An angry examination of the mismanagement of the Houston Oilers franchise and the organisation’s departure for Tennessee.
In 1996, after 36 years in Houston, Texas, the Oilers left town and moved to Tennessee. They played two seasons as the Tennessee Oilers then changed their name to the Titans. Houston would get a new franchise, the Texans, in 2002. In the meantime, however, the Texas city was left bitter and angry.
Ed Fowler, of the Houston Chronicle, takes Oilers owner Bud Adams to task in Loser Takes All, a tale of ineptitude and greed. Adams’ father was chairman of an oil company and gave him a stake in the business, making him “a member of the lucky sperm club”, as Fowler puts it. In 1960, Adams was 37, wealthy and the owner of a founding AFL franchise, the Houston Oilers.
Fowler details how Adams’ poor decisions continually held the franchise back, driving Sid Gillman out of the organisation with his meddling, for example, and allowing his GM, Ladd Herzeg, to oust coach Bum Phillips who had led the Oilers to two AFC Championship games.
Herzeg, the “roly poly silver-tongued devil”, is perhaps the only figure in the book to get more scathing treatment than Adams. Fowler highlights how the GM abandoned the daughter he fathered in an affair with a flight attendant, wrecked his car while drunk driving and assaulted a journalist.
Also in the firing line is head coach Jerry Glanville, whose eventual departure was met with relief by fans. “The city ached for a man who would coach football and shut up,” writes Fowler.
Even after more than two decades, the book is still a worthwhile snapshot of the era of ‘franchise free agency’. In the decade before the Oilers left Houston, the Cardinals, Rams, Raiders and Browns all switched cities, with numerous other teams getting new deals from local politicians after threatening to do the same. A period of relative stability followed before another flurry of moves at the end of the 2010s, with the Rams and Raiders on the move again and the Chargers ditching San Diego for Los Angeles.
By strictly controlling the number of franchises – the NFL has not expanded since the Texans were formed – the league ensures their value remains high and that demand is sufficient for this kind of exploitation of city resources and fans’ feelings. As Fowler notes, even political conservatives often find themselves able to justify increased taxes and profligate spending when the payoff is a chance to associate with sporting glory.
Ed Fowler was a sports writer for nearly 30 years at the Houston Chronicle, Chicago Daily News, Kansas City Star and Austin American-Statesman. Loser Takes All was his only football book. He later gave up journalism and entered the church, and became a vicar in Colorado in 2013.
“The exemption from antitrust laws Congress granted to allow the football merger put everyone with a stake in a pro franchise on Easy Street. Combined with explosive growth in the game’s popularity, it insulated every owner against his own stupidity, no matter how vast.”
“Bum probably took his firing better than anyone else — at first. Perhaps his most-quoted Bumism was, “There’s two kinds of coaches, them that’s been fired and them that’s gonna be fired.” He meant it, and lived it.”
“If not for his history, Bud might have emerged in this case as a sympathetic figure. After Jerry Glanville, the city ached for a man who would coach football and shut up.”
“No amount of obscenity, promiscuity, drug abuse or callous disregard for the team concept or for teammates sours fans across the country, who welcome players back from drug suspension with standing ovations. Youngsters have killed for sneakers endorsed by star athletes. Dennis Rodman flaunts every convention his society embraces, produces a vile and vulgar book replete with references to his sexual activities, and fans in Chicago stand in line for eight hours to have it autographed.”
Loser Takes All reminds me a little of the old Woody Allen joke about two elderly women in a restaurant. “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible,” says one. “Yeah, I know,” her friend replies, “and such small portions.” Fowler’s book is about how the Oilers were badly run, perennially unsuccessful and how disappointing it is that they’ve left town. Isn’t he glad to see the back of them?
The question is slightly unfair. Fowler and Houston fans want an NFL team. The anger comes from supporting the Oilers through thick and thin – mostly thin – only to see them leave. Fowler’s bitterness at the way Oilers owner Bud Adams behaved is palpable and the book must have been a cathartic read for bereft Oilers fans when it was published.
However, it’s leavened with enough humour to ensure that a neutral reader won’t feel like they are on the receiving end of a rant. There isn’t much depth to Fowler’s history, though. He’s writing for an audience that would have known most of this, so the story of the team is mostly told in snippets of key events and the bulk of the narrative focuses on what Adams and his staff were doing or saying at the time. Don’t turn to this book for a beginner’s guide to the Oilers.
Occasionally Fowler’s anger does run away with him and the book threatens to tip into a general airing of grievances about 90s America. He complains: “Dennis Rodman flaunts every convention his society embraces, produces a vile and vulgar book replete with references to his sexual activities, and fans in Chicago stand in line for eight hours to have it autographed.”
First, yes he meant ‘flouts’, not ‘flaunts’. Second, this is supposed to show how modern sports can get away with affronts like moving teams because fans are so loyal that they will overlook all manner of wrongs. But it’s a stretch to link the sex life of Dennis Rodman, who played a different sport in a different city, with the behaviour of NFL team owners. Fowler seems moments away from complaining about how young men don’t cut their hair these days and the music they listen to is just noise.
Slips like that aside, Loser Takes All is a brisk, engaging overview of the history of the Houston Oilers and a bracing reminder of what it feels like when fans fall victim to the NFL’s ruthless business side.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books