He was a complex man.
Oh, K.S. "Bud" Adams Jr., who passed away at age 90 on Monday, didn't look the part. You could catch him in a light blue leisure suit and white shoes if you ran across him on the right day -- or maybe sporting perfectly parted hair to complement a tie adorned with weird footballs. He was funny and didn't mind showing it. But when it came to business -- with a shot of football -- he was serious.
To borrow a trope from Winston Churchill, the late owner of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma -- at least to these eyes. While Churchill was referring to Russia, Adams was about as American as you could get. He served as an aviation engineering officer in the Pacific Theater of World War II, and upon being discharged in 1946, started ADA Oil Company in Houston at the ripe old age of 23 -- a move that eventually garnered him the capital to become involved in pro football.
But Adams' story is not one of a simple American businessman who served in the war and became immensely successful after it. As with all things, the journey -- and his way of handling it -- tells the story of the man.
Adams was loyal and disloyal, knee-jerk and patient, funny, but shrewd as hell. He became owner of one of the most popular franchises of the late 1970s, as well as a Super Bowl team at Y2K. And yet, he donned western wear, collected Native American memorabilia and was part of the Cherokee Nation from his mother's ancestry. A big-time businessman in the "Mad Men" era, Bud Adams was as "Mad Men" in style as Roger Goodell is metal.
Case in point of Adams' divergent character traits (at least when viewed from afar): the origin stories of the Houston Oilers and the Tennessee Titans.
Adams was dedicated to bringing a pro football team to Houston in 1959. Having joined Lamar Hunt in the venture to create the American Football League, Adams did not jump ship to the established NFL when given the opportunity by George Halas. Neither Hunt nor Adams got Halas' offer of owning potential NFL franchises (in Minnesota and Dallas) in writing, so they stayed the course with their upstart league.
Adams and Hunt were a team forged from oil money, opportunity and disdain at the arrogance of the more established NFL, and we have the lion's share of what is now the AFC -- the Chiefs, Titans, Jets, Raiders, Chargers, Broncos, Patriots, Bills, Dolphins and Bengals -- as a result of that bond. Thank God Halas was as complex as Adams, or we might not.
Of course, tell any Houstonian over 30 about Adams' loyalty and you might get a thousand-yard stare. Adams moved the Oilers to Tennessee in 1997, citing the need for a publicly funded venue that could compete with modern NFL stadiums (with money made from luxury boxes and club seating that needn't be shared under the NFL's revenue-sharing plan). The Oilers actually weren't supposed to move until the 1998 season, but local support for the team was so bad at that point that the city let Adams take his franchise east one year early. And truthfully, Adams had looked into moving it as early as 1987, before the city of Houston agreed to refurbish the Oilers' home, the Astrodome.
If not loyal, Adams could be patient. After all, this is a man who kept Jeff Fisher firmly entrenched as the Oilers/Titans' head coach for 17 seasons. While Fisher took Tennessee to a Super Bowl, and to the playoffs six times, the team went 17-31 from 2004 to 2006. How many owners would have sat through that run?
Here again, we get to the heart of the matter -- the gray matter. One of the big reasons the Oilers became less popular in the 1980s, which might or might not have led to the eventual reluctance to spend taxpayer money on a new stadium, was Adams' immensely unpopular firing of head coach Bum Phillips after the 1980 season. That decision was the very definition of knee-jerk.
All Phillips had done was take the Oilers to their first three playoff seasons since the AFL-NFL merger, guiding the team to the Super Bowl's doorstep in 1978 and '79. Yet Adams was upset that the Oilers could not make it over the playoff hump, and after watching Houston get hammered in the wild-card round, he made the move. Never mind that Phillips' squad won 36 games (including the postseason) from 1978 to 1980. It took the organization eight years to win its next 36 games.
Hey, that was Adams. He kept everybody on their toes. The same guy who executed a fire sale of the 1993 Oilers after another playoff failure also outbid the big, bad NFL for LSU star Billy Cannon in 1960. Adams would barely speak up for seemingly months, then publicly ask why Vince Young wasn't starting.
Adams was as Southern as could be, having been born in Bartlesville, Okla., and spending his entire adult life in Houston, yet he is the only owner to have three African-American quarterbacks be the face of the franchise (Warren Moon, Steve McNair and Young). Given the history of the region, the significance here cannot be understated.
Ultimately, we all are defined by two things: what we did and how we did it.
What Adams did was lead an NFL franchise for over 50 years, logging more wins (409) than any other current NFL owner at the time of his passing. He partnered with Hunt to form the most successful "other" league in pro football history, ensuring its success by not only being a financial backbone for his own club but allegedly loaning money to another club, the New York Titans (now Jets), so it could stay afloat in the early 1960s. (Did you enjoy that big win Sunday, Jets fans?)
Adams built the AFL's most successful franchise in Houston, with the Oilers winning back-to-back championships in 1960 and 1961, and he brought a Super Bowl team to Nashville in 1999. In the years between, he was a staying power, with a wit to keep league meetings real and a business mind to hasten the NFL's shift to the super stadium game -- for better or for worse.
You truly can't write the history of any of us, or our accomplishments, without acknowledging the complexity of our nature. In that way, Adams was just like you and me, except he should be remembered in the annals of NFL history forever.