What Happened To The Houston Oilers?

The Houston Oilers were a founding member of the American Football League, a rival of the NFL. The team would become an iconic part of sports culture in Houston. So what exactly led to the team leaving the city they called home for 36 years? In today’s video we’ll look back at how one man’s obsession with wanting to build a new stadium led to the team packing up and leaving.

Formation & Early Success (1960-1970)

By the late 1950s the NFL had become increasingly popular due to events like the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, also known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played”. This increase in popularity drew a lot of interest in potential buyers of teams. One such team, the struggling Chicago Cardinals attracted two separate offers from two businessmen, Bud Adams and Lamar Hunt. Unfortunately for them, both offers were rejected. That didn’t wouldn’t stop either of them, as Bud Adams then tried to convince the NFL to expand into Houston and create a new franchise there, while Lamar Hunt also tried to sway the NFL into expanding into the Dallas area instead. But once again, both attempts to bring the NFL into Texas failed.

In a lesson of great determination, Lamar Hunt came up with the idea of starting their own football league, one that would rival the NFL. Hunt then approached other businessmen who had also made failed attempts to buy an NFL team, and asked them to join his league instead. Hunt planned to start a team in Dallas, and thought it would be perfect for Bud Adams to have a team in Houston, creating a natural rivalry between the two teams. On August 3, 1959 in Bud Adams boardroom, the brand new team owners got together (seen here about to break into a touchdown dance) to announce the formation of the American Football League. 

Bud Adams new team in Houston would be known as the “Houston Oilers”. For most of the team’s history the Oilers colors were, “columba blue”, “scarlet red, and white, with their main logo depicting a simple oil derrick. The team name, “The Oilers” not only has a special connection to Bud Adams the owner but the area surrounding Houston as well. The Oilers can be referenced back to the Texas oil boom of the early 20th century. Oil was discovered in Beaumont, Texas (less than 100 miles away from Houston) in 1901, which became home to the first major oil field in the United States. The amount of oil that was found was massive, and spurred rapid development of commercial and industrial business throughout the region. Texas soon became one of the leading oil producing states  in the country, with the city of Houston building the largest concentration of refineries and petrochemical plants in the world. Essentially, oil helped turn Houston from a small rural town in the early 1900s into one of the largest cities in the US by the 1950’s.

Bud Adams having grown up in an oil family, his father was chairman of Phillips Petroleum company for 25 years, would later start his own business, ADA (or ada) Oil company in 1947 (now known as Adams Resources & Energy, Inc.) 

Jumping back to early years of the franchise, The Oilers achieved immediate success appearing in the first three AFL championship games. They defeated the San Diego Chargers in back to back championships, in 1960 and 61. But they lost their third championship attempt to the Dallas Texans in 1962. 

In 1968, the Oilers became the first football team to play in a domed stadium when they moved into the newly built Astrodome. Prior to that, the team had played at the University of Houston from 1960 to 64 and Rice University from 1965 to 67.

Merger with the NFL (1970-1993)

In 1970 the NFL merged with the AFL, dividing the teams up into two new conferences. Three original NFL teams, the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers, agreed to join the old AFL teams in the newly formed American Football Conference within the NFL. Each conference was also split into three divisions (east, central, and west), with the Oilers joining the AFC central division. After the merger, the team would struggle in the standings finishing last place in the AFC central division four seasons straight between 1970 and 1973. The team’s fortunes would begin to change starting in the late 1970’s, when they drafted future hall of fame running back Earl Campbell out of The University of Texas. He would go on to win rookie of the year in 1978, and would help the Oilers make the AFC championship game two years in a row. However, they were defeated both times by the eventual Super Bowl winners the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The 1980’s began on a promising note, with Earl Campbell dominating the league by rushing for 1934 yards and winning both the league’s rushing title and offensive player of the year. The Oilers finished the 1980 season 11-5 and made the playoffs as a wild card team. The Oilers season would end in disappointment however when they lost once again to eventual Super Bowl winners the Oakland Raiders in the first round, 27-7. 

Things after that quickly began to spiral downward. The next few seasons would be disastrous as the team only won 11 games over the span of three seasons. Some of that was in part due to a strike shortened season in 1982, but the team struggled to build on the AFC championship runs from a few years prior. Earl Cambell had become frustrated with his reduced playing time, and demanded to be traded towards the end of the 1983 season. After the Oilers lost the first six games of the next season, Campbell was traded to the New Orleans Saints for a first round draft pick. However, he would only play one full season with the Saints in 1985, after which he decided to retire. The Oilers on the other hand went 3-13 without Campbell that season.

There was a bright spot for the Oilers. During the 1984 season Houston won a bidding war to sign eventual Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who had been playing in the Canadien Football League for several years. Three years later, He would help the Oilers make the playoffs for the first time in seven years, securing a wild card spot. The Oilers faced the Seattle Seahawks in the opening round of the playoffs in 1987, and they held off Seattle to beat them 24-21 thanks to an overtime field goal by Oilers kicker Tony Zendejas. In the next round however, the Oilers would lose to the Denver Broncos 34-10 in the divisional playoffs. 

That same year, Bud Adams, seen here trying to find his car in the Astrodome parking lot,  actually threatened to move the team to Jacksonville Florida if the stadium wasn’t brought up to date with new renovations. Harris County, where the city of Houston is located, offered to pay for improvements to the Astrodome. At the time, the stadium only seated 50,000 fans, which was the smallest capacity in the NFL. The funds would be paid for through mostly tax increases on properties and hotels. However, Adams had further demands on improvements, which ballooned the estimated cost of renovations to 67 million dollars. The back and forth over the final cost of the renovations would create lasting tension between the Oilers and the city of Houston.

By the early 90’s, the Oilers had started to turn things around. They won their first division title in 25 years, and also their first as an NFL team  in 1991. However, they would be defeated in the divisional round by the Denver Broncos. The next year would see another successful regular season end in disappointment when the Oilers became immortalized in the largest comeback in NFL history. During the first half of the AFC Wild Card game, the Oilers dominated the Buffalo Bills with a 28-3 lead at halftime. However, the Bills had a huge second half scoring 35 points while holding the Oilers to only 10 points, forcing the game into overtime. The Bills would end up kicking a gaming winning field goal, shocking Houston with a 41-38 comeback win.

In 1993, the Oilers won the most games ever in franchise history with a record of 12-4, while winning another AFC central division title. But once again, they would lose in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Kansas City Chiefs. Not long after the season ended, Warren Moon was traded to the Minnesota Vikings. This would mark the beginning of the end of the Oilers time in Houston, as the team never again would make the playoffs.

The Last Years (1993-1996)

By the end of 1993, Bud Adams had become fed up with the Astrodome situation. He was never really happy with being a tenant in a stadium he didn’t own, and So he began seriously looking at moving the Oilers into a brand new stadium entirely.  The city, which had just spent a large amount of money renovating the Astrodome had no interest in spending more money to build a new stadium. Adams hoped to build a domed stadium that could also be the home for the Houston Rockets, similar to the Alamo dome in San Antonio with the Spurs. He also offered to pay 25 percent of the building costs. But after some time trying to convince the mayor of Houston Bob Lanier (LA-NEAR) to publicly support the plan, Adams realized he needed to start looking elsewhere. Adams then secretly met with Nashville’s mayor Phil Bredsen about potentially relocating to Tennessee, and the city of Nashiville promised to pay 144 million towards building a new stadium plus another 70 million to cover ticket sales.

Around this time, the city of Houston was in a tough position because all of it’s major sports franchises were in need of new stadiums and arenas.The Astros, who shared the Astrodome with the Oilers, had also become frustrated with the Astrodome’s lack of luxury boxes and modern amenities. They proposed building a new baseball only stadium in downtown Houston, and even threatened to move to North Virginia if a new stadium wasn’t built. The Rockets were also looking to leave their aging arena, the Summit which only seated 16,000 fans in order to build a newer larger arena for basketball (and with also the hope of potentially attracting an NHL team). 

When it became clear that Bud Adams wasn’t going to get the funding necessary to build a new stadium, the Oilers announced just after the 1995 season that they would be officially moving to Nashville, Tennessee prior to the 1998 season. Once the announcement was made, Houston understandably had little interest in supporting the Oilers anymore. Ticket sales for the 1996 season cratored, with the team attracting more than 30,000 fans only three times that season. Even the local radio stations that broadcasted games would routinely cut the games off before they finished in order to broadcast Houston Rocket preseason games instead. The last home game of the 1996 season, on December 15, attracted the smallest attendance in franchise history with just over 15,000 fans showing up. 

Making matters worse, the NFL had a blackout policy that required teams to sell out home games in order for them to broadcasted live in the home market. So fans in Houston couldn’t even watch the games on TV even if they wanted to. The Oilers, and the NFL not happy with the attendance situation reached a deal with the city of Houston to be let out of their lease a year early so that they could move to Nashville. 

However, Nashville wasn’t ready for the Oilers to move in just yet. They were still constructing the stadium that would be their new home, and the largest football stadium at that time in Nashville was Vanderbelt stadium that only seated 41,000. The Oilers then made the decision to play in Memphis, Tennessee at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium for the next two seasons. With the move from Houston to Memphis, the team would officially change its name to the Tennessee Oilers. 

The team however, quickly found themselves in the same situation they had when they had left Houston. Fans in Memphis (who had spent years trying to lure an NFL team to their city) had no interest in supporting a team they would lose in two seasons, especially one that was going to be located in the rival city of Nashville. At the same time, fans in Nashville had little desire driving 200 miles just to see their team play. With that, the Oilers once again played in front of the smallest crowds in the NFL. Of the first seven home games in Memphis none of them sold more than 27,000 tickets to a stadium that seated 62,000. 

Even with the struggling attendance, Bud Adams was determined to stick it out in Memphis. That would change however, during the last home game of the 1997 season. The Oilers hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in front of a nearly full crowd of 50,677. The only problem was, most of the 50,000 fans were Steeler fans, some estimating at least three quarters of the crowd were supporting Pittsburgh. Adams was so embarrassed by the situation that he decided to leave Memphis and have the team play at Vanderbelt’s stadium after all. 

On November 14, 1998 the Oilers officially changed their name to the “Tennessee Titans”. The team would still hold onto all the Oilers old team records, and history. While the NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue moved to retire the name “Oilers” so that no other future NFL team in Houston could have that name.

Legacy (1996-present)

With the Oilers gone, Harris county established a new sports authority governing body whose purpose is to operate and run stadiums and sports arenas throughout the county. One of their first projects was getting the Houston Astros new baseball stadium, “Enron Field” built (now known as “Minute Maid Park”). They also oversaw a construction of the Toyota Center which became the new home for the Rockets in 2003. Houston also wouldn’t have to wait long for the return of the NFL. In 1999, businessman Robert McNair was granted an expansion franchise that would be located in Houston. In 2002, the team would enter the league as the Houston Texans.

Bud Adams, seen here proudly declaring we’re number one, would continue to own the Tennessee Titans until his death in 2013, at the age of 90 years old. Bud Adams’ family also known as the “Adams Family” (nope not that family) continue to have controlling ownership of the Titans to this day. The team has also paid tribute to the Oilers on several occasions by wearing throwback uniforms, as they did in 2009. And they’ve inducted several former Oilers players into the Titans ring of honor, as a nod to the team’s past. But there are some, especially those in Houston who feel that the Oilers history doesn’t belong to the Titans and it should remain in Houston. While both teams and their history is still a part of Bud Adams legacy, many of the Tennessee Titan fans never watched players like Warren Moon or Earl Cambell play and have no real connection to the Oilers history. But Let me ask you guys ,would you like to see the Titans give back the Oilers history to the city of Houston and the Texans? And what did you guys think about the Oilers moving away from Houston to Tennessee?

Let me know in the comments below! If you’ve enjoyed this post, please hit the like button and feel free to share it with anyone else who might also enjoy it. For more sports history, check out my youtube channel, and you can follow All Sports History on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter which are posted on the right side of this page.

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6 responses to “What Happened To The Houston Oilers?”

  1. Great article. I’m a native Houstonian and grew up an Oilers fan. They left Houston when I was 11 years old. It was one of the saddest moments of my childhood. I am still fan of the franchise and go to Titans games across the country. I had a lot of animosity toward Bud and the mayors of Houston. We eventually built 3 brand new stadiums in the span of 5 years after their departure to add insult to injury. I’ll always be an Oilers/Titans fan and will raise my kids as fans too. Luv ya Blue! & TitanUp!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Yeah I feel you, I’m from the Los Angeles area and growing up we lost both the Rams and Raiders at the same time. I’ve never been able to bring myself to root for either one again, especially now that the Rams are back in LA lol.


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