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When the Houston Oilers Were Sued by the NFL

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Pre-Titans get lawsuit before playing first-ever game

Houston Oilers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

The Tennessee Titans began their journey as a professional football club as the Houston Oilers in the upstart American Football League (AFL) in 1960. In 1996, the Oilers made the announcement that the franchise would be moving to Nashville where that city was building the Oilers a brand new stadium set to open in 1999. So, they became the Tennessee Oilers and played one season in nearby Memphis and a second season at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville.

And before the 1960 Oilers could even play their first game, the franchise was sued.

The Los Angeles Rams were comfortable in their new home since moving from Cleveland in 1946. The fanbase was excellent and growing each season. Every day the weather was great.

Their home stadium, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, was cavernous seating over 93,000; which meant more revenue for each contest. More and more movie and television stars were being seen at home games and the franchise had become the most financially solvent club in the National Football League (NFL).

The Rams had plenty of success on the field in recent years winning four division titles and playing in the NFL Championship Game four times, winning it all in 1951. The squad made famous a wide-open offense and led the league in scoring several seasons.

Back in 1950, L.A. was the first NFL team to have all its games televised by the Admiral Television Company. This idea of televising home games ensured that the majority of Southern California would get the exposure the NFL - and the Rams - needed week-after-week.

But, that was then. This was the year 1960. And those high-scoring teams of the 1950’s were gone or retired. The team was in a rebuilding mode after having finished 2-10-0 the year before.

The NFL was finally a national league with the Rams moving to L.A., the merger of the San Francisco 49ers melding into the league (in 1950), an expansion team in Dallas for 1960, plus a new club to be situated in Minneapolis, Minnesota beginning in 1961. No longer was the league comprised of teams simply east of the Mississippi River.

The Rams had lost their swagger that the club was known for. New blood was needed to turn the franchise around and regain their glory days. Head Coach Sid Gillman was gone after being fired.

The Rams new head coach was Bob Waterfield, who had been a star player for the Rams in the 1940s through the 1950s. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and won the NFL Player-of-the-Year award in 1945 and also in 1950. Later, he would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965. He was also married to the movie goddess Jane Russell.

One thing Waterfield wanted as a head coach was more team speed. Despite the poor showing in 1959, that roster had four players make the Pro Bowl: WR Del Shofner, DE Lamar Lundy, LB Les Richter and RB Jon Arnett. Both quarterbacks, Frank Ryan and starter Billy Wade, would be returning as well.

And the Rams had one more thing: the very first pick in the upcoming NFL college draft.

Back then only college seniors were eligible to be taken in the draft (which lasted 20 rounds). Often, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner was chosen early in the first round or as the very first player taken overall. This year would be no exception.

LSU’s Billy Cannon

Running back Billy Cannon was a triple-threat coming out of Louisiana State University (LSU). He had a sprinter’s speed, a golden arm, and sure hands. In addition, his strength resembled a brute mentality, but with an intelligence to digest any offense. He helped LSU win the National Championship in his junior year and won the UPI Player of the Year award in 1958 and also in 1959. Plus, he had just won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player.

The Rams’ General Manager at the time was Pete Rozelle, who later would be elected the league’s commissioner. For now, he ran the L.A. show. And he wanted Cannon. Bad.

With the first selection in the NFL draft, this would be a certainty. Or was it? In past seasons, the only hindrances that prevented a blue-chip player from signing were playing another sport (like professional baseball) or entering the business world with a lucrative offer from a well-established firm. But this year - for the first time ever - there was another obstacle.

The American Football League.

The AFL was the new kid in town. Originally it wasn’t taken very seriously with the Old Guard of the NFL owners. And since the AFL also had a college draft, that too wasn’t taken into consideration as a threat to the tranquility and stability that the older league had enjoyed for decades.

The AFL held its draft on November 22, 1959. Each of the eight AFL teams selected their first player as a regional pick, and then made selections just like any other draft process. Their thoughts were that if more local well-known college stars were playing in their new league that a fan base that to this point was already following them would increase ticket sales.

The Oilers held all AFL territorial rights to players coming out of the state of Louisiana; which meant Cannon was eligible to become the property of the Oilers and no other AFL team unless Houston passed on him in the first round.

To counter, the NFL held its draft on November 30, 1959, at a secret location. However, the secretive method the NFL utilized stymied the younger league from knowing which teams selected which players.

Of course, the Rams selected Cannon with the first overall pick. Now all they had to do was sign him.

At that time, the NFL and the NCAA, college football’s governing body, had lived by the agreement that no NFL club would sign any college player until their college eligibility had ceased. For seniors, this meant after they had played their final game. The majority of college teams played their last game at the end of November. For the teams that played in a bowl game, this meant a player’s eligibility would not be fulfilled until as late as January 1 when all bowl games would conclude.

But on this year, many NFL GMs secretly negotiated with college seniors and signed contracts after the NFL draft was completed; and before the bowl games were played in order to sway players from the startup AFL. If known, this would mean any player who signed a contract would not have been eligible to play in their school’s bowl game.

To make things worse, the NFL and the NCAA had peace regarding the professional game not stealing players until their eligibility tenure was over. This came about because throughout the 1920s until the 1940s college players who played under assumed names was rampant. The NFL realizes that the college game serves as a feeder system for the professional ranks.

On the day of the 1960 November NFL draft held in Philadelphia, Cannon checked into a Philly hotel under a fake name. The Rams then signed Cannon to a three-year deal worth $15,000 a season, a $10,000 signing bonus, plus a $500 expense check. The contract would be signed without a date inscribed and was agreed upon that it would begin after LSU had completed its January 1 Sugar Bowl game in New Orleans. All parties were sworn to secrecy.

If this had become known, Cannon would have been ineligible for the Sugar Bowl and the NFL would be in hot water with the NCAA.

In the meantime, Oilers’ owner Bud Adams was getting frustrated with not being able to contact Cannon after the AFL draft had concluded. Adams had the personal phone numbers to Cannon’s parents, his girlfriend and his college dorm room - yet to no avail. Finally, he contacted the gym where he knew Cannon worked out and left a message. The message that he left: he would double any offer the Rams proposed.

Less than an hour later, Adams’ phone rang. The operator said it was long distance to which Adams accepted the charges. It was Cannon. During the conversation, Adams found out what he already had perceived: his prized territorial player had already signed with the Rams. True to this word, Adams offered Cannon $30,000 a season with a $20,000 signing bonus.

Cannon verbally agreed on Adam’s deal. The really interesting occurrence is what the Oilers did next - which was nothing short of genius.

Houston arranged with Cannon that he would sign his new pro contract at the conclusion of the Sugar Bowl. Right there on the field. On national television. With a live audience.

Brilliant.

On New Year’s Day after the conclusion of the Ole Miss-LSU Sugar Bowl game, the nation’s most well-known player signed a contract with the Oilers under the aura of the goalposts. Even though Rozelle was at the game, he had not been able to find Cannon until after the final gun in the locker room. He told Cannon that Los Angeles was really excited about having him in uniform next season, to which Cannon calmly explained that he had just signed with the Oilers.

The Rams later sued the AFL because they possessed the first signed contract. The case was heard in Los Angeles County Court and eventually, the courts ruled with the Oilers. 960, wearing the powder blue of the Houston Oilers, Cannon led the team in rushing with 644 yards. The Oilers took the AFL’s first championship with a 24-16 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. The following season, Cannon gained 2,043 all-purpose yards and led the AFL in rushing with 948 yards while scoring 15 touchdowns on the ground and through the air. He was named to the AFL All-Star team. The team once again won the AFL title - their second in as many seasons.

On January 1, 1960, Rozelle was in New Orleans representing the Rams in trying his best to retain his prized bull. 26 days later, the NFL owners voted him in as the new commissioner of the league. His experience with the Cannon fiasco and the AFL’s tactics left a disdain in his soul for the younger league in the many upcoming years of war to come. It was no secret that Rozelle despised the AFL - with the Cannon incident the foundation.

Billy Cannon autographed full-size helmet

Yet in 1970, when all 10 AFL teams merged into the NFL, it was Rozelle who was there to greet them into the fold as the commissioner of the expanded National Football League.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.