Two years ago, when his team was operating out of a temporary practice facility in Nashville, with offices and meeting rooms housed in a hodgepodge of 18 strung-together trailers on the grounds of a local hospital, Tennessee Titans Coach Jeff Fisher needed a videotape of a game involving the Cincinnati Bengals, his team's opponent the following week.
There was only one problem. The Titans' makeshift headquarters did not have an operational satellite dish that would enable Fisher's staff to record the game. Fisher took matters into his own hands. In a driving rainstorm, with a videotape tucked in his jacket, he scaled a fence between his office and a local sports bar. Then he persuaded the bartender to record the game so his assistants could begin studying the tape the following morning.
For the Titans, who moved from Houston to Tennessee three years ago, those tales evoke smiles and occasional laughter these days as they prepare to play the equally transient St. Louis Rams on Sunday in Super Bowl XXXIV. The Rams franchise, which began in Cleveland in 1937 and moved to Los Angeles in 1946, also has been based in Anaheim, Calif. It moved to St. Louis in 1995 basically for the same reason the Titans moved after 37 seasons in Houston, which really is the same reason any professional sports franchise relocates these days--the lure of a new and financially lucrative stadium.
While distasteful to traditionalists, inconsiderate of fans and perhaps not in an entire league's best interest, this is sports today in America. And for the Rams and Titans, it also is part of the reason they are here this week--although in the Titans' case, not in anywhere near the way they had imagined when they left Houston. The bottom line for the teams is this: The 1999 season finally has been what they envisioned when they relocated--settled into state-of-the-art game and practice facilities, fantastically supported by the home fans, and above all else, championship caliber on the field.
"At first [moving] was very difficult," said St. Louis cornerback Todd Lyght, a native Californian and one of only five players remaining from the last Rams team to play in Anaheim. "Guys felt comfortable in California. Nice weather, a nice state. But our fans in St. Louis made it easy to adjust. They supported us right from the start, even though we were not winning. They never turned their backs on us. Now, they live and die Rams football, and it's been great."
The Rams had to play four home games at Busch Stadium before moving into the Trans World Dome in 1995, but by the following season, they had a sparkling new practice facility as well.
But the Rams struggled during their first four seasons in St. Louis, and team president John Shaw said today their club officials had some concerns about whether the city would embrace the team. Back in those days, fans booed the players--and their four consecutive losing seasons--almost as loudly as they now cheer them in arguably the NFL's loudest stadium.
"We had our concerns of assimilating our tradition into that community," Shaw said. "It was clear to us they were very enthusiastic fans because they were very enthusiastic fans of the Cardinals [football team that moved to Tempe, Ariz., following the 1987 season]. We also made an effort to blend the traditions of the two teams. In our ring of fame around the stadium, for example, we have Rams and Cardinals up there. It's clear now we're accepted, but watching our fans over the last five years, we still had tremendous support even when we were losing."
The Rams' move has left Los Angeles, the nation's No. 2 television market, without a franchise. The NFL abandoned plans this past fall to expand there because of flaws in stadium financing plans and concerns about who would own the team. Instead, the NFL team owners awarded an expansion franchise to Houston to replace the Oilers, who are now known as the Titans.
Shaw insisted today that the Rams left Southern California with some regrets, and did so, in part, because team officials believed that the Oakland Raiders were preparing to return to the market.
"I felt bad for Los Angeles at the time we moved," Shaw said. "I've said all along that L.A. should have a team. I thought the Raiders would be moving three weeks after we left. There would have been an extreme likelihood that we would have stayed if we didn't think the Raiders weren't coming back. But that still doesn't address the fundamental issue in Southern California--whether they'll have a state-of-the-art stadium."
Rams owner Georgia Frontiere has been unavailable for comment this week. When she inherited the team from her late husband Carroll Rosenbloom, she also purged Rosenbloom's family from any involvement, including Steve Rosenbloom, then the team president. She mainly has handed the team's operation in St. Louis to Shaw and team executive vice president Jay Zygmunt. She spends a good bit of her time living in Sedona, Ariz., and attending to charitable pursuits.
"She's always said [leaving Los Angeles] was one of the toughest decisions she ever made in her life," Shaw said. "I think that's accurate. I think she struggled with it. The number one intent was to get a state-of-the-art stadium in Southern California. If that was not going to become a reality, we would move. It never happened."
Titans owner Bud Adams today said nearly the same thing about Houston. Adams, who founded the franchise as an original member of the old American Football League, was unhappy with his team's lease at the Astrodome and wanted financial help from the city to build a new stadium.
He said today that in 1993 he offered to put $50 million toward the cause, then upped that to $85 million. But then-mayor Bob Lanier was reluctant to spend public funds, especially with the city still trying to recover from a recession.
"We didn't want to leave Houston," Adams said. "But we leased from the baseball guy [Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane], we had the smallest stadium in the league, and we weren't going to make it on that. . . . We could see we had to have our own [advertising] signage, concessions, parking. We weren't getting that. . . . We could never get it done down there. When Bob Lanier wouldn't take the leadership [in building a new stadium], I felt free to go elsewhere."
So began the team's fitful transition that finally ended in 1999, when the team changed its nickname from Oilers to Titans, unveiled new uniforms and moved into 65,000-seat Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville. Adams said today when he first called the mayor of Nashville to tell him he was interested in relocating the team, the mayor hung up on him, thinking it was a crank call.
It was real, but at times, the team's circumstances seemed anything but.
"If I had to write a book about [the move], it definitely would fall in the fiction section," Fisher said. ". . . From designing a practice facility to having input on the new stadium design, you name it, we did it as a coaching staff. It seemed like coaching often took a back seat."
During its first season in Tennessee, the team was based in Nashville but played home games at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, 200 miles away. That meant every game during the 1997 season was a road game, and fan support at the Liberty Bowl was minimal, mostly because fans knew the team's stay was going to be temporary and because Adams had underestimated the animus that existed between Memphis and Nashville. In 1998, the team played at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, helping the team's fan situation. But the practice facility was minimal at best, and the team finished with an 8-8 record for the third consecutive season.
Floyd Reese, the Titans' general manager, said he thought the coaching staff did a brilliant job just getting the team to 8-8 the past two seasons.
"Once we left Houston behind, we thought it would improve immediately," Reese said today. "But it just kept getting worse. It's one of those things you had to go through to understand it. . . . On an hourly basis you just kept fighting the fight. . . .
"Every weekend we'd be jumping in planes, and the guys would be wondering if their wives and their families were okay driving across the state. The things you had to do to plan were monstrous. It took away the focus from football. You'd go to a team meeting and you'd say, 'Okay, the plane is leaving now, the bus is going at this hour' on and on. Oh yeah, by the way, we've got to win the game. . . .
"I'm not sure that it didn't help us get where we are now. It gave us a real mental toughness, as if there was nothing we couldn't overcome."
This season, not only did Adelphia Coliseum open along the east bank of the Cumberland River, within walking distance of downtown Nashville, so did a new 80,000-square-foot team headquarters, also not far from the central city.
"Now we're finally treated like professionals," said safety Marcus Robertson, who made the move from Houston and will miss Sunday's game with a broken leg. "You get to know what home-field advantage is like. Guys just hang at [at the practice facility]. You didn't have that last year or the year before. The facility was so small, we didn't want to be in there any longer than we had to be."
The Titans, after playing in four stadiums in three cities in two states over the past four years, went undefeated at home this season (just like the Rams).
"Finally having a home field made a huge difference for us," said Titans running back Eddie George, another player whose career began in Houston. "A new name and identity helped. It was a new stability in the organization that wasn't there in my previous years."
A Long Way Home
Unlike many NFL franchises, which have stayed put for decades, both franchises in the Super Bowl took a circuitous route to their current home cities.
1. Began in Cleveland and played in three parks there from 1937 to 1945.
2. Moved to Los Angeles in 1946 and played in Memorial Coliseum until 1979.
3. Moved to Anaheim Stadium and played there through the 1984 season.
4. Became St. Louis Rams in 1995 and played 4 games in Busch Stadium. Moved to Trans World Dome in November 1995.
1. Began as Houston Oilers, 1960 to 1996, and played most of that time in the Astrodome.
2. Became the Tennessee Oilers in 1997 and played in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
3. Played the 1998 season at Dudley Field on the campus of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Moved to Adelphia Coliseum in downtown Nashville this season and became the Tennessee Titans.