Mike Munchak’s memories of playing in the Houston Astrodome are anything but hazy.
Nearly two decades since his Hall of Fame career ended, images of the recurring haze inside the “eighth wonder of the world” are as clear as ever.
“It was a little brutal when fans could smoke in there,” he said. “You’d come out in the second half and it was like a fog set in.”
With his second year as Tennessee Titans head coach set to begin in earnest this week, Munchak does not have a lot of time to reminisce.
The Titans’ 2012 regular season begins Sunday, Sept. 8, with a home game against the New England Patriots, the reigning AFC champions, and four of the Titans’ first six contests are against teams that made the playoffs a last season. For their part, they hope to end a three-year postseason drought, which matches the longest such streak since they relocated from Houston.
As the first coach who also played for the franchise, founded by Bud Adams in 1960 as an original member of the American Football League, preservation of the team’s history despite geographical and sobriquetical divides has been a high priority from the moment he was named Jeff Fisher’s replacement.
Thus he is — at once — coach and curator, strategist and storyteller, motivator and mythmaker.
While he focuses on the present, he relies upon the walls of the team’s training facility to preserve the past. Under his direction, the interior of Baptist Sports Park has been transformed into a museum, of sorts. The lobby, for example, features an “exhibit” of every team photo beginning with the first, the 1960 AFL champions. The hallway that leads to the offices of position coaches is lined with sketches of Tennessee Titans who have been selected to the Pro Bowl. Houston Oilers Pro Bowlers are featured in the cafeteria.
The process, which began nearly a year and a half ago, was completed this past weekend with the installation of a floor-to-ceiling mural outside the locker room that traces the history of the franchise through photographs.
“It’s not something you think about when you’re playing, but when you retire it’s kind of cool,” Munchak said. “The fact that we care enough — that the organization does — to do a little something extra to show that we appreciate what you’ve done on the field for the team, I think it’s kind of neat. Nothing happens unless Mr. Adams wants to do it. Obviously, he believes in the tradition and it’s very important to him. He really enjoys all of that, especially the early years when he rolled up his sleeves and he and a handful of other owners made it happen when everyone thought they were crazy.
“… All the credit goes to him. He’s the one that agreed and wants to do this, and he enjoys seeing the story of the team being told.”
The history of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans is more than the singular story of a franchise or the pet project of a wealthy businessman. It is woven into the larger tale of today’s National Football League as the starting point for many features of the modern game, which only enhances the value of Munchak’s efforts.
The Astrodome, for example, was the sport’s first indoor stadium. Now more than a quarter of the league’s 32 clubs play their home games under either permanent or retractable roofs.
The impact extends to the way the game is played, officiated and celebrated by its participants. The origin of many wide-open passing attacks, the use of instant replay, the showmanship of some of the game’s more colorful performers all have a direct link to the franchise.
Mike Renfro does not need to watch the video. The moment replays in his head every time he is asked, which — more than 30 years later — is often.
More importantly, though, those who officiated the AFC Championship game between the Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 6, 1980 never got a second look at the play in the final minute of the third quarter until it was too late.
The Oilers trailed the Steelers, led by numerous eventual Hall of Famers including Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann, by a touchdown when Renfro hauled in a pass from quarterback Dan Pastorini in the back corner of the end zone. The wide receiver wasted no time signaling touchdown, but he was the only one.
“I was somewhat celebratory with one hand sticking up in the air as I slid into the snow thinking touchdown,” he said. “When I got up, Donald Orr, the [side judge], he was looking at me, looking at the ground and it looked like he’d seen a ghost. So he did not make an immediate call.”
At the time, instant replay was a staple of television broadcasts but was nowhere to be seen in the stadiums by the officials or the fans. Video boards did not exist and instant replay was not part of the decision-making process.
So while NBC showed the play over and over and over and color analyst Merlin Olson declared it an obvious touchdown, the game officials’ only option was to huddle under the goalpost and look to one another.
“For what seemed to be an eternity, they cussed and discussed what they thought they saw and tried to come up with a play — either a catch or no-catch,” Renfro said. “… It was magnified really because of the delay of the call by the ref. If he would have immediately signaled ‘no catch,’ I don’t think it would be anywhere near the magnitude. There was about a three-minute pause, whiskey bottles were coming out of the crowd — it was about three minutes of chaos.”
The decision was that Renfro did not complete the catch inbounds and the immediate result was a difference of four points. The Oilers kicked a field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter, never got even and ultimately lost 27-13.
In the long-term, though, that play became the impetus for the fact that instant replay was implemented at the start of the 1986 season. Those on the competition committee at the time repeatedly have said the play — NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle admitted the referees blew the call — was central to the discussion of the need for some sort of video review.
“I think the magnitude of the game, the winner going to the Super Bowl, was the catalyst to all of that happening,” Renfro, who played 10 years for the Oilers and Dallas Cowboys, said. “I think if it was the preseason or even a regular season game with less consequences, it may have taken a year or two longer to get instant replay. It was going to come, but there wasn’t any conversation about it before, to my knowledge.
“It really is the biggest play that I was involved in. The average-to-passive fan remembers Mike Renfro from that catch that was not called correctly.”
It was obvious anytime Billy “White Shoes” Johnson scored touchdowns.
Often when he did so, it was not a matter of inches. It involved massive chunks of the football field, typically more than half of it, to be exact, and ultimately was cause for celebration. [Click here to read about some of Johnson's favorite end zone celebrations. ]
The undersized speedster was one of the game’s premier return men in the early 1980s, thanks to a steady string of dizzying and dazzling touchdown runs. It didn’t hurt that his time in the end zone often was as memorable as his journey to it.
Eight of his 35 career touchdowns came on punt or kickoff returns, the longest of which covered 87 yards. Presumably all of his scores included a little something extra, beginning with his first, against the Pittsburgh Steelers of all teams, on Oct. 6, 1974, the fourth game of his career.
“Scoring touchdowns didn’t come easy for a guy my size, and it was just one of those things,” the 5-foot-9 Johnson said. “It wasn’t automatic. … I would tell myself sometimes that if I was to score I wasn’t going to do it. But it just happened.”
It, of course, was the "Funky Chicken," his widely recognized touchdown dance inspired by the 1969 Rufus Thomas hit, and it made Johnson one of the sport’s original showmen. The product of a Division III program — Widener College — was a precursor to Ickey Woods, Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson and anyone else who ever has turned touchdowns into performance art.
He began to dance as a record-setting receiver, running back and return man in college and continued it throughout his 13-year professional career, which included two seasons (1975, 1977) in which he led the league in punt return average and scored on both kickoff and punt returns. Later, with the Atlanta Falcons, he developed into a wide receiver, twice catching more than 60 passes.
His combination of production and charisma earned him a spot on the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and even a place in the heart of opposing fans throughout the league.
“I’d go on the road sometimes and people would call my room at the hotel and say, ‘Hey, we really like your dancing. I hope you score once but that our team wins,’ ” he said. “That happened three or four times on the road.
“I never tried to offend anybody. I don’t believe in trying to offend anybody.”
He did say certain officials, those of a more traditional mindset, warned him prior to games and threatened to call a penalty if he did the dance within the sidelines. He also said opposing players regularly vowed to stop him but later admitted they enjoyed the show when they failed to do so.
What has transpired in the years since, of course, has been a dizzying array of end zone celebrations ranging from Woods’ trademark dance, the Icky Shuffle, to Chad Johnson’s wide-ranging interpretations and even ones involving props, such as Owens’ use of a Sharpie or Joe Horn’s incorporation of a cell phone.
Occasionally league officials have passed legislation to define what is and is not an acceptable means of celebration, including the recent decision to outlaw the use of anything not normally a part of the player’s uniform.
“It’s fun,” Johnson said. “I think it’s all entertainment if it’s done in the right way. If it’s done in a derogatory way or a demeaning way, trying to embarrass someone or denigrate someone then you have to be careful with that. I think it’s a good thing but it has to be done within reason.”
In the 1990s, the Houston Oilers’ passing game was anything but a sideshow. It was the main attraction every week.
Installed as the primary offensive approach under the direction of head coach Jack Pardee, who took the job in 1990, the run-and-shoot offense was hailed by some as a revolutionary approach, one that typically featured four wide receivers, no tight end and had the quarterback throw while on the move.
The results were immediate. The Oilers led the NFL in passing offense three straight years beginning in 1990 and finished among the top three in total offense in each of the first four years with the scheme. They also made the postseason four consecutive times.
“People tried all kinds of exotic things at the time to try to stop us,” Moon said. “We saw everything you could think of.”
Eventually, the offense stopped itself.
Critics railed against the idea that a team did not have any tight ends, particularly for times late in the game when an extra blocker was needed to help run the ball in order to control the clock. They got all the ammunition they needed when the Oilers blew a 28-point second-half lead in a playoff loss to Buffalo in the 1992 wild card round. The following year they failed hold a 10-point halftime advantage in a divisional game against Kansas City.
Less than two years later, Pardee was fired and Fisher pulled the plug on the run-and-shoot in favor of a much more conservative attack.
Then a funny thing happened.
Teams found ways to incorporate elements of the run-and-shoot into more traditional offensive approaches. Like wildflowers in a meadow, it pops up more and more places every year.
“I think the league has adopted a lot of the four wides that were introduced in the late ’80s, early ’90s,” current Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. “People have had success with it and they’ve taken it to more of a drop-back scheme. The concepts are good and they’ll continue to hold up.”
Palmer was the Oilers’ wide receivers coach under Pardee and has been a Johnny Appleseed of sorts. He held on to many of those concepts as his career progressed with jobs as an offensive coordinator and head coach.
Earlier this year, he declared the run-and-shoot was “alive and well” in the NFL. The New York Giants, for example, won the Super Bowl last season with Kevin Gilbride, the Oilers offensive coordinator during their run-and-shoot days, calling the plays, many of which involved ideas culled from the run-and-shoot.
Ironically, no one has benefited more from the resurgence of those notions than modern tight ends such as New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and New England’s Rob Gronkowski, who are catching passes in record numbers.
“A lot of the teams that use the so-called spread offense with four or five wide receivers are doing a lot of the same things we did,” Moon said. “This is a league of imitation and right now so much of the league is geared to the passing game so a lot of the teams are doing things we used to do, and it makes me smile when I see that.”
Important as it is to the NFL in 2012, the Houston Oilers’ history is somewhat lost within the franchise.
Those who played in Houston feel varying degrees of disconnect in the wake of the move to Tennessee 15 years ago and the change two years later in nickname, logo, colors and all other identifiers.
“I know for me that’s where my records are and where most of my history is,” said Moon, whose first 10 NFL seasons were with the Oilers. “I almost feel like I don’t have a team to identify with for the majority of time I played in the NFL. … That Oilers history is kind of in the abyss.”
Houston has another team, the Texans, but the best efforts of the leaders of that organization, including owner, founder and Bud Adams’ neighbor Bob McNair, to connect to the city’s pro football past have been unsuccessful.
That leaves former players to forge bonds elsewhere. Moon, for example said he felt a closer connection with other teams for which he played even though he spent no more than three years in any place after he left Houston. For the past two years, Renfro has taken part in alumni activities with the Dallas Cowboys even though he played more than half of his career with the Oilers.
“Most of my ex-teammates will tell you probably, that when they left Houston most of the Oilers’ franchise memories left too,” Renfro said. “… I’ve not been to the stadium and seen a game but I know they’ve had some nice years. I’m proud of what they’ve done, but it’s kind of a lost franchise, the old Oilers franchise.
“There’s a team in Houston now that’s a pretty good football team. I respect Bob McNair and the Texans, and he’s reached out to the alumni as much as you could ask for but we’re not attached to that team other than that the city has a team. It’s certainly not the Oilers.”
Munchak, though, is doing all he can to give those former players a sense of connection.
His presence and that of chief executive officer Mike Reinfeldt, an Oilers defensive back in the 1970s and 1980s, in positions of authority has helped bridge that divide to a certain degree. Munchak even has strengthened ties with the additions of other former Oilers, offensive line coach Bruce Matthews and assistant secondary coach Steve Brown, to his staff.
“A lot of the guys, unfortunately, in Houston, there’s nowhere for them to go,” Munchak said. “I’m always telling them, ‘Hey, your stuff’s hanging proud in Tennessee. Come by and visit, come to a game, come by in the offseason.’ ”
He has addressed the issue annually for years at a golf tournament he and Matthews conduct jointly in the Houston area, through his Hall of Fame connections and any number of other opportunities that have presented themselves since he became the head coach.
“There’s a lot of history here,” Brown, drafted by the Oilers in 1983, said. “There’s certain organizations like Carolina and Jacksonville that just came about where this is one of the original [AFL] teams. It’s changed cities but it’s still the same team and the same owner.
“I’m not a part of the Texans — the only part of the Texans is the ‘Houston’ part. … Mike has done a hell of job trying to get ex-Oilers here because it is part of the family.”
There is a certain selfish motivation behind Munchak’s efforts.
After all, he spent his entire 12-year playing career with the Oilers, and if their history is lost part of his personal history is lost along with it — any part that is not included with his bust at Canton, at least.
He insists, though, that there is a competitive advantage to be gained — albeit likely small one — if his current players understand the history of their franchise and feel a connection to it.
“When guys look at it that way, maybe you give a little more,” Munchak said. “You’re a part of something more. It’s not just an individual doing his job and then going to the next team. You’re part of something that has tradition. You’re trying to build more tradition. You’re a part of that tradition and we’re going to remember you. Contribute, and we’re going to tell your story.”
It’s a story that pre-dates 1999 and the franchise’s only appearance in the Super Bowl but it also includes the likes of Steve McNair, Eddie George, Jevon Kearse and Keith Bulluck. The images of those players as well as ones on the current roster are included in the mural installed over the weekend. Updates will be made throughout the building as performances warrant.
“Ex-players, they get that,” Renfro said. “I’m not saying that guys like Bill Parcells and some great Hall of Fame coaches don’t get it, but as an ex-player, especially with the franchise you grew up with like Mike did, I think it means a ton. … I think that adds to the work ethic, maybe only slightly but I think they want to be like those guys on the wall.
“I think it is cool. It does not surprise me. I’m proud that Mike is doing that. It makes me feel good, and I hope he continues to grow it.”