- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000

ATLANTA Bud Adams remembers when players didn't have agents or lawyers, when they would plop down in front of his desk in the Houston Oilers' offices and negotiate contracts for themselves. "In one of the drawers," he said yesterday, "I kept stacks of $1 bills with a $100 bill on top." After a certain amount of haggling, he would open the drawer, pretending to be looking for something, and literally show the player the money.

"Now," Adams would say, sliding the drawer shut, "let's get back to the contract… . " And the player, eyes popping, would all but shout, "I want some of that." Soon enough, the cagey Texas oilman part Cherokee, all businessman would close another deal.

In the early days of the American Football League, an owner had to use all necessary means to recruit and keep talent. "We did all kinds of things," Adams said. "We set new guidelines on how to sign players. Whatever they wanted, we tried to provide it cattle, girls, money, cars. Nice girls, mind you. There were no restrictions. It was a lot more fun than it is now."

The Oilers signed Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon under the goal posts after the Sugar Bowl for the then-amazing sum of $100,000 over three years. Adams got receiver Willard Dewveall to jump from the Chicago Bears by buying a large insurance policy from him. Ralph Neely, the All-American offensive tackle from Oklahoma, wanted to own a gas station; Bud arranged it (though Neely later backed out of the deal).

"I remember when we went up to Minneapolis for our first draft," he said. "I had hired John Breen, the [Chicago] Cardinals director of player personnel, but everybody else was using Street and Smith's [for guidance]… . Breen was the reason we got [George] Blanda. He knew [George] Halas had him working for a trucking company up there and was paying him because he didn't want him playing for another team. That's how we got him."

Adams remembers a lot, because he was one of the founding fathers of the AFL, along with Lamar Hunt. Unsuccessful in their attempts to buy NFL franchises, they started a league of their own and changed the face of football. The AFL was the Arena League of its time: wide open. The '61 Oilers threw 48 touchdown passes, as many as Dan Marino would 23 years later. It was wacky (the Broncos originally wore vertically striped socks). It was wild (Houston once played a game against Oakland that was tied 35-35 at halftime). And with the NFL letting down its hair a little itself, it might have been the best 10 years the game has seen.

There was one thing Adams would have liked to forget, though: Coming into this season, his was the only AFL franchise that had never been to the Super Bowl. One by one, they had all gone Hunt's Kansas City Chiefs in the '66 season, the Raiders in '67, the Jets in '68, the Dolphins in '73, the Broncos in '79, the Bengals in '81, the Patriots in '85. The Bills finally broke through in '90, and the Chargers went in '94.

That left Adams' Oilers, who soon relocated to Tennessee when the city of Houston wouldn't help them build a new stadium. It's funny, the Oilers were one of the AFL's flagship franchises in the early years, winning the first two titles and reaching the championship game the next year. Blanda, Cannon, Charlie Hennigan and Charley "the Human Manhole Cover" Tolar were some of the young league's biggest stars. But once the AFL and NFL merged, the Oilers became a veritable grease spot.

They made a comeback in the late '70s with Bum Phillips, Earl Campbell and Elvin Bethea. And from '87 to '93, Warren Moon quarterbacked them to seven straight playoff berths. But Bum's clubs couldn't beat the Steelers, and Moon's couldn't hold a 35-3 lead against the Bills. "There were four years in those seven years where I thought we had a chance to go to the Super Bowl," Adams said. "And then we went through a rebuilding phase."

So when Tennessee was getting ready to play in the AFC title game this year, Adams joked to his players, "If we're going to do this, we'd better do it pretty quick. Because I'm getting old, and I don't want to go to the Super Bowl in a wheelchair." The Titans proceeded to win one for the Budster, rolling over Jacksonville 33-14 to earn a trip to Atlanta.

Adams isn't quite the sentimental figure Art Rooney was when his Steelers finally reached the Super Bowl in 1974. Rooney was like the league's favorite uncle and he had stuck with his team through thin and thinner for 42 years. Adams, on the other hand, can be a crusty old coot. He once "busted a sportswriter in the jaw," he reminisced yesterday, because he had "had enough of his crap." And he did, after all, pull the Oilers out of Houston. That almost puts him in the Art Modell/Bob Irsay class.

But Houstonians seem willing to let bygones be bygones. The Houston Chronicle conducted a poll recently, and 70 percent of the respondents said they were rooting for Tennessee in the playoffs. Adams says he "can walk around town, and people still come up and say hi. I've got a lot of friends in Houston, and they were great supporters of the Oilers."

And there's still a little something of the Oilers in the Titans. That pale blue that runs across the shoulders of their jerseys is "a little bit different blue" than they wore in Houston, but "not a whole lot," Adams said with a smile. Houstonians deserve that much. We'll find out Sunday what Bud Adams deserves.

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