The last widespread image of Bud Adams was him standing in his luxury suite. He raised his arms to Buffalo fans and extended his middle fingers.
That’s not how NFL owners are supposed to act. Adams did things his way, consequences often be damned. One of them was the reaction to his death Monday, especially in Houston.
The city is still mourning the death of Bum Phillips last Saturday. To football fans in Houston and beyond, Adams was the real bum.
Most people undoubtedly have the decency not to flip him a bird at this time. But like Bob Irsay and Art Modell, Adams committed the unpardonable sin of moving his football team from a place where it was once loved.
“Most of us don’t feel we have a team anymore,” said Carl Mauck, who was the Oilers’ center from 1975-1981. “At least we don’t have OUR team.”
The Houston Chronicle listed Adams as the Most Hated Sports Figure in the city’s history last year. Almost 86 percent of poll respondents agreed, even though nobody under 25 was alive when the moving vans headed to Tennessee.
Some things people just can’t forget. But Adams should be remembered as more than just the irascible robber baron with a bad toupee. Far more.
If nothing else, anyone who served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II deserves respect. Adams got out the service and became an oil wildcatter. It spawned a business empire that allowed him to become one of the most influential sports figures of our time.
He and Lamar Hunt started a little thing called the American Football League. Along with Ralph Wilson they propped up five lesser owners and became the NFL’s all-time headache.
The older league put a team in Dallas to compete for attention. Whatever became of the Cowboys, anyway? When the NFL secretly signed Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon to a contract, Adams said he’d double the offer.
The $110,000 deal was football’s first six-figure contract. According to author Jonathan Rand, Cannon couldn’t believe the offer. Cannon flew to Houston to get it in writing. After taking care of business, they got in a white Cadillac Adams had borrowed from his wife that day.
They drove to Adams’ house, and Cannon said his father sure would like a Cadillac like the one they were in. Adams tossed him the keys. Then wife Nancy got home, and Adams told her their guest was headed back to Baton Rouge.
“How’s he driving back?” she asked.
“In your car,” he said.
“That’s when it hit the fan,” Adams later recalled.
He had a habit of making that happen, and he often came out smelling the worse. Though here’s a number to remember:
That’s how many black quarterbacks the NFL had in 1984. It was Warren Moon, whom Adams signed from the CFL for a record $5.5 million. It doesn’t seem like a big deal in 2013, when nine black quarterbacks started opening-day games. Back then, it was.
“When you ask me what I think about Bud, the first thing that pops into my mind is him being an owner who wasn’t afraid to make an African-American quarterback the face of the franchise,” Moon told the Chronicle. “Me, Steve McNair and Vince Young. I don’t know of another owner that’s made that kind of investment in African-American quarterbacks.”
Adams hired Tom Williams as assistant general manager in the 1970s, making him one of the NFL’s first black executives. He also hired Phillips, which led to the “Luv Ya Blue” craze that will never truly die in Houston.
Such things don’t erase Adams’ wheeling and dealing and holding the city hostage for a new stadium. He was just more complex than the caricature people remember.
If you believe in karma, Adams got his. The move to Tennessee made for a three-year attendance and image nightmare in Houston, Memphis and Nashville. When Adams finally got his new stadium, the re-named Titans went 13-3 and made the Super Bowl.
As time ran out, Kevin Dyson stretched every centimeter of his 6-foot-1 frame toward the end zone. The ball came up one yard short of tying the game and perhaps giving Adams his ultimate vindication.
The Titans have been to the playoffs only four times in the ensuing 12 years. Unlike his team, Adams never moved from Houston. He’d fly in for games, the most memorable being a 41-17 win over Buffalo in 2009.
Wilson, his beloved pal from those early AFL days, had been inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier that year. You could argue Adams was every bit as important to the game. The NFL merger, the Cowboys and Luv Ya Blue might have happened without Adams, but history would have been altered in ways we can only imagine.
Maybe that was in the back of Adams’ mind that day when he flipped the double bird. It was subliminal venting against all the hatred he’d inspired.
Or maybe he was just being Bud.
Whatever, the timing of these Oilers deaths emphasizes how the men lived. Both Adams and Phillips were 90. They were Texans to the core.
Thousands of fans are expected to attend a memorial for Phillips later this week. There won’t be near the love when the old owner is laid to rest.
That’s the price Adams will pay for doing things his own way. In a lot of ways, we should be grateful he did.