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VOL. 41 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 28, 2017

Remember Memphis? Titans would rather not

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The late team owner Bud Adams shows off a logo for the Tennessee Oilers in 1997.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

Time flies, doesn’t it? A lot can happen in 20 years. Think about it: In 1997, Bill Clinton was sworn in for his second term as president. Princess Di was killed in a car crash. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 8,000 for the first time.

And the Tennessee Oilers played their home games in Memphis.

As anniversaries go, this is one to forget. The traditional gift for a 20th anniversary is china. The appropriate gift for this 20-year anniversary might be a shattered dish.

It’s one thing to negotiate a deal that brings an NFL franchise from Houston to Tennessee. It’s another to park that team in Memphis for eight alleged home games while an NFL stadium is under construction in Nashville.

Consider it one of the growing pains of the Texas-to-Tennessee transition of the team originally known as the Houston Oilers. When franchise founder Bud Adams agreed to move his team out of his backyard, he needed a landing spot while a suitable stadium was being built. Neyland Stadium in Knoxville was considered.

So was Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville. The latter made the most sense.

Ultimately, though, Adams was convinced that Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis was the best option. In fact, the original plan was to use Memphis as a home away from home for the Oilers in both 1997 and ’98.

Mike McClure, one of Adams’ most trusted lieutenants, convinced his boss that the team would draw 50,000-plus per game in Memphis, which was about 10,000 more than the capacity of Vanderbilt Stadium.

Why did McClure, who was considered a gifted tactician and savvy negotiator, believe Memphis was the right choice for a temporary home? Because it’s the NFL. And everybody wants a piece of the NFL. Even Memphis. Right?

What McClure and others affiliated with the franchise failed to realize is that the relationship between Nashville and Memphis has never been very cozy. We may be in the same state, but there is little common ground.

Nor did it help that the team’s base of operations was in Nashville. Players and coaches operated out of a makeshift facility in Bellevue. That’s where they practiced during the week before boarding a plane on Saturday for the short flight to Memphis for “home” games.

While players settled into various Nashville neighborhoods and often made public appearances to drum up support for the franchise, Memphis was a mere afterthought. The team was using the city as a drive-thru. Nothing more, nothing less.

I was sports columnist for The Tennessean at the time. A month or so before the 1997 season-opener – an Aug. 31 game against Oakland – I decided to spend a few days in Memphis to gauge the city’s excitement level about the Oilers’ impending arrival.

Instead of any buzz, I found a yawn.

I drove around the city for more than three hours one day in search of any billboards or signage heralding the Oilers’ impending arrival.

The only thing I found was the marquee outside Tiffany’s Cabaret, a strip club in southeast Memphis. Patrons would get free admission on Aug. 1-2, the sign stated, with a ticket stub to the Oilers-Saints preseason game.

A lone fan surrounded by empty seats cheers on the Tennessee Oilers in their opening game against the Oakland Raiders at Liberty Bowl Stadium in Memphis on Aug. 31, 1997. The Oilers drew an NFL-low crowd of 30,171 for the game, less than half of stadium capacity. Oilers officials found Memphis, which had  tried in vain to get an NFL team, had little interest in supporting the Oilers for two years. They left after one year.

-- Ap Photo/Jake Herrle

I had arrived with low expectations, but this was even worse than I thought. Nobody seemed to care that an NFL franchise soon would be up and running in their city.

In an effort to ease the transition, Adams hired Pepper Rodgers as a liaison. Rodgers had sunk roots in Memphis after a coaching career that included stops at such diverse programs as Georgia Tech and UCLA. He ran the Memphis Showboats of the U.S. Football League in the mid-80s.

Rodgers talked a good game before the 1997 season but admitted it was a challenge to get Memphis to embrace a team that soon would be anchored in Nashville. Referencing Memphis’ past attempts to secure an NFL franchise, the colorful Rodgers offered this comment:

“There are bitter feelings. It’s like the new wife asking the ex-wife to babysit.”

Nor was the late George Lapides surprised by the cold shoulder. Lapides, who died in June 2016 at age 76, had spent decades covering Memphis sports, first as a columnist for the erstwhile Memphis Press-Scimitar and later with a long-running sports talk radio show.

When I asked him in the summer of 1997 how the Oilers would be received in his city, he chuckled.

“Climer,” he said, “that’s your team – Nashville’s team. Good luck with it. We’re talking about Memphis. Nobody cares about your team down here.

“Now, if you and your buddies in Nashville want to come over here and spend some money at our hotels and bars, we’ll be glad to take it. But don’t expect the city of Memphis to support your team.”

Lapides went on to explain his city’s aversion to the Oilers primarily was due to failed attempts to secure its own franchise. For years, Memphis sold out preseason games and shamelessly flirted with the NFL in pursuit of an expansion franchise, all to no avail.

“We want our own team, not Nashville’s team,” Lapides continued. “I hope you enjoy the season. It’s going to be a disaster.”

It was. The Oilers were treated like unwanted orphans. Their season-opener against the Raiders drew 30,171 to the 62,380-seat Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. And it got worse.

Even the Tennessee Department of Transportation threw in a speed bump. Those who made the 213-mile drive between Nashville and Memphis remember delays due to construction on I-40.

By late in the season, however, it was smooth sailing once you got near the stadium. Why? There was little traffic since there were so few fans.

On Sept. 21 of that year, the Oilers-Ravens game went head-to-head with the neighboring Mid-South Fair.

It was a hot Sunday, and the scent of livestock was heavy in the air.

My column in The Tennessean the following morning ran under the headline “Senses Say Oilers Must Moo-ve On” and noted that the combination of a blazing sun and bovine excrement “created a fitting smell that matched the sight of an alleged National Football League game.”

Only 17,737 people showed up for that game, which the Oilers lost 36-10. Even the most optimistic members of the front office began to realize this simply wasn’t going to work.

The biggest crowd that season was 50,677 for the finale when the Oilers beat Pittsburgh 16-6.

But based on the crowd noise and the color scheme in the stands that day, it was clear that about three-quarters of the fans had come to cheer for the Steelers, not the Oilers.

That was the last straw for Adams. He pulled the plug on the Memphis experiment, negotiating his way out of the second season of the original two-year deal. He parked his team at Vanderbilt Stadium in 1998, and attendance picked up.

In 1999, the team was renamed the Titans and moved into a sparkling new stadium on the eastern bank of the Cumberland River.

The Titans won 13 games in the regular season, orchestrated the Music City Miracle in the first round of the playoffs and ultimately saw a potential tying touchdown drive end on the 1-yard line as time expired in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Finally, the NFL had really arrived in Nashville. And the Memphis experiment was just a bad memory.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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