- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 14, 2002

HOUSTON It's not surprising that football would dominate conversation over lunch at two tables in a Tex-Mex restaurant in early August. After all, this is Texas a state that considers football right up there with God and country, and not necessarily in that order.

But this conversation isn't about what's happening in College Station or Austin. It's about a team that some might say isn't as talented as the Longhorns the Texans.

Professional football is back in southeast Texas, and Houston not only has embraced it but cuddled up with the NFL's newest expansion team. And it couldn't have happened at a better time.

America's fourth-largest city has been battered in recent years by floods, drought and scandal. So the return of the NFL to Houston isn't just a sports story, it's a matter of civic pride.

And nothing not golf, the Astros, the Rockets or favorite son George W.Bush makes Houstonians feel better about themselves and their city than football.

The Texans have filled the void left by the move of the Oilers to Tennessee in 1997. The 27,000 tickets to the opening scrimmage at the University of Houston against the Dallas Cowboys sold out in less than an hour.

No wonder Texans owner Bob McNair guaranteed the NFL five years of sellouts before he was awarded the league's 32nd franchise for an expansion-record $700million in 1999. Simple supply and demand.

"The Cowboys want to be America's team; we want to be Texas' team," said McNair, who held Oilers season tickets for each of their 27 seasons.

The Texans' presence is a huge psychological boost for a community that not long ago was merely hoping the Enron name would be stripped from the Astros' ballpark (it was).

If Enron is Houston's recent past, Reliant Stadium is its glitzy, Texas-sized future. The Texans' nearly completed home 69,500 seats and 1.9 million square feet under a retractable roof towers over the adjacent Astrodome, a building that Houstonians used to brag was the eighth wonder of the world.

"We've had some economic disappointments with some of our leading companies, so to have the Texans come along and offer so much optimism for the people of Houston is very important," said McNair, a longtime major player in the city's business and charitable sectors. "Seeing Reliant Stadium next to the Astrodome brings home its immensity. It might be the most important structure in Texas. It's so imposing that once you see it, you won't forget it."

And that's not even looking behind the scenes at the players' luxurious digs. Across the street are three practice fields complemented by a track, a running hill and the biggest practice bubble in North America.

"They say they do everything in Texas big, and this is definitely first class," former Baltimore Ravens receiver Jermaine Lewis said, observing the indoor pool, hot tub and cold tub next to the NFL's biggest locker room (12,000 square feet). "They didn't cut any corners."

The pool area is unprecedented, and the players' lounge complete with three PCs to check e-mail, surf the net and monitor Web sites is the NFL's largest. The locker room's 80 stalls are twice as wide as those in most NFL locker rooms. Around the corner is a separate staff locker room with stalls reserved for McNair and other non-uniformed personnel. The players work out in a weight room that's twice the size of the one at Redskin Park. The training, equipment and video areas are similarly outsized.

And even though it's in Houston, the Texans training facility has a Washington feel to it, with plenty of former Redskins employees. General manager Charley Casserly, trainer Kevin Bastin, strength coaches Dan Riley and Ray Wright, equipment manager Jay Brunetti, operations director Barry Asimos, nine scouts, an administrative assistant and five players all used to call Redskin Park home.

McNair wanted to hold training camp in Houston's sweltering summer to increase fan interest and make better use of the new facilities. Coach Dom Capers devised a schedule with frequent night practices and occasional workouts in the air-conditioned bubble.

"We don't see an 80-degree day in Houston from June through September," Bastin said. "It's like the movie 'Groundhog Day' every day's the same. During the summer, it's 95 degrees with 50-60 percent humidity."

Staffers' individual offices and three expansive coaches' meeting rooms serve as the think tank of the facility. The pro scouts meet in a large room that has outlined on its walls the players on every NFL roster those with pro experience who are as yet unsigned, those whom the Texans are interested in acquiring and those who will be free agents next winter. The college scouts' room has this year's draft on one wall, next year's draft projection across the way and early rankings of the Class of 2004 on a third wall.

"I found out what everybody had done and did it better," said Casserly, who visited 10 relatively new NFL facilities in the first few months after he was hired in January 2000 following an interview in which he wowed McNair with a 3-inch thick binder outlining his plans for the franchise. "I told Bob that my reputation and Dom's reputation didn't make any difference. Who are the Houston Texans? That's the question we had to answer. The first thing we had to do is build a facility that makes people notice. We're starting from scratch. We had to show the players that we're committed to winning."

That commitment impressed quarterback David Carr, the first pick in April's college draft, as well as the seven starters landed in the expansion draft: offensive tackles Ryan Young (though he will be sidelined for a month with a groin injury) and Tony Boselli (the five-time Pro Bowl performer whose ailing left shoulder has kept him out all summer and whose absence could make Carr's rookie year quite painful), linebacker Jamie Sharper, defensive ends Gary Walker and Seth Payne and cornerbacks Marcus Coleman and Aaron Glenn (a two-time Pro Bowl pick).

The team also picked up four starters through free agency: linebacker Kailee Wong, center Steve McKinney, halfback James Allen and tight end Rod Rutledge.

"You could say, 'Oh no. I'm starting all over again,' but it's a lot of fun to be a part of putting something together," said Boselli, the first draft pick in Jacksonville Jaguars history in 1995. "We have high expectations because of our talent, but we're also realistic in that other teams have been together for years and we're just getting started."

Despite all that veteran talent much of which arrived thanks to other teams' salary cap problems only Boselli and Glenn have turned 30. And the Texans were awarded 28 picks in the 2002 and 2003 college drafts, twice the normal number.

Walker, who played for the Oilers during their final two seasons in Houston, was thrilled to return despite the bad taste left from the lame duck final months of 1996. Most of the newcomers already have joined previous Houston resident Glenn and bought houses locally. Riley, who had never lived south of Northern Virginia, even plans to retire in Houston.

"Houston is a great place to live," Casserly said. "There's no income tax. It has the third-lowest cost of living of any NFL city. It's an easy sell if you have a class organization and a great facility."

The 34-17 loss to the underwhelming New York Giants in the preseason opener showed Houston still has plenty of ground to cover before it can compete even in the AFC South, whose veteran teams Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee all finished below .500 last year. But the Texans are thinking long-term despite Sharper's goal of topping the expansion record of 7-9 set by Capers' Carolina team in 1995. Those Panthers went 12-4 in 1996 and reached the NFC Championship game before age and dissension cost Capers his job two years later. He restored his reputation as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator before coming to Houston in January 2001.

"Having gone through the situation in Carolina, I know it takes a great deal of patience, but if you have the courage to stick with your plan there can be a big payoff in the end," said Capers, a well-respected defensive coach who's sticking with the 3-4 scheme that has worked so well for him but that few other coaches use. "The chance to build something from scratch is the ultimate challenge."

The Super Bowl will be played at Reliant in 18 months, and barring a minor miracle, the Texans will be in the stands, not on the field. Still, there's no question Houston is off to a good start.

"We have a nucleus that's a lot better than I expected, but we're going to lose this year, so we put a lot of effort into getting the right kind of players," Casserly said. "The more character you have, the quicker you start winning."

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