Jim Wyatt, USA TODAY Sports
NASHVILLE - Kenneth Stanley "Bud" Adams, a Texas oilman who brought the National Football League to Nashville and ignited the city's love affair with the Tennessee Titans, died Monday, The (Nashville) Tennessean confirmed. He was 90.
The Houston Chronicle first reported Adams' death.
Adams founded the Houston Oilers in 1959 as part of the new American Football League. Until his death he remained owner, chairman of the board, and president and CEO of the franchise that became the Titans in 1999 after a controversial departure from Houston.
He was one of only four NFL owners to reach the 350-win plateau, a milestone he shared with Ralph Wilson (Buffalo Bills), Dan Rooney (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Al Davis (Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders).
Adams' franchise earned 21 playoff appearances in 50 seasons - a total that ranks fifth all-time among NFL teams since 1960 - yet it never realized his dream of winning a Super Bowl.
"I'd like to wear (a ring) that says, 'Super Bowl champions' on there. ... I'll keep my fingers crossed," Adams said in a 2009 interview. "But at my age I just take it one day, one game at a time. You can't build your hopes up."
Adams was a trendsetter with a lifelong love of sports and a fondness for Houston, which refused to build him a new stadium when he felt the Astrodome became unsuitable for his NFL team. Although he relocated his franchise to Nashville in 1997, Adams kept his office and residence in Houston until his death.
During a 2009 interview, former Titans coach Jeff Fisher called Adams a great owner. Adams hired Fisher in 1995, but in early 2011, the coach and the Titans parted ways after 17 seasons. Fisher was named head coach of the St. Louis Rams in January 2012.
"From a head coaching standpoint, you can't ask for a better situation as far as a relationship with an owner," Fisher said. "He is 100% supportive of everything we have attempted to do and tried to do and even failed at doing. He is behind us and is very generous and understands the game very well and really, really enjoys this team.
"He expects anybody and everybody who works for him to work hard, he has a standard. And he expects loyalty, not only to him but to everyone who works for him, to one another."
Current Titans coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman with the Oilers, was selected by Adams to replace Fisher.
In 2008, Adams received the inaugural Lamar Hunt Award for Professional Football, which recognized his vision and his role in helping the NFL reach preeminent status.
Adams and Hunt announced the formation of the AFL in Adams' office in 1959, and the league began play in 1960.
Adams' wife of 62 years, Nancy, died in February 2009. They raised two daughters, Susie Smith and Amy Strunk, and a son, Kenneth S. Adams III, who is deceased. Adams had seven grandchildren.
The business of football
Adams was born Jan. 3, 1923 in Bartlesville, Okla. He played football, basketball and baseball at Culver Military Academy, and graduated in 1940. He attended Menlo College in California then transferred to the engineering department at the University of Kansas, where he also lettered in football.
Adams joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942 and was later sent overseas, assigned to a carrier unit, where he served as aviation engineering officer. He was discharged from the Navy in 1946, the same year he started ADA Oil Company.
It was the first of many business interests for Adams, but he always had his mind on sports. Eventually he would own professional baseball and basketball teams, and was involved in boxing.
Football went to the front burner in 1959, when Adams launched Houston's AFL franchise while Hunt started one in Dallas.
The Oilers were among the dominant AFL teams in the 1960s, playing in four championship games, and winning titles in 1960 and '61. In 1970, when the AFL merged with the long-established NFL, the Oilers continued to have success, making the playoffs 10 times.
The Oilers played their final season in Houston in 1996. In 1997, Adams moved them to the Volunteer State, where they were called the Tennessee Oilers while playing home games at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis ('97) and Vanderbilt Stadium ('98) in Nashville.
In 1999, as finishing touches were placed on a new downtown stadium in Nashville, Adams changed the team nickname to Titans.
Phil Bredesen was Nashville's mayor when Adams called with a proposal to move the Oilers to Music City. In an interview with The Tennessean, Bredesen said he had tremendous respect for Adams, and the franchise has meant more to Nashville than anyone would have imagined when it arrived.
"I know he had been a controversial figure in Houston at times, and I didn't know what to expect at first, but I found him to be a very genuine guy and an extraordinarily family oriented person,'' Bredesen said. "I have to say in all my dealings with him, every time he told me anything - and he didn't always do everything I wanted and is a tough negotiator - his word is as good as gold. He'll tell you yes and he'll tell you no, but whatever he tells you is good.
"(The Titans moving to Nashville), it was very controversial at times - people were trying to impeach me and tried everything to stop it - but I have run into innumerable people who have said to me they didn't want the team at first and now they go to every Titans game.
"I am sure there are still some people who don't like it, but overwhelmingly people have seen what it has done for the city. ... I have very high regard for Mr. Adams and I honestly believe it has vastly exceeded anyone's expectations.''
Adams also won praise for his contributions to the community.
In May 2010 he gave $200,000 to help victims of the Nashville floods, and since the franchise moved to Tennessee, local charities have received approximately $18 million from the Titans and the NFL, according to the team.
The night before Super Bowl XLVI in January of 2012, the NFL honored Adams for his efforts in supporting U.S. service members and veterans. He was the first recipient of the Salute to Service Award presented by USAA, the league's official military appreciation sponsor.
Adams was also heavily involved with the troops stationed at Fort Campbell, located not far from Nashville on the Kentucky state line, and home to the Army's 101st Airborne Division as well as the Night Stalker and Green Beret special operations forces. Since 1999, more than 11,000 Fort Campbell soldiers have been guests of Adams and the Titans at LP Field.
Adams also earned the respect of the men who played for his teams.
"He is part of the old school group of owners, the old guard so to speak,'' said former NFL Players Association president Kevin Mawae, who played for the Titans from 2006-09. "And I think since I have been in the league they have had something like 20-something new owners and he is not one of them. I think he is definitely an icon in this business. He and Lamar Hunt are the ones who started the whole AFL so I think there is a deep-rooted respect for what he has done for the NFL."
Adams had 65 players selected to the Pro Bowl, two named NFL Most Valuable Player and five named NFL offensive or defensive rookie of the year. Eight of his players are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The inaugural Titans team in 1999 made an electrifying run to Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, where it lost to the St. Louis Rams.
Adams was nominated for the Hall of Fame as a special contributor, and up until his death had been working on several prominent NFL committees, including Finance, Hall of Fame, and Legislative and Audit.
He was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in '08.
Adams sometimes created controversy when the Oilers were still in Houston, in part because of his willingness to part ways with successful coaches who fell short of his Super Bowl goal. Coach Bum Phillips was fired in 1980 after three straight trips to the AFC Championship Game.
And while he picked his spots, Adams made it clear to those working for him in Nashville that he was the boss.
That was evident in 2006, when the Titans selected former University of Texas quarterback Vince Young with the third overall pick of the draft. Adams was a big fan of Young, who grew up in Houston and was a high school superstar there.
Prior to the draft, Adams told his front office he wanted the Titans to select Young with their first-round pick. Although Fisher and then-general manager Floyd Reese had other ideas, they did what the boss told them to do.
On at least two occasions during Young's five years with the Titans, Adams instructed Fisher to start Young in place of seasoned veteran Kerry Collins. Following the 2010 season, the Titans parted ways with Young. Fisher was out the door several weeks later.
In 2012, Adams ordered the front office to pursue former University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, a free agent. Manning eventually signed with the Denver Broncos despite an aggressive pitch from Adams and the Titans.
"I was hoping we would win out," Adams said. "I thought we'd be ahead of Denver. I thought he'd want to stay in Tennessee. It's where he played his college ball and I thought we could outdo them. He was nice enough to call me and tell me he wasn't going to be our man."
Adams also managed to create controversy in other ways. The NFL fined him $250,000 for making an obscene gesture toward the Buffalo Bills sideline while celebrating at the end of a November 2009 game at LP Field. He later apologized.
Adams continued to attend games at LP Field in 2011, however, and was a regular on the sideline before kickoff.
In 2008, he said he kept working because he enjoyed it.
"I don't have anything that I know of that I have wrong with me, no reason why I can't continue to work on. I'd like to get to be 100 years old," Adams said. "I've had too many friends that when they retired from the business world to go play golf and take it easy they didn't last too long, or they got sick and in the hospital. I think working keeps you occupied and you keep yourself ready to go all the time.''
Future of the franchise
In 2008, Adams offered insight into what would happen with the franchise after he stepped aside.
He said his daughters would each get a third of the team, and the other third would go to the family of his deceased son - his grandsons, Kenneth IV and Barclay Cunningham Adams, and their mother, Susan Lewis.
Adams said he envisioned Kenneth Adams IV eventually running the franchise. Adams IV, a University of the South graduate, has worked under various front office executives with the Titans in recent years, learning all facets of team operation.
"He might be the one running it after I'm no longer the head guy,'' Adams said of his grandson.
Kenneth Adams currently served as Administrative Assistant to Senior Executive Vice President, General Counsel.
Adams indicated his daughters weren't interested in running the team.
Former Titans senior executive vice president Steve Underwood, who worked closely under Adams for 20 years and was with the franchise for 33 years before retirement, said the owner always was very involved even though he mostly stayed in Houston.
"One of the best things about working with Mr. Adams is that he is still so connected to the team and to the city and to everyone in a position of responsibility,'' Underwood said. "He knew about every facet of our business all of the time and he made it his business to know what was going on. And he still provides us with the direction he wants us to take.
"The guidance he provides us is invaluable and is a large part of the reason we've enjoyed the success we have over the years. He still has enormous respect for our fans and understands everything there is to know about operating a professional football team."
Adams hoped to see the Titans make another run at a Super Bowl in 2013.
During the offseason, he let general manager Ruston Webster know that spending on contracts wouldn't be an issue. He wanted the team to sign some of the NFL's top free agents in hopes of giving the Titans a chance to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Webster spent more than $100 million while adding more than a dozen players.
"I just had my 90th birthday and somebody asked me, 'Adams, how long are you going to stay at this thing?' '' Adams told The Tennessean in March. "I said I've made in 90, so I might as well go to 100. And I'd like to get in the playoffs and see some winning football over that stretch, too."
Wyatt also writes for The (Nashville) Tennessean.
Coach Jeff Fisher released the following statement Monday afternoon:
"I'm extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Bud Adams. Mr. Adams gave me my first opportunity to be a head coach in the NFL, and I'm eternally grateful to him for that. We enjoyed a great deal of success together during my 17 seasons with the organization, and I'll cherish those memories for the rest of my life. My respect for Mr. Adams goes well beyond the owner/coach relationship that we shared for many years. He was a pioneer in the football business. He played a key role in creating and sustaining the American Football League, which helped push the popularity of our game to where it is today. My thoughts and prayers are with the Adams family during this difficult time."