics.
But the Oilers organization has encountered a myriad of other problems, all of which relate to the impression that the Oilers have had one message for potential fans: "Up yours."
When the team began play in Memphis, ticket buyers complained about how hard it was to purchase tickets, and lines stretched around Memphis' Liberty Bowl well into game time. During televised games, commentators have noted the paucity of filled seats, and the end result has been an utter embarrassment to all concerned.
Only this week it was revealed that the Oilers are charging TENNFL, an arm of the Nashville Sports Authority, $900 a month in rent for the office it occupies in the Oilers' trailer at the stadium site. Since one of TENNFL's functions is to promote ticket sales for Oilers games, critics are charging that the Oilers are biting the hand that is trying to help them.
Sold on Ice
Outside the stadium before a recent Vanderbilt football game, the tailgaters couldn't help but notice one set-up that stood out from all the rest. It was promoting hockey.
Two people were passing out information on the city's new NHL team. Information was available on how to buy tickets. The Oilers have never done anything of the kind.
Nor have they been as successful as the NHL team and its owner, Craig Leipold, in drumming up a buzz about the team's prospects. Leipold, who is said to have made plans to live in Nashville part of the year, is trying to convince Nashvillians that he cares about them. This despite the fact that Nashville's only encounters with hockey are minimal.
Thus far, the Oilers' problems seem to stem from Adams and his management. He has sought help in forestalling disaster. But his strategy hasn't been to beef up his team and articulate a clear management strategy. Instead -- and this is so utterly Nashville -- he's hiring a public-relations firm.
Nashville is stuck with one of the worst owners in the NFL. On top of that, he is an absentee owner. The mayor himself suggested to Adams that he hire the public-relations firm. Maybe he should have given him Martha Ingram's phone number instead.
The owners of one of the country's largest industrial empires, Martha Ingram and her three ambitious sons would look great in the owner's box. Seeing them there might not solve all the Oilers' problems, but it would be a great place to start. This team needs a new owner. (Bruce Dobie is the editor of the Nashville Scene, where this story appeared last week.)