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20 Years Ago, Houston Oilers Fled the Astrodome


The 2017 NFL season is going to be one of the weirdest ever in California. In Los Angeles, you will have the Chargers, fresh off their bolting from San Diego, occupying a soccer-specific stadium– the StubHub Center, which will have a capacity of 30,000 for NFL games – for the next two seasons until they can fulfill their role as the Rams’ roommate in the new stadium built for two in Inglewood.

But while the Chargers’ confines might be cramped, it won’t be anywhere near as uncomfortable as Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, where the Raidersno stranger to skipping town – will be the lame duck team of all time, spending two more seasons in Oakland with one foot already planted in Las Vegas.

And yet, no matter how cringe-worthy things might get for both teams in their weird LimboLand, neither are likely to approach the level of bad feelings generated by the 1996-97 Oilers.

It was 20 years ago next week, May 8, 1997, that Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams and Astrodome USA owner Drayton McLane Jr. finalized a deal to allow the Oilers to move to Tennessee after 37 seasons in Houston.

The settlement was the end of an acrimonious period between Adams and the Astrodome.

Just weeks before the start of the 1995 season, after failing to secure public money to replace the increasingly-dilapidated Astrodome, Adams announced he was negotiating exclusively with Nashville to bring the Oilers to Tennessee. In early 1996, a ballot measure passed in Nashville to allow for the construction of a new stadium, but it would not be ready until 1999, leaving the Oilers in the same boat as the current Raiders, playing out lame-duck seasons in Houston.

The reaction in Houston was predictably not kind. Or maybe it wasn’t predictable, as clearly Adams and the Oilers were not prepared for the way the city would abandon them in 1996.

For the year, the 60,000-plus seat Astrodome averaged fewer than 32,000 for the Oilers’ eight home games. Games six and seven drew around 20,000 and the home finale saw an attendance of 15,131.

So miserable was the experience that Adams made the move to leave Houston two years ahead of schedule.

After two days of working with a court-appointed mediator, Adams and McLane resolved issues relating to a canceled exhibition game in 1995 and the remainder of the Oilers’ lease at the Astrodome.

“We started off planning to stay in Houston the whole time like they’re talking about in Oakland,” former Oilers general manager Floyd Reese told the AP last month. “After the first year, we said this is just not going to work. That’s how we ended up in Memphis for a year and Vanderbilt after that. That certainly wasn’t great, and the truth is I’m not sure it was better than just staying in Houston. But you knew that staying in Houston was going to be so distasteful and be really hard to listen to the negativity every day. We couldn’t do anything right. We said anything is better than this and you make the move and you find out it was better in some areas and not as good in others.”

Indeed, after the 1997 season in Memphis, it was hard to know whether the Oilers would have been better off licking their wounds in the familiar – if embittered – setting in Houston. The Oilers miscalculated that playing in Memphis for two seasons while waiting for their Nashville stadium to be completed would sit well with the populace of Memphis, which had been denied NFL expansion franchises in the past, having only short-lived WFL, CFL, and USFL teams to their credit.

The Oilers became non-people in Memphis, drawing crowds even smaller than the ones they left behind in Houston. Playing at the Liberty Bowl, the Tennessee Oilers drew an average of just over 28,000 fans, less than half capacity. Games against Baltimore and Cincinnati drew fewer than 18,000. Only the Steelers, which also drew well in Houston in 1996, filled up the Liberty Bowl in 1997, with 50,677 mostly-Steelers fans. Promotional events designed to increase the team’s visibility in the city barely drew.

“No one paid attention to us,” former Oilers/Titans tight end Frank Wycheck told the Orange County Register of one promotional event. “People were walking on the sidewalk, like ‘What the hell, who are these guys?’ They paid zero notice. They had zero excitement.”

Making matters worse, living and practice facilities for the coaches and players were not worthy the NFL. After one season, the Oilers were on the move again, playing the 1998 season at Vanderbilt University.

“I didn’t know how much bad blood there is between Memphis and Nashville,” Adams would later remark. “But I guess anytime you have two cities that size in the same state there’s going to be a rivalry. It’s no different than Houston and Dallas.”

Finally, 1999 arrived, the Oilers became the Titans, the team crowned their new stadium with a run to Super Bowl XXXIV and Houston prepared to bring in a new team in 2002, the Houston Texans.

All’s well that ends well? The Raiders and Chargers can only hope for a favorable Hollywood ending.

This article first appeared in the weekly Football Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Football Stadium Digest newsletter.

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August Publications