With the passing of Tennessee Titans owner K.S. “Bud” Adams, there remains just two people who put up their money and in the process modernized professional football in the United States.
Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson and the former owner of the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers Barron Hilton are still alive to talk about the late 1950s when Lamar Hunt and Adams could not get into the National Football League with teams in Dallas and Houston, respectively. So, they decided to start a new league with an old name, the American Football League.
The roots of the American Football League go back to 1956 when Chicago Bears owner George Halas predicted that the league would expand from 12 to 16 teams sometime between 1960-1965. The next year, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell predicted the league would increase its number of teams in 1960 and by 1958, Bell had appointed Halas and Steelers owner Art Rooney to a committee to explore expansion.
Dallas and Houston were identified as cities that could support a NFL team. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Buffalo and Miami were also in consideration.
Bell, Halas and Rooney were encouraged by the interest and suggested that the NFL would expand to both Dallas and Houston by 1961.
In 1958, the two Texas businessmen, Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams applied for the Dallas and Houston expansion franchises. NFL owners said no. Both had also tried to buy the Chicago Cardinals with the idea of moving them to Texas. Both bids were turned down.
Halas and Rooney moved ahead with their committee and scheduled the Bears and Steelers to meet in a 1959 pre-season game in Houston. Halas had news conferences in February and April in Houston to sell tickets to the game and discuss expansion plans. He thought the league would start expanding in 1960 with Dallas, Houston, Buffalo and Miami as the most likely expansion cities and that the NFL would act on adding teams in its annual meeting in January 1960.
The NFL timetable was not fast enough for Hunt and by July 28, 1959, Bell told a congressional committee of Hunt’s plan with Hunt’s permission. A few weeks later, Halas announced that his expansion committee would recommend in January 1960 that the NFL expand to Dallas and Houston for the 1961 season with the Houston franchise joining the NFL, if there was an adequate stadium available.
The NFL hoped to use Rice University’s field until a new football field was built in Houston. But Rice University officials turned down the NFL’s overture. The league ended its flirtation with Houston at that point and Minneapolis stepped up its efforts to join the NFL.
Hunt decided if he couldn’t join the NFL, he might as well compete with them and by 1959 the American Football League was born with franchises in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Denver and New York. Eventually Boston and Buffalo would join the league, but Minneapolis owner Max Winter dropped out when the NFL awarded him an expansion franchise in 1961. The AFL gave that franchise instead to Oakland.
“The first organizational meeting of the AFL was in mid-August of 1959 in Chicago,” Hunt recalled. “I think there was an opportunity, the sport needed to grow. It had gone through a consolidation period and we had seen the 1958 great championship game between the Giants and Colts. There was great national interest in the game and there were a lot of cities frankly that were growing, not all of them had great stadium facilities. But it was beginning to happen. The public was beginning to perceive that this game had a national appeal.”
And with that “The Foolish Club,” a group of American Football League owners embarked on starting a football league. It would be the fourth incarnation of the American Football League. Three other “AFL’s” failed, although the NFL did take some teams from the failed leagues with the most notable being the Cleveland Rams of the second AFL. That team played in the AFL in 1936 and joined the NFL in 1937.
Another league, the All American Football Conference was in operation between 1946 and 1949. Three AAFC teams joined the NFL, the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers.
The NFL was a ragtag, mom and pop operation in the 1950s and no more than one or two steps above semi-pro football. The league was vying for talent with the Canadian Football League in the mid-1950s and lost some players to CFL teams who paid more money for talent.
Hunt’s first move after he decided to go ahead with the American Football League was to meet with Adams in Houston. Hunt felt a Dallas-Houston rivalry would be important for the new league. Hunt also noted that NFL attendance had grown from nearly 2 million in 1950 to more than 3 million in 1958. The NFL signed a TV deal with CBS in 1956 and further pushed pro football into a nation’s consciousness.
“The others came from really from names that were interested in getting the Chicago Cardinals to move to their city,” he explained. “Harry Wismer was not in that group. He was a stockholder, interestingly in two NFL teams, Detroit and Washington and I don’t know how that came about, but he came in a little later with the New York Titans.
“Ralph Wilson and Buffalo also came in October and his franchise became the seventh and then the Boston Patriots with Bill Sullivan became the eighth franchise and then we went through another consolidation and lost one team and then added the Oakland Raiders as the eighth team,” Hunt said.
Sullivan was interested in bringing an NFL team to Boston and was one among the first people to conceive of putting luxury boxes into a stadium in 1958. He went to NFL Commissioner Bert Bell with architectural plans for a stadium in Norwood, Mass., near the airport. The stadium had a roof and executive boxes and the idea was to have the Boston Red Sox move out of Fenway Park as a co-tenant.
The plan died when word leaked out and the Red Sox walked away from the stadium idea. Sullivan entered the AFL without a home field and jumped from stadium to stadium within the Boston area.
According to Adams, who said yes to Hunt’s idea, “The Foolish Club” was a joke but these owners were determined to make the AFL succeed.
“Well, we started out, there were just two of us,” Adams said. “Then we had four more to come in and the last one to come in was Oakland because Minnesota pulled out, they were in there originally. We even gave them their $25,000 back. We were foolish on that. We thought it was the proper thing to do because they (Minnesota) were going over to the NFL.
“I look back now at my first year payroll of the Houston Oilers, it was the entire sum of $350,000 and I had the number one player, Billy Cannon, the Heisman Trophy winner and a two-time All American and he was making $15,000 salary and I paid him a $20,000 bonus,” Adams added. “Things were a lot different in 1960 than they are today.”
Adams paid the New York Titans payroll when Harry Wismer couldn’t meet his Titans payroll obligation. The deal was Adams sent a player and the money to Wismer in exchange for a first round draft pick.
“The NFL was tough competition,” Adams said. “They said we wouldn’t last, the other leagues, the All American league had gone out. It was interesting years. ABC came in and gave us $165,000 and I think in the second year, they gave us $125,000 because the ratings weren’t up there. But we thought that was a lot of money.”
Adams eventually would become just another NFL owner after the 1966 AFL-NFL merger. He would move his Houston Oilers franchise to Nashville in the mid-1990s, although he did finish out his lease at the Houston Astrodome. The team started playing in Memphis in 1997 and at Vanderbilt University in 1998. Adams’ Oilers became the Tennessee Titans in 1999 when the team moved into a municipally built football facility in Nashville.
Today’s NFL can thank Adams, who was a prime mover and shaker in establishing it.
Evan Weiner, the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award winner, can be reached at email@example.com. He has written several e-books on sports, including, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition,” which is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com.