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A vagabond franchise finds its place in Tennessee
Posted: Tuesday January 11, 2000 11:10 AM
Steve McNair and the Titans enjoy the friendly confines of Adelphia Coliseum
where they are undefeated. AP
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There was a point, during these last four vagabond years, when players and coaches and staff members on the team now known as the Tennessee Titans simply didn't know which school to enroll their kids in.
Didn't know which state, in fact, let alone which city.
There were moves and rumored moves and rumored rumors. There was outright hostility, first in Houston and then across the country in Memphis. Worse yet, there was apathy all around.
The relocation of the Houston Oilers to Tennessee, as these NFL moves almost always are, was an unqualified mess in too many ways to count.
But through all the uncertainty and upheaval, the Titans somehow found a way to stick together. Which brings them, finally, here.
Home. To the NFL playoffs.
"I can remember it like it was yesterday," safety Blaine Bishop says of his last trip to the playoffs, as a Houston Oiler in 1993. Bishop is one of eight Titans who were with the franchise when it last made the postseason. "But it was a long time ago."
Who would've figured that this team, after literally tripping through three successive 8-8 seasons, would finally turn it around this season in a big way?
Who could've figured that the football fans in Tennessee, who usually bleed nothing but orange, would take so strongly to their new baby blue brothers, filling their new $292 million stadium to the tune of 65,000+ every Sunday?
Who would've figured that this underachieving organization could pull off the quietest 13-3 season in recent memory and turn itself into maybe the most dangerous team in the NFL?
You want an answer?
Nobody. Nobody could've figured this one.
"The thing about it is, we weren't that far away," insists guard Bruce Matthews, a constant on the Oilers/Titans line for 17 years now. "By the second 8-8 season [in 1997], you start to wonder if you'll ever get there. But then there were a lot of games where we were just ... very close."
The tale of the Titans' trip from the Astrodome to the banks of the Cumberland River is one that encompasses two states, three cities, four stadiums and a couple of name changes.
The Titans were scorned in Houston as moneygrubbers and huffed at in Memphis as carpetbaggers. They fought through money problems and legal barricades and, through it all, continued to think about football first.
"If you can play through distractions in this league," said coach Jeff Fisher, who took over with six games left in the 1994 season, "then you can be successful."
Distractions have buried other NFL teams who pulled up roots to move to new areas. The only team since the 1970 merger to post a winning record in its first full season in its new permanent stadium was the 1983 Raiders, who went 12-4 after deserting Oakland. (They were 8-1 in the 1982 strike year.)
|One Long Roadtrip|
|Titans land on top in Tennessee
|Aug. 11, 1995 -- A Tennessee newspaper reports that Oilers officials are meeting with the Nashville mayor to talk about possible relocation of the team. The two sides agree to negotiate exclusively for a 70-day period.
|Nov. 16, 1995 -- Oilers owner Bud Adams and Nashville mayor Phil Breedsen sign a document designed to move the team to Nashville.
|Dec. 24, 1995 -- A 28-17 win in Buffalo gives the Oilers a 7-9 mark in Jeff Fisher's first full season as coach.
|April 30, 1996 -- The NFL approves the team's relocation to Nashville, 10 days after the Oilers select Heisman winning running back Eddie George with the 14th pick.
|May 7, 1996 -- Davidson County voters approve a referendum that clears the way for use of public funds to build a stadium on the banks of the Cumberland River in downtown Nashville.
|Dec. 15, 1996 -- The Bengals beat the Oilers, 21-13, in what turns out to be the team's last game at the Astrodome. Only 15,131 attend. The Oilers finish 8-8.
|May 3, 1997 -- Groundbreaking ceremonies in Nashville for the team's new stadium take place.
|May 8, 1997 -- The Oilers reach an agreement with Houston officials that gets them out of their lease at the Astrodome for the '97 season, clearing the way for a move to Tennessee. They still have no stadium to play in, though.
|June 5, 1997 -- The Memphis Sports Authority and the Oilers reach an agreement for the team to play the 1997 season in the Liberty Bowl, after negotiations to play at Vanderbilt University in Nashville fall through.
|July 18, 1997 -- Oilers hold training camp at Tennessee State U. in Nashville.
|Oct. 12, 1997 -- The new Tennessee Oilers, sporting a logo that combines an oil derrick and the state flag of Tennessee, hit their low point in Memphis: A mere 17,071 show up for a 30-7 win over the Bengals.
|Dec. 21, 1997 -- In their last game at the Liberty Bowl, the Oilers beat the Steelers 16-6, to finish 8-8. Attendance is a robust 50,677, though observers note that a large portion of the crowd is wearing Pittsburgh colors.
|Feb. 24, 1998 -- Oilers buy their way out of their lease in Memphis with an eye to play the '98 season at Vanderbilt U. in Nashville.
|April 23, 1998 -- Oilers finalize terms that will allow the team to play the '98 season in 41,000-seat Vanderbilt Stadium.
|July 29, 1998 -- Adams bows to pressure from fans and announces he will change the nickname of the team.
|Sept. 13, 1998 -- The still-Oilers lose their first game in Nashville, a 13-7 setback to San Diego in front of 41,089 at Vandy.
|Nov. 14, 1998 -- Adams announces the new name: the Tennessee Titans.
|Dec. 26, 1998 -- A 26-16 loss to Minnesota in front of 41,121 at Vandy marks the last game for the Oilers, who finish 8-8.
|Sept. 12, 1999 -- In the first regular-season game in brand new 67,000-seat Adelphia Coliseum, the new Titans beat the Bengals, 36-35. Attendance is 65,272.
|Jan. 2, 2000 -- The Titans beat the Steelers to finish the season 13-3 and advance to the franchise's first postseason since 1993.
The Rams, Ravens, Cardinals and Colts all had losing records in their first years in their new hometowns. Even the Raiders were no better than a .500 team when they moved back to Oakland for the 1995 season.
"Any time there's uncertainty," says Fisher after a practice at the team's gleaming new practice facility north of downtown Nashville, "you're vulnerable."
The Oilers were 8-8 in their last season in Houston in 1996, playing in front of crowds that didn't get above 20,000 in their last three games there. They were 8-8 during their stayover in Memphis, again playing in front of crowds which averaged, mostly, under 25,000.
They hit .500 again last season, playing at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Their biggest crowd was barely more than 41,000.
Through it all, Fisher stressed communication between players and management -- all the while dangling the sweet deal to come in Nashville.
He recalls having to tutor his players on just what to say to the Houston media when things started getting dicey there, so as not to poison any fragile negotiations.
He kept the players cool even when they were working in sub-par NFL conditions, when they suffered through the chilly reception in Memphis, when the team was unsure where they'd play the 1998 season.
Now, they've finally broken loose, going a perfect 8-0 in Adelphia Coliseum, handing division foe Jacksonville its only two defeats and giving this year's NFL darling, the St. Louis Rams, a three-point loss back in October.
"I was one of those guys in the beginning who said it doesn't make a difference," Bishop says of all the problems in moving. "But, after this year, I'm telling you. It does make a difference."
Now, the Titans work out in a state-of-the-art weight room, practice on several painfully maintained grass practice fields (and an artificial turf practice field with an inflatable dome for use in bad weather), eat in a nicely appointed dining room, park behind huge security gates, bank at a private ATM in their headquarters and have a gleaming new office for use on Sundays.
"Now, you look at it and you think, 'Geez, maybe all that other stuff, maybe it did cost you the one game or the one play,'" says Floyd Reese, finishing up his sixth year as the team's general manager. "I'm not saying it did. But I think you have to think more that way now."
It has taken other teams years to make the impression the Titans have made in two short years in Nashville. Some are still trying.
The Tennessee Titans, though, are clearly home. And it shows.
"Everything in this league is so temporary anyway," says Reese. "Your memories have to be the same way. Forget all those hard times. We've paid our dues."
And now, it may be time for the rest of the league to start paying.
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