by Greg Akers
In a 1997 viewpoint in the Memphis Flyer, publisher (then as now) Kenneth Neill wrote about the impending decision that the Oilers would play their first two seasons in Memphis. “Look long and hard," Neill wrote, "for some sign that Bud Adams gives a hoot about Memphis. Try to find something that suggests he has even a fuzzy fondness for what goes on in the western part of the state. Try to find anything that suggests that Mr. Adams’ motives in setting up shop in Memphis are anything less than 100 percent Machiavellian.”
Flyer editor Dennis Freeland agreed with the sentiments of those “who think the NFL abused the good faith in Memphis and is about to do so again,” but that wasn’t necessarily the prevailing opinion in town. There was plenty of support for the Oilers at the outset, especially from many in corporate Memphis and the local Sports Authority.
In the Flyer’s June 26, 1997, issue, the week after the Oilers confirmed they’d be playing two seasons in Memphis before moving on to Nashville, there was a full-page ad announcing the arrival of a major new player in the Memphis community. “We’re so happy to be in Memphis,” the ad basically said. It struck just the right note, coming across as grateful for an opportunity and excited for the future in Memphis.
The advertisement in the Flyer was for Barnes & Noble, the national bookseller chain, which was opening two locations in Memphis. The newly dubbed Tennessee Oilers didn’t bother taking out an ad, that week or any other, as a measure of thanksgiving or goodwill in the city. That’s not reflective upon the Flyer’s ad sales, either. The Oilers didn’t advertise anywhere.
The attitude emanating from the franchise was, I’m Bud Adams, we’re the Oilers, here we are love us we don’t have to do anything. The perspective persisted throughout the season in Memphis, as Adams, despite his public promises otherwise, simply would not untie the purse strings and promote his team and try to sell his new city on the venture. The Oilers even selected a local PR firm, Walker & Associates, but never gave them a budget or direction. The extent to which the team had a presence in Memphis at all, other than on game day, was due mostly to Memphian Pepper Rodgers arranging local practice sessions and other events.
Comically, outrageously, in the press conference in Memphis announcing that the Oilers would play here, Adams made a mess of it and a fool of himself, referring to Memphis mayor Willie Herenton as “Mayor Harrison.”
Freeland let Adams have it in a column the next week. “Why would an NFL team wanting to win the hearts and minds of Memphis sports fans rush through an introductory press conference/autograph session after months of prolonged negotiations with Houston, Nashville, and Memphis? The event left the impression, once again, that this city is just an afterthought to the Oilers.”
Why did no one go to the event that marked the first NFL regular season home game in the state's history? Economics? More proof that Memphis couldn't support a professional team?
Sports Illustrated weighed in. From the issue of SI following the game: “Though Memphis is the home of the Elvis Presley fly swatter … its inhabitant aren't stupid. They know when they're being used. Oilers owner Bud Adams and his team are here because it's an inexpensive place to play home games until 1999, when Nashville completes construction of a 65,000-seat state-of-the-art stadium. Though they will spend eight weekends in Memphis this fall, the Oilers still train, practice, and reside 210 miles to the east, in Nashville. ‘Memphis?’ running back Eddie George said last week, before making the first plane trip across the state. ‘I went to Graceland once as a kid — real weird. Some pretty ugly rooms. Other than that … .’ Who could blame the Memphis citizenry for being gun-shy about its latest pro team?”
It wasn’t just Memphians who didn’t want to go to the games. Nashville residents, too, weren’t courted by Adams and were simply expected to show up to cheer on their newly gifted team. As many as 15,000 fans from Nashville were projected to come to each game in Memphis. No such sizable contingent ever made the trip.
Freeland, as ever, was on top of matters: “The Oilers are lost in Memphis,” he predicted before the first regular season game was even played. “Unwilling to spend money promoting their team and probably not listening to [Pepper] Rodgers, their Memphis expert, the nomadic NFL team appears willing to let the chips fall as they may this year.”
“Now and forever”
Attendance kept falling far short of expectations and the NFL norm as the weeks piled up. What’s popularly remembered is that Memphis couldn’t support an NFL franchise. People misremember that Adams had to get his team to the well-heeled Nashville city limits to where people could and would support the team. Freeland tried to correct the record, but the real story was already being rewritten.
“The NFL is a big media event and, in Memphis anyway, empty seats are a part of the story,” Freeland wrote. “Yes, it is news when the NFL, the premier sports league in the country, plays opening day to a half-empty stadium. But it is also the obligation of the reporters to explain the entire story. The seats were not empty because Memphians are poor (although the Oilers’ price-gouging shenanigans are shameful). And the stadium was not half-full because Memphians don’t like football. There were 32,000 empty seats … because Memphians feel the NFL abused us over the years and because the Bud Adams organization has continued to ignore the city even as they tried to sell tickets here.”
Against all odds and despite Adams never going into damage control (not to mention completely forgotten today), attendance climbed throughout the 1997 season, mostly because the team wasn’t bad, and the capper came when 50,000 saw the home finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The plan all along was that the Oilers were going to play their second year at Liberty Bowl, because the new stadium in Nashville wouldn't be ready until 1999. At least, that's what Adams kept promising, repeatedly. Freeland looked ahead to the 1998 campaign: “It looks certain at this point that the Oilers will be back in town next year. With a full off-season to prepare, the Oilers should be in good shape when the first game rolls around next year.”
What if the Oilers had played their second year in the Liberty Bowl as intended? Would the team have found its place in the community and vice versa, Grinch Adams' heart growing three sizes after meeting some Cindy Lou Who in Hurt Village?
But Freeland noted in advance that it didn’t matter. “In the end, whether that is sooner or later, the Oilers (or whatever they are called in the future) are only a blip on the local Doppler screen. Despite the passions their visit here may have aroused, 10 years from now their Memphis years will be largely forgotten.”
That may have turned out to not be exactly true, but the sentiment is pure.
Kenneth Neill, in another 1997 viewpoint directed to Memphians, said, “Keep your self-respect intact … . Don’t be seduced by the media-dope peddlers in print or on television; recognize Bud Adams for the shameless carpetbagger he well and truly is. Muster up the courage to ‘just say no’ to the Oilers, now and forever. Keep us looking proud.”
For the 1998 campaign, the team occupied Nashville’s Vanderbilt stadium, a smaller but ostensibly more friendly venue. Attendance was once again lackluster, as Nashvillians didn't know what to make of the team. And the Titans didn’t really pick up steam until the 1999 season, in a new stadium, with a new moniker, and with a winning club.
Memphis was in the rearview mirror for good.
Tom Hanks' character in the 2000 film Cast Away, put the perfect epitaph on the whole ordeal. In the movie, the Memphian has been stranded on a desert island for years before (spoiler alert) coming back home to find that things have really changed. “So let me get one thing straight here,” he says. “We have a pro football team now, but they’re in Nashville?”
Forget the Titans?
If all this isn’t worth civic sports hate, what is? Memphians should hate the Nashville Titans because of the 20th century and 1993 and 1995 and 1997; because of Bud Adams, who still owns the team; because of Nashville; because the wrong was never righted much less acknowledged by the offending party. Why should we ever forgive, ever forget? This is sports not life and death, and Memphians should hold the line, forever.
Let Nashville have their Titans. They’ve had good teams and great players and it’s their home team. People in Nashville and elsewhere in the state should and do love the Titans.
Memphians should not. It’s only been 15 years, and we shouldn’t give our time and money and best wishes to that civic terrorist up I-40 a ways.
Bud Adams, classy gent:
So, who is it okay for Memphians to root for? For your convenience, I’ve narrowed it down to the following teams: the Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, St. Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or Washington Redskins.
Have some freakin' pride, Memphis.