Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams can recall with vividness many of his earliest memories of the old American Football League — those tales of signing 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon away from the NFL, the formation of the so-called Foolish Club with Lamar Hunt and Ralph Wilson, and the eventual merger between the AFL and the NFL.
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Adams still maintains a hand in the daily affairs of the franchise he founded even 50 years after the fact.
When the Titans take on the Buffalo Bills in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, one part of Adams’ legacy will be on full display. That part will be apparent on Sunday night when the Titans don the uniforms of the 1960 Houston Oilers, winners of the very first AFL championship.
It is something Adams is looking forward to — seeing the Oilers uniforms (ones he himself chose) again on a football field, made more special because it is happening at the Hall of Fame Game.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’m still on the [Hall of Fame] board up there, so I’ll be up there,” Adams said. “We’ll be wearing our old Oilers’ uniforms, and they’ll be wearing their old Bills’ uniforms. And when we play the Jets up there in New York, they’ll be wearing their (New York) Titans uniform, and we’ll be wearing our (Houston) Oilers uniform.”
Senior executive vice president Steve Underwood, who oversees the Titans operations in Nashville, knows the owner will be thrilled this weekend with a walk down memory lane that will include Bills’ owner and fellow AFL founder Ralph Wilson as part of the Hall of Fame Class of 2009.
“He’s going to be thrilled. I think this is something Mr. Adams has been waiting for and been looking forward to,” Underwood said. “He’s been talking about it now for a couple of years.
“I guarantee he’ll have a ringside seat, and he’ll be as excited as anyone in Canton. He picked out that uniform, picked out the helmet. He was right in the middle of all those selections, and I think he’s going to be very excited not just about that game, but all the games we play as the Houston Oilers.”
The Titans will wear an Oilers uniform three times this regular season — at home against the Bills on Nov. 15 and in road games at the New York Jets on Sept. 27 and at New England on Oct. 18.
Though Adams isn’t in the Hall of Fame, his fingerprints are all over the AFL’s early days and of course, the Titans/Oilers franchise.
“There’s such a tremendous respect for him at the ownership level and the league level. At the annual meetings, he’s serving on the Hall of Fame committee and the Finance Committee,” said Titans coach Jeff Fisher. “He’s a great owner. This is a real special time for him and Mr. Wilson. They were pioneers. Without them, who knows where this league would be. It’s going to be very special for him this year.”
It was Adams, whose signing of Cannon for double the salary the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams had offered, that gave the upstart league its first star attraction.
And it was Adams who convinced other AFL owners that raiding the more established NFL for star players and creating a bidding war would be the fastest way to achieve an eventual merger, a process that began in 1966 and was completed by 1970.
“I said the only way we can get them to think about taking us is we’ve got to start signing some of their players,” Adams said. “Lamar didn’t want to do it and said we just better fight this on our own. I said, ‘Well, they aren’t going to be interested in ever letting us come in.’
“Pro football [was] getting a lot of good acceptance across the United States with our new league …and I said the only way we’re going to get them interested is we’ve got to start signing some of their players. So that’s what we did.”
The risks Adams and the other original AFL owners took -- investing $25,000 in the fledgling league and challenging the NFL -- led them to be dubbed The Foolish Club. A half-century later, that venture looks anything but foolhardy.
“Put in context, that was a tremendous risk that those men took,” Underwood said. “They were going up against the most established pro football league and were willing to take that chance. To me, I think that he was willing to take those risks was clearly an enduring part of his legacy.”
Added Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt, “I think he’s had a huge impact on the pro game. You look at the last 50 years and through the course of the AFL and even in the NFL, he’s been an integral part of the NFL for a half century.”
More recently, Adams took another risk much more familiar to fans here locally — uprooting his team from Houston after 37 seasons and relocating to Tennessee, meandering from Memphis to Vanderbilt and finally to the team’s new stadium in 1999, accompanied that year by the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance.
“I think moving the franchise at his age, being willing to pick up and leave a city that he loved and move them here and go through all the difficulty of relocation, of building a new stadium, transplanting everyone, those are things that take a lot of leadership,” Underwood said. “You just don’t see people pick up and do that after they’ve been in the same place for 35 years doing the same thing.”
It is that move that, while rewarding, was in a way heartbreaking for Adams. The reason — it meant he could not longer be involved up close on a daily basis with the team he created.
“I’m sure it was very, very tough on him,” Fisher said. “Fortunately for us and for him, several years after the move, we had some success. Since then, we’ve been fairly successful here. But it was not an easy thing for him to move this whole franchise and to remain in Houston.”
Underwood agreed and noted that even as an absentee owner, Adams makes it a point to communicate on a regular basis with those charged with running the organization on and off the field.
“I think it has taken a toll on him. He has been up here, just in the last six months, as much as I’ve ever seen him come. He misses the daily interaction with the coaches,” Underwood said. “He was here the other day and visited with a dozen players down in the locker room. He loves that kind of stuff, and I think being in another city and not being around it 24/7, I think it has been hard on him.”
Since the death of his wife Nancy earlier this year, Adams has been spending more time traveling to Nashville, coming here on draft weekend, attending the memorial for Steve McNair and visiting again this past week when training camp opened.
Showing respect — both ways
Those who know Adams are not surprised that he tries to stay involved, even at age 86 and with the team 850 miles away in Nashville.
Quarterback Vince Young found out first-hand just how informed Adams was about his team and players when the Titans selected him third overall in 2006.
“When I met him, I was surprised by how much he knew about me from high school all the way up until now,” Young said. “It just showed how much respect he had for me as a person and player, and I didn’t have any choice but to [respect him].
“Some owners don’t even know anything about their teams, but it lets you know that he knew about the players on his team and that he was hands-on with a lot of different things going on in the organization.”
Hands-on, yes, but still willing to let those he has put in charge do the tasks they are assigned to do, say those who work for him.
“For 35 years, I’ve been with him in this organization,” longtime scout C.O. Brocato said. “When I went to work for him, I thought I was going to have to do this and that, but they gave me an area and said ‘do it. Take care of it. It’s yours.’ And that’s what it’s been.
“Mr. Adams has never interfered in our department. He’s there and [he] wants to know, but he’s never come in and said, ‘y’all have got to take this guy.’ He’s never done that.”
Reinfeldt, who played for Adams for seven years in Houston and now is in his third season as general manager, seconded that notion about Adams.
“As a player, I didn’t know him that well, but from the perspective of my position now, he’s a wonderful owner, because he’s got a great concept of the business, how it all works, how it works together,” Reinfeldt said. “And I think he’s very good at delegating authority to the people he’s hired.”
However, as Fisher pointed out, though Adams doesn’t cross the line and interfere unnecessarily, he makes sure to stay close to the pulse of the organization.
“Everyone communicates with him on a daily basis,” he said. “And he knows exactly what’s going on.”