Titans Franchise History – Pt. 1: Genesis
In the beginning Bud created the Oilers. However, unlike the preceding sentence, this creation was not that simple. The origins of this franchise are intricately tied the time period, geographic location, rival league, and most of all, the personality of a young oil tycoon. This segment of the Titans' history will cover only the first few years of the late 1950s to 1960 and pull heavily from John Pirkle's Oiler Blues. As a prelude to any games being played, stats will be absent in lieu of narrative.
This Bud's for You
Kenneth Stanley “Bud” Adams, Jr., as the only owner in this franchise's history, will be a reoccurring and unifying character of this history series. As such, it is important to consider get to know him from the start. Bud was in the Navy during WW2 and upon returning home, his father, KS “Boots” Adams, Sr. (chairman of Phillips Petroleum), helped Bud start his own oil company when he was 23 years old. Bud headed a few other oil companies which lead to him naming his future football franchise. He, along with 23-year old Dallas-based Lamar Hunt (also oil-rich) and Ralph Wilson (Detroit insurance and auto) were the most financially stable owners of the original AFL and were major contributors to its survival in the early years.
NFL Expansion VS AFL Formation
In the 1950s, the NFL had only 12 teams, and none in Texas. In fact, the lone-star state was home to zero professional teams. College football was the game of the nation. With TVs becoming more popular, professional entertainment was in greater demand. The Chicago teams (Bears and Cardinals) were the “home” teams to the Texas broadcast zones. Once the Cardinals wanted to get out from under the Bears' shadow (and into hopeful profitability), they sought new markets with possible owners. Enter Bud and Lamar. While neither settled on a deal due to ownership percentage disputes, their desire for a professional football team was sparked.
According to Pirkle, George Halas of the Bears was a leading hand behind the NFL and continued to deny expansion and give empty promises to suitors. After a failed meeting between Halas, Hunt and Adams, the two young millionaires sought out other possible owners to start up a new league. Many had failed prior to the AFL, so the NFL was confidant it could handle this group as well. These owners, however, were bound together in a stronger constitution that prevented owners from jumping to a different league (locked in the players, too). The TV networks were lusting after professional sports as well and a deal with ABC gave more legitimacy to the fledgling league. The TV rights were split evenly between the franchises to avoid a “Yankees” situation.
The NFL attempted to take away the Houston market by offering them an expansion under different ownership if they could reach a stadium deal (stadiums, too, will be a common problem for this franchise). Rice stadium could hold 70,000 but the head coach wouldn't agree to allow professional sports to play there. The deal fell through and the expansion was awarded to a Minnesota ownership group (previously committed to the AFL). Bud struck a deal with a high school stadium for the Oilers' first home field.
Extra Notes: Adams financially helped the New York Titans stay solvent until they changed ownership, stadiums, and team name to the Jets. Further, after the AFL was established, the Oilers had the rights to the 1st overall (and 2nd) selection in the 1965 AFL draft. Alabama's Joe Namath was available. Word was that Namath wouldn't play for Houston, so they traded the pick to New York for a QB that the NFL Cowboys wanted. This QB would take his contract offer to Dallas for them to beat it and never played for the Oilers. Namath was selected 1st overall by the Jets and 12th overall by the NFL St. Louis Cardinals.
Laying the Foundation
The early success of the Oilers and, to an extent, the AFL, depended on four individuals: a scout turned director of player personnel, a nationally recognized Heisman-winning player, a coach, and an aging yet unused arm. John Breen, Billy Cannon, Lou Rymkus, and George Blanda were the key components of the champions of the AFL's first year of existence.
Blanda was quoted as saying that Breen was “one of the few competent football executives that Adams ever hired and one of the last.” Keep that foreshadowing in mind as we progress through this history. Breen was a scout with the Cardinals before joining Bud and would surprisingly last for 17 years (note: fans of the Titans since the move may not be familiar with Bud's once fast trigger finger when it comes to firing his staff). Breen quickly gave the Oilers an advantage over the rest of the AFL teams by finding and signing players before the other teams had their stadium deals in place.
The signing of Heisman-winning Billy Cannon out of LSU was a boon not only to the Oilers in the doubting-media market of Houston but to the AFL as a whole. Landing such a nationally renowned athlete as Cannon provided the much needed name-recognition for which the league was starving. The NFL's LA Rams previously agreed to terms with Cannon, but did so before his college playing days were over. Bud Adams sought publicity and signed Billy Cannon to a much more lucrative deal under the goalposts as the time expired of his final collegiate game. The PR didn't go as expected and the news was buried under rumors of a possible third baseball league. The photo-op was never published. The rejected GM of the Rams was future NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. As an Oiler, Cannon was a good but not great player. A back injury led to him being a timid HB. A change of teams (Raiders) and position (TE) provided a rebirth and he is still regarded as one of the best ever to play TE.
Lou Rymkus was Bud's third choice for head coach behind then Giants assistant Tom Landry and Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson. Rymkus, however, was the first choice for the Chargers and Texans (now Chiefs). Pirkle describes him as building his life to coach. Rymkus graduated from Notre Dame and was a lineman. Though he won a championship in his first year and the Coach of the Year award, Bud fired him five games into the second season. While this may have been the jolt the team needed to win a second consecutive championship, it set a precedent for the turmoil for which the Oilers front office would be known.
John Breen recognized that a fledgling league could be dominated by a strong passing game since teams would need time to gather good defensive backs. George Halas buried a 30-year old George Blanda on the Bears bench even though he lead the NFL in completions in 1954. Halas tried to scheme Blanda into not coming into camp in order to not pay him and prevent other teams from getting his rights. An interim NFL commissioner allowed Blanda to “retire” from the league and to sign with the AFL since they did not expect the league to last very long. Blanda chose the Oilers over the Chargers to avoid another Halas-type coach.
Up Next and Author's Notes
The 1960s included three consecutive championship games and the first “low period.”
While I don't think there are any here that lived through this time, I do invite anyone to share any comments about this time-period. Also, if anyone would like to take on a time-period or a particular season, please speak up! I imagine the “Luv Ya Blue” of the late-70s will draw more comments due to the personalities and stakes involved.