Long before they ever met, the Dallas Cowboys were the biggest rivals the Houston Oilers had. The Cowboys were unaware of this except at the management level, where TV ratings were studied with pleasure. As recently as 1964 the ratings showed far more people in Houston watched the Cowboys on TV than watched the Oilers either in person or on the tube. To the Oilers this was an affront that demanded some sort of Texas satisfaction. Preferably the sort Sam Bass got from bank clerks—a payoff in violence and money, the state's leading values.
But to the Cowboys the notion of a rivalry with Houston was degrading. Especially after the Dallas Texans moved to Kansas City, the Cowboys thought of themselves as the only genuine pro football team in the state. A few years ago Oiler General Manager Don Klosterman suggested to his Dallas counterpart, Tex Schramm, that their teams have a series of exhibition games on a home-and-home basis. Schramm laughed and said no thanks, he'd rather play the Oilers in Houston if at all. "We've got a lot of fans in Houston," said Schramm. "You don't have any fans in Dallas."
Though Klosterman was offended, what Schramm said was true. Oiler games have never been regularly televised in Dallas. But for the last 10 years the Cowboys have been on TV in Houston almost every autumn Sunday. It might be argued that more people in Houston would recognize Bob Lilly and Bob Hayes out of uniform than could identify Bud Adams and Judge Hofheinz with numbers on their backs.
The first Dallas-Houston exhibition game came in 1967 after the NFL-AFL merger was agreed upon. The players called the game the Neely Bowl. Offensive Tackle Ralph Neely had signed a contract with Houston and then had returned his check and signed with Dallas. After lengthy skirmishes in court, it was legally decreed that Neely belonged to Houston. Neely swore he would quit rather than move down to the Gulf Coast. So Schramm bought the rights to Neely for a first, a second and two fifth-round draft choices—with which the Oilers acquired three starting players—and a promise of three exhibition games in Houston.
On a rainy day two years ago the Cowboys beat the Oilers 30-17 in Rice Stadium before a crowd of more than 50,000, the largest that had ever seen Houston play. Last season the Oilers moved into the Astrodome and Dallas again won, 33-19, before 52,289, once more the largest crowd that had ever seen the Oilers at home. By then the Oilers were convinced they had a dandy vendetta going. Maddeningly, the Cowboys still wouldn't admit it. As far as the Cowboys were concerned, if they had any rival in pro football it was Green Bay.
"I guess this could turn into a real rivalry with Houston sometime," Tex Schramm said last week. "But I don't know of any real rivalries between Texas cities. Dallas and Fort Worth are supposed to be big rivals, but the SMUTCU game doesn't seem to mean much anymore. The way to create a rivalry is to have two very good, very well-matched teams playing each other. When I was with the Rams in the early '50s, we had a strong rivalry with San Francisco, but both cities had good teams. Later the caliber of football in those two cities went down for a while, and the rivalry disappeared.
"I don't mean to disparage Houston, but Kansas City would draw more people in Dallas than Houston would. The Chiefs have a better record. Because of our two championship games and our national TV games with the Packers, our rival is Green Bay. The Bears and Green Bay have a traditional rivalry, but most others are born of the competition of the times. They come and go. Like Baltimore and the Rams lately, New York and Cleveland in the old days, Detroit and Cleveland before that, our rivalry with Green Bay may dissipate quickly.
"The Oilers are improving," Schramm continued, "but, frankly., they wouldn't do as well in Dallas as some of the more successful clubs. The attraction depends on who's winning. The hot article now is the Jets. Our game with them in the Cotton Bowl is sold out. But our coaches think the Oilers may be a big attraction pretty soon. They're a very rough team. In the near future we might have a home-and-home arrangement with Houston."
Klosterman believes the Oiler-Cowboy rivalry is already here. "A lot of emotion has been built up about this," he says. "The games we play with Dallas are always mean—well, let's say very brisk. The Cowboys get lots of publicity, they're supposed to be the best. It's like the Jets got tired of hearing about the Giants. We're tired of hearing about Dallas."
Dallas and Houston are 240 miles apart on the map but farther apart in style. Dallas is a nest of bankers and insurance men, a white-collar town, humorless, conservative in its politics, dull in architecture, dominated by an oligarchy and distinguished by the number of citizens who claim godless Communists are going to steal their money. Houston, the country's third-largest seaport, is a sprawling confusion of freeways connecting clumps of buildings laid across a vast coastal plain that is coated with smog; it is rather like a smaller Los Angeles, except for the lack of broken terrain. Houston is the nation's capital for gas and oil dealers (though its first great fortunes came from cotton), is noted for its hospitals and, of course, for NASA, and is possibly the most thoroughly air-conditioned city in the world. It is also a violent, hysterical place.