By Dan Pompei
Bold thinking and brazen moves were necessary for the NFL to get from where it was in the early 1960s to where it is today. The impetus for growth and prosperity was provided, in part, by Bud Adams and his gang of American Football League outlaws.
Like a lot of great Americans, Adams (who died at his home in Houston on Monday at the age of 90) could be defined by the fearless steps he took on paths he was warned not to go down. He was a second generation oil man, but Adams set his own course with little regard for convention.
I remember him as a maverick, wearing a bolo tie and suspenders, with his hair a little longer than men like him are supposed to wear their hair.
When he and Lamar Hunt asked to get in on the NFL in the late 50s, NFL commissioner Bert Bell told them to get lost. Adams never liked being told no. So on Aug. 3, 1959, Adams and Hunt held a press conference in Adams' Houston office to announce the formation of the American Football League. NFL owners chortled, right until the AFL signed half of the NFL's first round picks in 1960.
One of those picks was Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon, who had been chosen first overall by the Rams. Legend has it Adams first courted the running back in the end zone after LSU's Sugar Bowl victory over Clemson. Cannon agreed to take Adams' $100,000 contract -- but he also agreed to a $50,000 deal with the Rams. Adams took the case to court and won.
Cannon would help Adams' team win the first two AFL titles. So would George Blanda, whom Adams lured out of a two-year retirement to be his quarterback and kicker at the age of 33.
Throughout his career, Adams would make similar audacious personnel moves. In 1974, he traded troubled John Matuszak and a third round pick for future hall of famer Curly Culp and a first round pick that turned out to be Robert Brazile. He convinced the Bucs to take first, second, third and fifth round picks, plus tight end Jimmie Giles, for the rights to take Earl Campbell in 1978. In 1984, he outbid the field for Canadian star Warren Moon.
Not all of his moves worked as well. Against the advice of general manager Floyd Reese and head coach Jeff Fisher, he demanded the Titans select Vince Young with the third pick of the 2006 draft. And then Adams forced Fisher to start him. He also ordered the Titans front office to pull out all the stops to sign Peyton Manning last year to no avail.
Adams could be a handful for his administrators. This was not a secret in the NFL. He could fly off the handle and react harshly, and his patience thinned as he aged. At various points of his career, he was portrayed as a micromanager and skinflint. He slugged a sportswriter and flipped off some fans. But he was earthy and real. For better or worse, he always seemed to know what he wanted, and he wasn't shy about seizing control of his destiny.
In 1993, he threated to break up the Oilers if they didn't make it to the Super Bowl. And though they went 12-4 in the regular season, he kept good on his word when the team lost in the playoffs. Adams sent Moon packing and allowed defensive ends Sean Jones and William Fuller to leave as free agents, and the Oilers went into a five-year tailspin.
When the Astrodome was no longer serving the Oilers as a comfortable and profitable home in the 1990s, Adams demanded more from the city of Houston. But with the oil industry reeling, the politicians had bigger problems. He threatened to move to Jacksonville, and ultimately headed to Nashville. Adams remained a Houston resident. Many of his neighbors remember him more for uprooting their franchise and for firing the beloved Bum Phillips than they did for giving the team professional football.
Adams and the other eight original franchise owners in the AFL called themselves the Foolish Club. His foolishness was very debatable, however, given that he reportedly was worth north of $1 billion upon his death. Those original AFL owners and others that followed also set the blueprint for revenue sharing that has been a bedrock for the modern NFL.
In a league that shied away from African-American quarterbacks, Adams' teams went counter culture, using African-American signal callers in 26 of his 54 years with Moon, Young and Steve McNair. He was served well by this, as were the rest of us.
As a six-decade franchise owner, Adams was part of the fabric of the NFL. A snagged stitch, perhaps, but a part of the fabric nonetheless.
And if leaving something better than it was before he touched it ever was a goal, his was a football life well lived.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.