Oil­ers tried lame-duck ap­proach

Raiders could face some prob­lems as they leave Oakland

The Commercial Appeal - - Sports - JOSH DUBOW

ALAMEDA, Calif. — Soon af­ter the NFL ap­proved the Raiders’ move to Las Ve­gas, coach Jack Del Rio won­dered if any­one had a hand­book on how to han­dle be­ing a lame duck in Oakland.

While there might not be a book about how to han­dle play­ing in a city a team plans to aban­don for richer pas­tures, there is a fran­chise that tried a sim­i­lar path be­fore de­cid­ing life as a lame duck proved to be un­ten­able.

Just weeks be­fore the start of the 1995 sea­son, Hous­ton Oil­ers owner Bud Adams an­nounced he had an ex­clu­sive ne­go­ti­at­ing deal to move the team to Nashville. A bal­lot mea­sure was ap­proved the next spring in Nashville to fund a sta­dium that wouldn’t be ready un­til 1999, so the Oil­ers de­cided to spend three sea­sons as a lame duck in Hous­ton.

But with dwin­dling crowds at the Astrodome and in­creas­ing an­i­mos­ity from a fan base about to be de­serted, the Oil­ers changed plans and played the 1997 sea­son in Mem­phis and the ’98 sea­son on Van­der­bilt’s cam­pus be­fore fi­nally mov­ing into the new sta­dium in 1999.

“We started off plan­ning to stay in Hous­ton the whole time like they’re talk­ing about in Oakland,” former Oil­ers gen­eral man­ager Floyd Reese said. “Af­ter the first year, we said this is just not go­ing to work. That’s how we ended up in Mem­phis for a year and Van­der­bilt af­ter that. That cer­tainly wasn’t great, and the truth is I’m not sure it was bet­ter than just stay­ing in Hous­ton. But you knew that stay­ing in Hous­ton was go­ing to be so dis­taste­ful and be re­ally hard to lis­ten to the neg­a­tiv­ity ev­ery day. We couldn’t do any­thing right. We said any­thing is bet­ter than this, and you make the move and you find out it was bet­ter in some ar­eas and not as good in oth­ers.”

The Raiders now will see how it works for them in Oakland af­ter the NFL ap­proved their move last month to Las Ve­gas for the 2020 sea­son. The Raiders are stay­ing in Oakland in 2017 and have an op­tion to play at the Coli­seum in 2018 that they plan to ex­er­cise. They have no lease for 2019, lead­ing to un­cer­tainty about where they will play that year.

Oakland of­fi­cials have in­di­cated they don’t want to give the team a lease for that sea­son, and owner Mark Davis has said he doesn’t want to play in Las Ve­gas un­til the new $1.9 bil­lion sta­dium is ready.

That could lead to the team play­ing at an­other Bay Area lo­ca­tion, like Levi’s Sta­dium in Santa Clara or Me­mo­rial Sta­dium at Cal, or they could look for a short-term home.

Much of that de­ci­sion will de­pend on the fan re­ac­tion in Oakland start­ing this year. If Hous­ton is any in­di­ca­tion, it doesn’t fig­ure to be good.

The Oil­ers av­er­aged less than 32,000 fans a game in 1996, get­ting big crowds only when fans wanted to cheer for Pitts­burgh and San Fran­cisco. By Thanks­giv­ing, the fans stopped com­ing with the team draw­ing about 20,000 for its sixth and sev­enth home games be­fore play­ing in front of a crowd of 15,131 in the home fi­nale.

“I’d seen that place in an NFL play­off en­vi­ron­ment at its peak,” former of­fen­sive line­man Brad Hop­kins said. “To see 15,000 peo­ple in a 65,000-seat sta­dium was com­pletely un­be­liev­able. Just the quiet­ness. We had pre­sea­son games with bet­ter at­ten­dance. That was com­pletely shock­ing. The fans were say­ing don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

The only thing that made the ex­pe­ri­ence a lit­tle eas­ier on the play­ers is that the venom from the fans was al­most en­tirely di­rected at Adams and lo­cal politi­cians and not the play­ers. “They com­pletely blamed the bu­reau­cracy,” Hop­kins said. “They didn’t look at us like we had any­thing to do with it.”

Those late-sea­son crowds made the de­ci­sion to leave Hous­ton easy for the fran­chise. Reese re­mem­bers talk­ing af­ter that game to a shell-shocked rookie Eddie Ge­orge, who was used to play­ing in front of crowds of 100,000 in col­lege at Ohio State. “I went by his locker and said, ‘Hey, it’s not go­ing to be like this for­ever. This is not the NFL. What you see later on will be,’ ” Reese said.

Play­ing at the Lib­erty Bowl in Mem­phis in 1997 wasn’t much bet­ter as the av­er­age at­ten­dance was even lower at about 28,000, and many of the fans came to cheer for the op­po­nent be­cause they had no con­nec­tion to the vagabond Oil­ers. The team got only slightly more sup­port the fol­low­ing year at Van­der­bilt be­fore fi­nally find­ing a real home in 1999 when its new sta­dium opened for the newly named Ten­nessee Ti­tans.

That led to a suc­cess­ful run with the Ti­tans mak­ing the Su­per Bowl fol­low­ing the 1999 sea­son and av­er­ag­ing more than 11 wins a sea­son over a five-year span.

“It bound us be­cause we un­der­stood that we were search­ing for a new iden­tity,” Hop­kins said. “We had to do it on our own. We came to­gether and be­came a team.”

FILE / AP

The Hous­ton Oil­ers had a hard time draw­ing fan sup­port dur­ing a pre­sea­son game against the Colts in Hous­ton in 1996. It was the team’s fi­nal sea­son in Hous­ton be­fore mov­ing to Ten­nessee.

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