It seems a simple abundant recipe: amalgamate a football-mad citizenry with a aggregation defective a home, and bang, burning adulation affair. And it about consistently works — see Baltimore, Phoenix, Indianapolis and Charlotte, for instance. Alike aback the matchmaking doesn’t aftereffect in an actual connection, the atom eventually bonfire up — see, say, Los Angeles and the Rams.
But alone already in the NFL’s history accept a aggregation and a burghal actively hated anniversary added appropriate from the jump, alone already has the accord affronted so animal that the bung got pulled afterwards aloof a few months. Like all bad relationships, it faltered on the rocks of annoyance and pain, and additionally like all bad relationships, both parties would aloof as anon balloon it anytime happened.
This is the adventure of a burghal that, for one abrupt season, was an NFL boondocks … and hated every minute of it.
If fate’s auto had affronted in a hardly altered direction, you’d be account previews appropriate now of how able-bodied the Memphis Hound Dogs will assemblage up in 2018 adjoin their AFC South rivals. The “Heartbreak Hotel” would be as feared a area of admirers as Cleveland’s Dawg Pound or Oakland’s Atramentous Hole. The achievability was there, but the NFL chose a altered path, one that led far abroad from Memphis.
For all its authority as a agreeable hotbed, Memphis is, in truth, a actual ample babyish town. Adamantine up adjoin the Mississippi River, far from any coast, awe-inspiring in a way that can alarm the comfort-minded, it’s all too generally a abode you stop through on the way to achieve else. If you’ve beatific a FedEx amalgamation in the accomplished 30 years, affairs are it’s baffled through Memphis.
“We’re not a burghal that has all the advantages of a littoral city, we’re not a burghal that has a dozen Fortune 500 companies,” says Frank Murtaugh, managing editor of Memphis annual and a 30-year Memphis resident. “But we accept desire, we accept heart, we accept devotion, the amount apparatus to actuality a abiding sports fan. We aloof bald a winner.”
Memphis’ afraid accord with the NFL dates aback decades, as the burghal had accustomed time and afresh to appealing itself up to allure the league’s attention, and time and afresh watched as added cities snared or were awarded new teams.
The Memphis authorization of the World Football League, dubbed “the Grizzlies” three decades afore the basketball aggregation arrived, boasted notables like Danny White and Larry Csonka, and brought football carelessness to the Mid-South in the mid-’70s. Aback the alliance folded, the aggregation calm division admission deposits from 40,000 admirers to try to attract the NFL to accompany the Grizzlies into the fold; the NFL refused.
Ten years later, the Memphis Showboats of the USFL were one of the league’s highlights, affairs out the Liberty Bowl for amateur like a June showdown adjoin Birmingham. (Getting Memphians to do annihilation in the river-soaked calefaction of June is an amazing achievement.) But aback the USFL evaporated afterward a accusation adjoin the NFL brought by one of the league’s owners, a New York agent by the name of Donald Trump, the burghal already afresh begin itself team-less.
In 1987, Memphis spent $19.5 actor — about $43.2 actor in today’s dollars — to refurbish the already-dated Liberty Bowl, accretion bank basement to 62,000 and abacus 44 affluence suites to the saddle-shaped accurate oval. The burghal again sat aback and waited for the NFL to alarm … and again watched in abhorrence as Phoenix, like Indianapolis afore it, vultured abroad an absolute franchise.
Six years later, Memphis took addition attack at the league, with an buying accumulation that included bounded big shots like Fred Smith, architect of FedEx, and Elvis Presley Enterprises. Memphis pitched a aggregation — “the Hound Dogs,” a byproduct of the Presley estate’s affiliation — to the NFL, adverse off adjoin four added hopefuls: Charlotte, Jacksonville, Baltimore, and St. Louis. (Bar trivia: while Jacksonville had already acclimatized on the “Jaguars” name, Carolina initially alleged its -to-be aggregation “the Cougars,” while Baltimore offered “Bombers” and St. Louis, “Stallions.” The 1990s were not a abundant era for abeyant aggregation names.)
Based on that list, you can assumption what happened next. All four of those added cities got franchises – Charlotte and Jacksonville won the amplification bids, and Baltimore and St. Louis absorbed teams from added cities by architecture far splashier stadiums than the Liberty Bowl. Memphis couldn’t win on its own merits, and it didn’t accept the appurtenances to cull addition aggregation abroad from its home.
So Memphis sat back, baffled its wounds – it was acclimated to that by now – and accustomed to acquisition abundance in academy basketball, area a kid alleged Penny Hardaway had brought some civic bulge aback to the bounded university program.
Eddie George fabricated some babble in the Oilers’ aboriginal Memphis d adjoin Oakland. (Getty)
About 600 afar abroad in Houston, a football-mad burghal was growing anytime added affronted with its aggregation … and added specifically, with its owner, Bud Adams. Adams, who fabricated his fortunes in oil, was the anti-Memphis, a charlatan who’d baffled the NFL every time he affronted over his cards. A allotment associate of the old AFL, he active 1960 Heisman Trophy champ Billy Cannon appropriate out from beneath the NFL’s nose, again won a cloister action to accumulate him. Nearly 20 years later, he won the rights to the admired Earl Campbell in an all-in barter with Tampa Bay, and rode Campbell appropriate to the top of the AFC. But Adams seemed accursed to never see the promised acreage of the Super Bowl; the Steelers thumped Houston in two beeline AFC championships, and a decade later, Houston suffered the affliction collapse in playoff history, accident a 1993 AFC wild-card d to Buffalo afterwards arch 35-3.
Like Memphis, Adams had watched with backbiting as the Rams confused into adorned new address in St. Louis. But while Memphis coveted a team, Adams lusted afterwards the stadium. The Astrodome, area the Oilers had already played to tens of bags of absonant Luv Ya Dejected fans, was a decrepit, alveolate dump, and not continued afterwards that playoff collapse, Adams began ambitious $186 actor for a new stadium. Houston affronted on him, hard, and a 2-14 division in 1994 didn’t advice his case.
So Adams started casting a aberrant eye about the country, attractive for addition home, and lo and behold, then-Nashville ambassador Phil Bredesen formed out the red carpet. He spearheaded a May 1996 election area Nashville residents, visions of Super Bowls dancing in their heads, voted to buck the burden of allotment for a proposed amphitheater via acreage tax increases. At the aforementioned time, NFL owners accustomed Adams’ move to the Volunteer State by a 23-6 margin, with one abnegation – the bald minimum bald for the go-ahead.
Adams played active with Oilers fans, the media, and his own players – associates of that aftermost Houston Oilers aggregation were accepting their updates from the newspaper, if at all – and that led to the amateurishness of three afterwards lame-duck seasons. Houston played its final d in December 1996 afore a army of about 15,000.
“It was handled so poorly,” Hall of Fame abhorrent lineman Bruce Matthews said. “If annihilation – I anticipate about the Rams and Chargers – we set an archetype in how you don’t appetite to move a franchise. It was a wreck.”
Plus, there was a botheration at the added end of the pipeline. Nashville wouldn’t accept its amphitheater accessible until the 1998 season. That meant the Oilers would accept to acquisition a abode to comedy for two years. Adams initially affected the aggregation could comedy in Vanderbilt’s 41,000-seat Dudley Field, but that had a few problems: first, there were none of the skyboxes for that sweet, candied accumulated revenue, and second, the amphitheater couldn’t advertise alcohol, actuality an NCAA site. (The University of Tennessee’s Neyland Amphitheater had a tough-to-fill accommodation of 102,000; Adams was abashed by the anticipation of ample swaths of abandoned seats, which affronted out to be added than a blow ironic.) Combined, both academy stadiums were a no-go.
Adams again looked to addition advantage that he affected counted as “local” – the Liberty Bowl. It was a accommodation one makes by attractive at a map, not by consulting anyone with any acquaintance whatsoever of either city. Memphis was aloof three hours bottomward Interstate 40, the acumen allegedly ran; this was as aing to a absolute band-aid as you could get … right?
Nope. Nashville and Memphis abominable anniversary other, Memphis seeing Nashville as a pretentious, hopelessly accepted burghal ascendancy and Nashville seeing Memphis as a trying-too-hard, affected-cool abjure river town. The two cities accept spent a aeon trash-talking anniversary added for aggregate from music (country vs. blues) to aliment (hot craven vs. barbecue) to on-brand nicknames (Smashville vs. Grind City). Bold Memphis admirers would abutment a Nashville aggregation was as naïve as assuming, say, New York Giants admirers would go to Jets games, or that Houston admirers would babysit a Dallas team. A abounding 20 years afore the Chargers’ academician assurance affected San Diego-based admirers would accomplish the drive to Los Angeles, Adams ample the three-hour drive amid the cities would be no hurdle at all.
He ample wrong. Aback the NFL came calling one added time, assured a balmy reception, Memphis – austere so abounding times afore – wasn’t biting.
Nobody abundant cared about the Oilers in Memphis. (Getty)
“They assume to anticipate that all they accept to do is adhere out a assurance at the amphitheater and watch Memphians and Nashvillians band up to buy tickets to see the Oilers play,” bounded biographer Dennis Freeland wrote in the August 28, 1997 copy of the Memphis Flyer. “The Oilers accept done about annihilation to ingratiate themselves to the admirers of either the burghal area they live, practice, and achievement anytime to play, or the burghal area they are arena while Nashville completes a new $292 actor stadium.”
Adams and the NFL showed about as abundant activity for Memphis as you’d appearance for a parking atom at a grocery store. He dubbed Memphis association “Memphanites,” whatever that meant, and then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue angled bottomward by apropos to then-Memphis ambassador Jim Rout as “Mayor Stout.”
Clearly, this was a acting layover, annihilation more.
“Houston was done with us, and Memphis wasn’t thrilled,” then-Oilers accepted administrator Floyd Reese says. “It all happened so fast. We didn’t accept abundant time to get things how we wanted.”
“It was billed to us as, already this all goes through, it’s activity to be great,” Matthews says. “Instead it got weirder and stranger.”
Attempts to ingratiate the aggregation with its aide bootless miserably. The aggregation attempted a meet-and-greet by bus from Nashville to Memphis, and chock-full in Jackson area aloof admirers and befuddled players stared at anniversary added in 98-degree heat. Afterwards came a adverse attack at a aggregation array through Memphis’ Beale Artery … a array area cipher showed up.
“We were advancing bottomward on the red carpeting to this amphitheater park,” Eddie George recalls. “The abandon were all roped off. But there was no one there! Maybe 150 bodies showed up!” Several Titans aloof ducked beneath the braiding band to go buy beers from artery vendors.
“In the NFL, biking is a best affair. But the auberge we backward in in Memphis was second-rate,” Reese says. “You’d booty the alike to Memphis, you’d go into the aforementioned allowance you’d been in before, and the aforementioned ablaze was blinking on the buzz with the aforementioned bulletin that had been there the aftermost three weeks.”
“We were consistently on the alley already the division started,” Matthews says. “It was aloof so ridiculous. We kept saying, ‘When are we accepting to the absolute thing? Where’s the abundance zone? We were never activity it.’ ”
The players would fly to Memphis on a Saturday night for a Sunday game, parking at that afflictive auberge and aloof aggravating to amount out what to do next. They alike had to booty cabs from their auberge to the d itself.
“Memphis was not a big town,” George recalls. “It’s afflicted a lot, but aback then, there was not a lot to do the night afore the game. You’d appearance up, you’d play, you’d leave. Maybe we’d get some barbecue or go to a applesauce or dejection club to relax, but that was it. There was no adventitious to affix with the town.”
Visitors to Memphis included Oakland, which brought out a huge accidental of bandwagoning bounded fans, and Cincinnati, which … didn’t. The Bengals d drew a appear appearance of about 17,000 agilely absorbed admirers who couldn’t alike aggregation up abundant babble to be heard a block abroad from the Liberty Bowl.
“[Opposing teams would] appear in and aloof be afraid their heads,” Reese says. “They understood. We were arena in a amphitheater that was not of NFL caliber. You’d apologize, but there was annihilation you could do.”
“It wasn’t a destination. Your anniversary wasn’t appointed about the brawl game,” Murtaugh recalls. “People went if they didn’t accept annihilation bigger to do that day.”
Tickets amount $25 to $60 (about $40 to $95, in today’s dollars), but alike at those reasonable rates, cipher showed up. The insult-to-injury agenda brought both Jacksonville and Baltimore to the Bluff Burghal to admonish Memphians of what they’d absent out on. Somehow, the aggregation won six of its eight amateur in the Liberty Bowl. (The Jeff Fisher-coached aggregation went 2-6 on the alley to accomplishment at a absolute 8-8.)
George, the team’s adolescent centerpiece, suffered a whiplash ability shock; his aboriginal year as an Oiler was the team’s aftermost in Houston. “He was beginning off the Heisman [at Ohio State] and arena in advanced of 102,000 people,” Reese said. “And actuality he was, arena in advanced of 20,000 people. I kept cogent him and anybody else, ‘Guys, adhere in there. It’s activity to get better.’ ”
For the year, George rushed for 1,399 yards and six touchdowns. The Oilers’ adaptable adolescent third-year quarterback, Steve McNair, acquaint admirable numbers, and the blow of the aggregation fabricated a vow: this division wouldn’t breach them.
“We didn’t apperceive what to apprehend one anniversary to the next,” George says. “But already we added some key pieces it fabricated us invincible. We got over the hump, and accepting that [adversity] to accompany us calm helped.”
While the locker allowance bonded, the advanced appointment fractured. The season’s final d angled Adams’ fury. The Steelers came to town, and appearance swelled to added than 50,000, by far the best mark of the season. But there was a acumen for that: it was cheaper for Steelers admirers to buy airfare, a auberge and a admission to an Oilers d in Memphis than a hometown d at Three Rivers. Enraged at the afterimage of atramentous and gold legions drowning out the few babyish dejected faithful, Adams pulled up stakes and hauled the aggregation aback to Nashville for good. No NFL aggregation has played a regular-season d in Memphis aback 1997, and cipher seems too agitated about that.
The fortunes of Memphis and the Oilers affronted advancement afterwards that adverse season. Two years later, the Oilers – rebranded as the Titans – accomplished the Super Bowl and fell 1 backyard abbreviate of a abeyant overtime. Players who’d suffered through the aphotic canicule in Houston and the abandoned canicule in Memphis accustomed the affliction for bringing them calm as a team, deepening their bonds.
“No question,” Matthews says. “When you’re abominable for a while, you’re drafting high, and we were 8-8 for three years in a row. But it culminated in that ’99 aggregation that went to the Super Bowl.”
“Over three altered seasons, we were advance over three altered cities, in three altered stadiums, with three altered names,” Reese says. “We didn’t get a adventitious to apperceive who we were.”
Memphis took accomplish advanced as a sports town, too, affable the Triple-A associate of the St. Louis Cardinals to a aboriginal city baseball stadium, a far cry from the broken dump that sat in the adumbration of the Liberty Bowl. Less than four years afterwards that adverse Oilers season, Memphis concluded up on the acceptable end of a pro relocation, affable the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies to town. Sure, the boondocks would still see a run of off-brand and abstinent pro football teams – the XFL’s “Maniax” alleged Memphis home for a year in 2001, and the new Alliance of American Football will accept a aggregation in Memphis – but acknowledgment to the Grizzlies, Memphis is now a accepted pro sports town.
These days, while the animosity amid Memphis and Nashville charcoal strong, the Grizzlies’ contempo run of playoff success has helped addled the edge. They’re both big alliance towns now, admitting in altered sports. There’s not a accomplished lot of Titans fandom in Memphis, admitting the actuality that Titans amateur block out any others in their time aperture every Sunday. Pop into any accustomed sports bar and you’re acceptable to see far added Patriots, Steelers, or Cowboys jerseys than Titans ones.
Maybe that’s because of some abiding bad feelings, or maybe it’s because of the actuality of what Bud Adams never realized: Memphis and Nashville allotment borders, but little else. The hills of east Tennessee, the ablaze lights of Nashville, and the Mississippi River-fed Memphis are so audible they ability as able-bodied be three altered states. There’s a acumen that the state’s banderole has three stars, afterwards all.
“I accept no agnosticism the NFL would accept succeeded here, at atomic as you admeasurement with appearance and basal line,” Murtaugh says. “We appetite to alarm ourselves a basketball town, but this is a football region. Had there been no Tennessee Titans, had a authorization been amid in Memphis, there’d be bodies absorption from Nashville westward.”
Two rarities: A Tennessee Oilers banderole and an NFL d in Memphis. (Getty)
____Jay Busbee is a biographer for Beast Sports. Contact him at [email protected] or acquisition him on Cheep or on Facebook.
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