(Bud Adams photos courtesy of Tennessee Titans)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
You could write the history of pro football without Bud Adams, but it would be a decidedly incomplete one.
The original owner of the Houston Oilers and co-founder of the American Football League, Adams played a central role in creating — and then fostering — the AFL, joining Lamar Hunt to create the upstart league after Chicago Bears’ owner George Halas refused to enter into a written agreement awarding the two expansion franchises for Houston and Dallas.
Adams was a Texas oilman in every sense of the words. After serving in World War II, the Oklahoma native was returning home when his fog-bound flight landed in Houston. He found the city to his liking and never left, even after moving the Oilers to Nashville to become the Tennessee Titans in 1997 after failing to gain a new stadium built in Houston.
At 23, Adams founded a wildcat oil drilling company, ADA Oil, that later grew into Adams Resources & Energy. This was the family business, his father having succeeded the founder of Phillips Petroleum as its president in 1939 and his uncle later serving as CEO of the same company.
The oil business would become a godsend to the AFL.
After Adams and Hunt concluded the NFL would neither allow them to buy the troubled Chicago Cardinals nor grant them entrance into their 12-team pro football monopoly via expansion, they agreed to launch a new league — with its eight original eight owners known as “The Foolish Club’’ because of the money they lost in the early years of the league.
Hunt conceived of the idea, then convinced Adams the wise play was for Hunt to form a team in Dallas and Adams in Houston, believing a regional rivalry in Texas would bolster a new league’s chances of survival. Adams agreed, then convinced Bob Howsam to establish a franchise in Denver.
Adams’ Oilers were a success from the beginning.
Houston won the first two AFL championships after Adams outbid the rival NFL for the services of Heisman Trophy-winning running back Billy Cannon in what was the opening shot in a battle for legitimacy the AFL finally won six years later, with Adams intimately involved in the fight.
In November, 1959, then-Los Angeles Rams’ general manager Pete Rozelle, who a year later would become NFL commissioner, signed Cannon to a three-year contract worth $30,000, plus a $10,000 signing bonus. Two months later, on the field following the Sugar Bowl, Adams signed Cannon to a contract worth more than three times as much: $33,000 per year for three years, plus a $10,000 bonus and a Cadillac for Cannon’s father.
The Rams sued to enforce their contract, but Adams countersued, successfully arguing Rozelle had taken advantage of what the judge in the case called “a provincial lad unwise in the way of the business world.’’
Adams’ contract made Cannon pro football’s first $100,000 player, and Cannon rewarded him by starring on teams that reached the first three AFL championship games, winning two. That court victory established that the AFL meant business.
Believing the AFL needed a team in New York to be legitimate, Adams repeatedly loaned money to New York Titans’ owner Harry Wismer, keeping him in business for three years until Wismer finally sold to a far more financially stable group headed by Sonny Werblin. Adams also staunchly supported Al Davis’ plan to raid NFL rosters by signing their veteran players, especially quarterbacks, after their contracts expired.
The bidding war for talent that began with Adams’ signing of Cannon had now escalated to the point where the NFL sought to merge. When an armistice was signed in 1966, it created a common draft immediately, an expanded NFL in 1970 that absorbed the AFL’s 10 teams, plus a championship game that would become a national holiday, the Super Bowl. The league Adams and Hunt co-founded is the only one to successfully challenge the NFL, and the merger it forced turned pro football into a national phenomenon and multi-billion dollar industry.
Adams’ Oilers would have their ups and downs in the NFL, but in the late 1970s they battled the Steelers for AFC supremacy, losing to Pittsburgh three consecutive seasons in the playoffs, twice in AFC championship games.
By this time, the Oilers were playing in the smallest venue in the NFL. Adams demanded a new stadium, and, when he failed to get it, moved to Tennessee in 1997, first playing in Memphis until a new stadium was completed in Nashville. Three years later, Adams’ 13-3 Titans reached the Super Bowl, losing to the St. Louis Rams, 23-16, when receiver Kevin Dyson was tackled a yard shy of the tying touchdown on the game’s final play.
Although Adams was a controversial figure, he took a number of enlightened positions. He hired Tom Williams as Oilers’ assistant general manager, making him one of the first African-American executives in pro football. He also won a bidding war in 1984 to bring Warren Moon to the NFL from Canada. Moon was the first of three African-American quarterbacks to become the face of the Adams franchise. In 1989, Adams made Moon the highest-paid player in football when he signed him to a five-year contract worth $5.5 million.
When Adams died in 2013 at the age of 90, his teams had won 409 games, making him the winningest active owner in football.
Can you write the history of pro football without Bud Adams? No, you cannot — which is why one of the two founding fathers of the AFL deserves to be enshrined in Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is a place for the greats of the game and its pioneers. Bud Adams was certainly that.