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Astrodome waits for revival as Super Bowl LI buzzes next door

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HOUSTON -- There used to be life here.

The Eighth Wonder of the World. Houston's treasure. The Astrodome.

Abandoned in the shadows of NRG Stadium, the Astrodome today still thrives in the memory banks of NFL fans as the unforgettable home of the Oilers. For nearly three decades, from 1968 to 1996, the team made this rollicking venue its landing pad, until fleeing east for Tennessee and eventually changing its name to the Titans.

Before that ugly departure, the Oilers engaged in a vibrant and rare love affair with their fans that caught holy fire with the "Luv ya Blue" squad of the late 1970s before peaking again roughly one decade later under coach Jerry Glanville.

From Luv Ya Blue to The House of Pain

"The fans were very, very special," Glanville told me this week. "In all the games I coached there, I never walked to my car with my wife and my son where the crowd was not waiting at the car to congratulate you. And even if we lost, which we very seldom did, they would support you. It was very, very unusual. It was not like pro football is today."

As Chris Wesseling noted in his wonderful feature on the Luv ya Blue era, those late-'70s Oilers teams suffered back-to-back AFC title game losses to the Steelers, only to return home to "throngs of fans estimated at anywhere from 50,000 to 300,000."

That bond was tested in the early 1980s, as Houston operated as one of the worst teams in the AFC before Glanville took over the full-time coaching reins in 1986. By the following season, the Oilers were back in the postseason to begin a seven-year playoff streak that thrust the Astrodome right back into the NFL spotlight.

"Probably the thing that happened most when we were there, it got named the 'House of Pain.' And we had these huge paintings of players that, when they would go out for the coin toss, somehow they would open them up and they would unroll and here would be a picture of John Grimsley, Jeff Donaldson, Robert Lyles, Keith Bostic," said Glanville, reciting each of their names as if they were ancient gods. "And Robert Lyles named it. He went out for the coin toss one time and they went to shake hands and he said, 'Welcome to the House of Pain.' And that never left all the while we were there."

Operating in the rough-and-tumble AFC Central, the Oilers under Glanville morphed into a bully powered by a violent defense, a high-octane offense and a seek-and-destroy special-teams unit that regularly flipped the switch on the Astrodome crowd.

"Back in the day, when we were there, I was the special teams coach and the tight ends coach," Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith said Monday of his first NFL coaching job. "The thing that was so fun for me is that [the Oilers] introduced the special teams. If you go back, most days, they'd think you're crazy. But we were pretty good ... We were a wrecking crew."

It was Glanville who also gave Kevin Gilbride his first offensive coordinator job in the NFL. The innovative play-caller and run-and-shoot disciple served as a godsend for quarterback Warren Moon and his versatile crew of pass-catchers. The Moon-Gilbride marriage turned the offense into a points-and-yardage juggernaut that unleashed Oilers fever across Southeast Texas.

"In the Astrodome, people at times thought I was Kevin Gilbride," Smith said. "When the offense was scoring a lot of points ... I would wave to the crowd when they were yelling at me and say, 'I'm not Gilbride!'

'They went there to see you kick butt'

"Probably the most shocking thing in our pregame warmup, there was nobody in the Astrodome," Glanville said. "One team would be at one end and we'd be on the other end and you could count the people that were in there, because they were in church. And I had [Bengals coach] Sam Wyche once say to me before a game, 'Is absolutely nobody coming to this game? Are you kidding me?' And then we would go in after the pregame warmup and come back in 20 minutes and they'd be hanging off the railings. There wouldn't be a seat anywhere, and they'd be screaming."

Preparing to watch his own son Jake play left tackle for the Falcons in Sunday's Super Bowl, Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews -- who spent his 19-season NFL career with the Oilers/Titans franchise -- still remembers the unhinged nature of the Astrodome.

"In the mid-to-late '80s, that's when I think it took off -- the whole advantage of having a loud crowd. And the Dome was as loud, if not louder, than any other stadium," Matthews said. "We were one of only a couple of domes. We weren't humungous like New Orleans or as cavernous as the Kingdome up in Seattle. There were 62,000 people -- and they felt it."

Glanville's Oilers went 22-9 in the Astrodome before Jack Pardee's teams lit up the building with a 25-7 in-house mark between 1990 and 1993.

"Pretty hard to beat us there," Glanville said. "I can remember we were so good there, that one day we lost and I got a letter from a father in Texas, saying, 'How dare you? How dare you? I brought my two sons there. How dare you lose. My two sons sat there and we cried all the way home.' People didn't go there to see a game, they went there to see you kick butt."

A building flush with beautiful quirks

When an opponent visited the Astrodome, the obstacles went far beyond the issue of unusually frisky crowd noise.

"Our turf wasn't laid on blacktop. It was laid on 5-by-8 sheets of plywood because they had to pull it up for the rodeo," Glanville said. "And then my favorite thing was, you were supposed to cover up the baseball infield as soon as baseball was done. But I would leave it as long as I could, because if I could get the enemy's quarterback, I would blitz him on second base, because they were still on dirt. So I knew how to call the defenses by whether we were on dirt or artificial turf."

If the quarterback somehow got a pass off, the troubles were only beginning.

"As you were running down the field, someone might not even touch you, and it was liable the turf monster would tackle you. Because the wood -- I saw the wood below the turf -- the plywood sheets were all warped. ... If you laid them on the floor, this would be sticking up in this corner, in the middle -- this was not a smooth turf ... It should have been illegal, really."

The Astrodome presented another distinct advantage for an Oilers club doing business in the rugged AFC Central.

"There was something about the Dome, especially later in the year, when our three division opponents were Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Cleveland," Matthews said. "So they're coming down from cold-weather environments. And Houston in December, it can be 85 degrees, so there was almost like a sauna effect later in the year. Earlier in the year, it's hot as balls, so the air condition is running -- the Dome was pleasant. But those late-December games, it was like a sweatbox, and that was unusual, I think, for those northern teams coming down. Guys had to get IVs and stuff like that because they were so dehydrated."

Oilers fans turned the Astrodome on its side each Sunday, but they were more than just simple madmen. They understood the game as well as any fan base of the day.

"This crowd, when we were on offense and Warren Moon was at quarterback -- you could hear a pin drop," Glanville said. "Warren at home was nothing like he was on the road. He would see the blitz, he could call any audible, he could run the whole show. And he would say, 'Blue 32!' and everybody in the Astrodome would say, 'We're running Blue 32!' And then when our defense went in, you couldn't hear anything. The crowd helped us as to when to be quiet. The crowd was so educated that you would think you were playing in the living room when we were offense."

Speaking with NFL.com's Brooke Cersosimo on Wednesday, Moon backed up Glanville's account:

"Our fans were so knowledgeable, first of all. Football is king in this state, not just in Houston. So the people know football, they love football, they were brought up with it, are passionate about it and bring that passion into the stadium," Moon said. "More of a rowdy, raucous-type crowd that's very educated when to make noise and when not to."

Nothing like the Oilers

"I think we were the only team that sang a song like a college team," Glanville said. "The whole stadium would sing 'Luv Ya Blue.' "

Look out football, here we come,
Houston Oilers, number one.
Houston has the Oilers, the greatest football team.
We take the ball from goal to goal like no one's ever seen.
We're in the air, we're on the ground ... always in control
And when you say the Oilers, you're talking Super Bowl.

"I did a radio thing a few weeks ago, and they played the old theme song -- 'Look out football, here we come! Houston Oilers!' -- and that really brought back memories," Matthews said. "That was kind of a hokey '50s, '60s kind of song, but it transcended the decades. And there were kids and families who were kind of grown up and that was part of their fall weekend to go to the Oilers games. I guess as I'm getting old, I'm getting a little more sentimental and thinking about that family aspect."

It was the kind of atmosphere that got on the radar of future NFL stars long before they suited up in the Astrodome.

"That's one of the ones I wanted to play in," Moon said, "because I remember back in the days when Billy 'White Shoes' (Johnson) was playing there with the 'Funky Chicken' dance moves when he scored a touchdown or when Earl Campbell played on 'Monday Night Football' with the white pompoms and the Houston Oilers' song. You just knew the crowd was very passionate down here, and because of the venue, this is a place I wanted to play. I ended up playing 10 years in that place."

The end of the road

Oilers owner Bud Adams moved the team to Tennessee in 1997, but only after falling short in efforts to get the city of Houston to furnish the team with a new multipurpose stadium.

For decades, the Astrodome had been the definition of "multipurpose," serving as a home to the Oilers, the MLB's Houston Astros and even the NBA's Houston Rockets for a stint. The Houston Cougars played their college football there, and the Astrodome also housed soccer, bowl games, USFL action and a stream of livestock and rodeo shows.

Asked for heavy rent to play in the Astrodome, which was owned by the Astros, Adams was piqued by the favorable deal the Los Angeles Rams received to move to St. Louis in 1995.

With Nashville emerging as a viable new home -- "This was really the last frontier on our expansion list," Adams once said -- the Oilers held the upper hand in a bitter and elongated battle with the city of Houston over a new stadium.

"You've got warring parties on all sides," Oilers executive vice president Mike McClure said at the time. "Powerful egos are at play. To sum it up, it's a big mess."

A mess that made it clear to Oilers fans -- for two full seasons -- that their beloved NFL team was on the move.

"The last two years were horrible," Matthews said. "We announced we were moving (in 1995). It was the greatest blueprint of how not to relocate an NFL franchise. With two years -- '95 to '96, the last two years of the Houston Oilers -- as a lame-duck franchise. And we were there with [15,000 to 20,000] people. There wasn't anything close to a home-field advantage. ... The 'House of Pain,' the home-field advantage we experienced, was completely gone. It was pretty darn depressing to me."

The next frontier

Closed since 2009, the Astrodome today sits hushed and adjacent to NRG Stadium, home to the Texans (who started play as an expansion franchise in 2002) and Super Bowl LI.

"When I see it next to NRG, it's kind of sad," Matthews said. "Just like the history of the Oilers. The history of the Oilers is up in Tennessee somewhere in some warehouse, and nobody cares about it. That era is gone, and it's best served in our memories."

Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell has been a public proponent of keeping the Astrodome intact from the very beginning -- and the former Oilers icon will get his wish.

The Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously in September to approve a $105 million Astrodome Revitalization Plan. Saving the structure from demolition, the proposal will raise the ground floor -- where the field used to be -- up two levels to create 1,400 parking spaces in a subterranean garage.

The Astrodome's "column-free and weatherproof open space" above the eventual parking structure will be used as a multipurpose venue for a wide variety of events -- rodeos, auto shows, conferences -- when it finally launches four-plus years from now.

"We've got a minority of people, who are very vocal, who just say, 'Tear it down. It's an eyesore.' Well, it's not an eyesore," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told me. "That's kind of in the eye of the beholder. I do not have an emotional attachment to the dome. When I got involved in it, I didn't know where I would come down on the issue. But it turns out that it's fully paid for and it would cost [$30 million to $35 million] to tear down -- after which you have nothing. That's when I said, 'Well, wait a minute. Why don't we find a way to keep this?' "

The Oilers are gone -- not about to return -- but their home remains.

There will be life in the Astrodome once again.

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