NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Titans owner K.S. “Bud” Adams Jr. has died in his Houston home. He was 90.
The team announced Monday that Adams had died, saying he “passed away peacefully from natural causes.”
The son of a prominent oil executive, Adams built his own energy fortune and used it to found the Houston Oilers in the upstart American Football League.
Adams moved the team to Tennessee after the 1996 season when he couldn’t get the new stadium he wanted in Houston. The franchise, renamed the Titans, in 2000 reached the Super Bowl Adams had spent more than three decades pursuing.
Kenneth Stanley Adams Jr. was born in Bartlesville, Okla., to the future chief executive of Phillips Petroleum Co., K.S. “Boots” Adams.
His 409 wins were the most of any current NFL owner. He won his 400th career win in the 2011 season finale when his Titans defeated the team that replaced his Oilers in Houston, the Texans. His franchise made 21 playoff appearances in 53 seasons, eighth among NFL teams since 1960.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Adams a pioneer and innovator and extended the league’s sympathies to Adams’ family.
“As a founding owner of the American Football League that began play in 1960, Bud saw the potential of pro football and brought the game to new cities and new heights of popularity, first in Houston and then in Nashville,” Goodell said in a statement. “He was a brilliant entrepreneur with a terrific sense of humor that helped lighten many a tense meeting.”
Adams, an avid sports fan who sponsored amateur basketball and softball teams, made football history with Dallas oilman Lamar Hunt on Aug. 3, 1959, when the two held a news conference in Houston to announce the AFL would begin competing with the NFL the following year.
Adams, who had unsuccessfully tried to bring the NFL’s Cardinals to Houston, founded one of the new league’s charter franchises. The NFL immediately retaliated by placing the Cowboys in Dallas and tried to get into Houston, but Adams held the lease to the one available stadium.
“I wanted to be the only pro team,” Adams said in a 2002 interview with The Associated Press.
He won a major off-field battle with the NFL in June 1960, shortly before the AFL’s debut, when a judge ruled Louisiana State Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon — who signed with the Oilers underneath the goalposts after the Sugar Bowl that year — was their property despite having later signed with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams.
“It was a big step for us,” Adams said.
The Oilers, named for his successful amateur teams, won the first two AFL titles and reached the championship game four times during the 1960s. In 1968, the Oilers became the first indoor football team when they moved into the 3-year-old Astrodome.
Meanwhile, Adams quietly became one of the nation’s wealthiest oilmen as his ADA Oil Co. evolved into the publicly traded Adams Resources & Energy Inc., a Fortune 500 company based in Houston.
His business interests also took him to farming and ranching interests in Texas and California, cattle feeding, real estate and automobile sales. He also was a major collector of western art and Indian artifacts and maintained a private gallery at his corporate headquarters.
The sports world was where he had his highest profile, however.
His Oilers slumped badly in the years following the 1970 merger between the AFL and the NFL, only to rise to prominence in the late 1970s when Adams convinced Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse to trade him the rights to Heisman Trophy-winning running back Earl Campbell in 1978.
The Campbell-led teams reached two straight AFC title games, only to lose to eventual Super Bowl winner Pittsburgh each time. The Oilers flamed out of the playoffs early in 1980 and Adams reacted by firing popular coach Bum Phillips, a move that permanently alienated him from many fans of the team’s “Luv Ya Blue” era. Phillips died Friday, also at the age of 90.
Adams further irritated Houstonians in 1987 when he first began complaining about the Astrodome and toured the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville to scout a possible move. Harris County relented and added the 10,000 extra seats Adams demanded.
The Oilers had their longest run of success in the late 1980s and early 1990s but became best known for blowing a record 32-point lead in a playoff game at Buffalo on Jan. 3, 1993 — Adams’ 70th birthday.
Adams again began railing about the aging Astrodome shortly afterward, and this time Houston politicians called his bluff. Adams went ahead with his team’s threatened move to Tennessee, though he continued to live and work in Houston.
Faced with losing the Astros soon after, Houston voters approved use of tax money to finance a new ballpark and — once the NFL granted Houston the expansion Texans — a football stadium.
“We feel like we were the catalyst for three new stadiums,” said Adams, who also caused construction of a stadium in Nashville for the Oilers/Titans.
His franchise enjoyed another on-field renaissance after moving to Nashville and reached the Super Bowl after the 1999 season, only to lose to the Rams 23-16 when Kevin Dyson was tackled at the St. Louis one-yard line as time expired.
The Titans have made it to the playoffs six times, most recently in 2008 with a second AFC championship game appearance after the 2002 season. Adams was one of only four current NFL owners to have at least 350 wins in his career.
Adams was inducted in 2006 into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and, along with the other original founders of the AFL, received the Lamar Hunt Award for Professional Football by the Committee of 101, recognizing visionary leadership.
Adams and his wife Nancy, who died in 2009, were also known for their philanthropy in both Texas and Tennessee.
He is survived by daughters Susie Smith and Amy Strunk, and seven grandchildren. Another son, Kenneth Stanley Adams III, died in 1987 at age 29.