Born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma on January 3, 1923, Adams was the son of K. S. “Boots” Adams and Blanch Keeler Adams. He became an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation by virtue of his maternal line. Two of his great-grandmothers were Cherokee women who married European-American men: Nelson Carr and George B. Keeler, who played roles in trade and oil in early Oklahoma. Keeler drilled the first commercial oil well, near the Caney River. Adams’ father succeeded the founder Frank Phillips as president of Phillips Petroleum Company in 1939. Adams’ uncle William Wayne Keeler, CEO of Phillips Petroleum Company for years, was appointed chief of the Cherokee Nation by President Harry S. Truman in 1949 and served through 1971, when the Cherokee were able to hold their own elections. Keeler was democratically elected and served until 1975. Adams’ ancestors include other prominent Cherokee leaders.
Adams graduated from Culver Military Academy in 1940 after lettering in three sports. After a brief stint at Menlo College, he transferred to the University of Kansas (KU), where he played briefly on the varsity football team as he completed an engineering degree. During World War II, Adams served in the United States Navy in the Pacific Theater of operations, attaining the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade. After the war, he returned to KU for additional studies and became a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity. Shortly after his 1946 discharge, Adams was on a trip in which his plane was fogbound in Houston, Texas. He liked the area and decided to settle there. Soon afterward, Adams launched a wildcatting firm, ADA Oil Company, that eventually grew into Adams Resources & Energy. The company’s basketball team was an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) powerhouse, finishing third nationally in 1956.
Adams soon became interested in owning an NFL team. In 1959, Adams and fellow Texas oilman Lamar Hunt tried to buy the struggling Chicago Cardinals and move them to Texas. When that effort failed, he tried to get an expansion team, only to be turned down. A few days after returning to Houston, Adams got a call from Hunt proposing an entirely new football league. They met several times that spring, and Hunt convinced Adams to field a team in Houston. In Hunt’s view, a regional rivalry between Hunt’s Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) and a Houston team would be critical to the league’s growth. On August 3, Adams and Hunt held a press conference in Adams’ boardroom to announce formation of the new league, which was formally named the American Football League. Although less popularly associated with the formation of the AFL than Hunt, Adams was likely nearly as crucial to the league’s success. Both he and Hunt were more financially stable than some of the other early owners.
Adams helped establish the league by fighting and winning the battle with the NFL for LSU’s All-American Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon. Particularly crucial to the league’s early years was Adams’ relationship with Harry Wismer, original owner of the league’s New York franchise, the Titans. For their first three years, the Titans played in the deteriorating old Polo Grounds. The team was mostly derided or ignored by the New York City media. Adams’ help was essential in keeping Wismer’s team in business until it could be sold to more financially capable ownership and moved into Shea Stadium as the Jets. Adams’ team was the best of the new teams during the early period of the AFL. It won the first two championship games behind the quarterbacking and kicking of former Bears reject George Blanda. His team played in a total of four AFL Championship games. Adams is a member of the American Football League Hall of Fame.
Along with wealthy Houston businessman T. C. Morrow, Adams owned the Houston Mavericks, a franchise in the American Basketball Association, from 1967 through 1969. The team was not successful in Houston, and its attendance was among the lowest in the league. After the 1968–1969 season, under new ownership, the Mavericks moved to Charlotte and became the Carolina Cougars. Adams and the other AFL owners received a tremendous boost in credibility and net worth in 1966 with the merger of the AFL with and into the NFL. It was effective with the 1970 season. In 1968 Adams moved his team into the Astrodome, which since 1965 had been the home of the Houston Astros of baseball’s National League.
While the Astrodome ameliorated the hot, humid climate, it had several drawbacks as a venue for the Oilers. Despite being almost completely round, the Astrodome’s football sight lines left much to be desired. The seats near the 50-yard line, usually the most desirable (and expensive), were the farthest from the field of play, while those nearest the action were otherwise-undesirable seats in the end zone. Additionally, the Astrodome seated only about 50,000 for football. By the early 1980s, it was the smallest venue in the NFL. Adams chafed at being the Astrodome’s “secondary” tenant. He knew his position was unlikely to change as long as the Astros were playing 81 home games and his team was playing eight.
Adams was initially hailed as a hero in Houston for making the city a major-league town, but his popularity tailed off during the Oilers’ early NFL years. Some critics believed he had mishandled the team. His tendency to micromanage the Oilers brought considerable scrutiny since he had no background in the sport. For instance, all expenditures over $200 required his personal approval.
In the late 1970s the Oilers rose again to football prominence. Despite being in the same division as the Pittsburgh Steelers, they were very popular nationwide. Their coach, Adams’ fellow Texan O. A. “Bum” Phillips, who dressed, spoke, and acted much like the popular image of a rancher, was well-known and popular. After the Oilers lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champions in three consecutive years, two consecutive AFC championship game losses to the Steelers, followed by a Wild Card loss to the Oakland Raiders, Adams fired Phillips. The team fell off and would not be a serious contender again until the late-1980s. Most of the Houston sporting public blamed Adams. This era of rotation between mediocrity and disaster was to last several years.
In 1987, Adams threatened to move the Oilers to Jacksonville, Florida (now the home to the Jaguars) unless significant improvements were made to the Astrodome. Harris County, which owns the Astrodome, responded with a $67 million renovation that added 10,000 more seats, a new Astroturf carpet and 65 luxury boxes. Adams promised that with the new improvements, he would keep the team in Houston for 10 years. These improvements were funded by increases in property taxes and the doubling of the hotel tax, as well as bonds to be paid over 30 years. (As of 2011, Harris County and its taxpayers are still paying off the debt from the Astrodome renovations.) That same year, the Oilers seemed to right themselves on the field. They made the AFC playoffs every year from then until 1993, but each time they fell short of making it to the Super Bowl. After Adams made good on a threat to hold a fire sale if the Oilers did not make the Super Bowl after the 1993 season, the Oilers finished with the worst record in franchise history a year later. They would be barely competitive for the rest of their stay in Houston.
By the mid-1990s, several NFL teams had new stadiums built largely or entirely with public funding, and several more deals had been agreed to. These new venues featured amenities such as “club seating” and other potential revenue streams that were not part of the NFL’s default revenue-sharing arrangements. Due to this, Adams began to lobby Mayor Bob Lanier for a new stadium. However, Lanier turned down the request almost out of hand. Lanier knew that Houstonians were not willing to spend money for a brand-new stadium less than a decade after helping pay for heavily renovating the Astrodome.
Adams then began to shop the team to other cities. He had taken particular notice of the offer made by Nashville, Tennessee to the New Jersey Devils of the National Hockey League to become the primary tenant of a new arena then under construction in downtown Nashville. (It is now called the Bridgestone Arena). While this deal was never consummated (Nashville eventually received an expansion team, the Nashville Predators), Adams wondered what sort of offer he might receive for a venue for his NFL team. After Adams met several times with then-Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen, they announced a deal to bring the Oilers to Nashville for the 1998 season to a new 68,000-seat stadium (originally called Adelphia Coliseum, now known as LP Field). It was to be built largely with city and state funds, across the Cumberland River from downtown Nashville. Nashville opponents of this arrangement forced the issue to a referendum vote; it passed easily, with over 57% of those voting in favor.
When the move was announced shortly after the end of the 1995 season, Adams’ opponents in Houston attempted to block the move. The biggest example of this was when then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, whose district included portions of Houston and its suburbs, introduced a bill in Congress banning the move. However, it did not pass. Other opponents of the move filed their own lawsuits, but all were dismissed. Local support for the Oilers practically vanished. The Oilers played most of their games before crowds of fewer than 20,000, and they looked even smaller due to the spacious configuration of the Astrodome. The crowds were so quiet that some of the few in attendance, watching on television, or listening on radio) could hear all of the action on the field, including play calling, collisions, and the players talking to one another. In addition, the Oilers’ radio network in Texas, formerly statewide, was reduced to a single station in Houston and a few affiliates in Tennessee. Adams, the city, the county and the NFL were unwilling to let this continue for another season. As a result, Harris County agreed to let the Oilers out of their lease to enable the move to Tennessee a year earlier than planned.
The new Nashville-based stadium’s opening was forced back a year, due to the time necessary to get the appropriate enabling measure on the ballot in Nashville. As a result, Adams had difficulty finding a suitable place to play for the renamed Tennessee Oilers (“Tennessee” was used instead of “Nashville” to appeal to the broader region). The largest stadium in the Nashville area at the time, Vanderbilt Stadium on the campus of Vanderbilt University, seated only 41,000 and was considered inadequate even as a temporary home for anything beyond preseason games. Further, the Oilers were concerned that Vanderbilt refused to permit the sale of alcoholic beverages in the college stadium, which are a source of considerable revenue for NFL teams. The closest NFL-sized stadium to Nashville at the time was the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, three hours east of Nashville. However, Adams rejected it as a temporary home because at 102,000 seats, it would have been nearly impossible to sell out. The league and the Oilers decided to use Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, three-and-a-half hours west of Nashville, until the new stadium in Nashville could be completed. The team would be based in Nashville and commute to Memphis for games—essentially saddling the Oilers with 32 road games for the next two years. Adams himself continued to live in Houston up until his death, only traveling to Tennessee for games.
The 1997 season in Memphis proved to be almost as disastrous as the prior years in the Astrodome, largely because the arrangement was very unpopular in both Memphis and Nashville. Whether from disappointment at their city’s numerous failures to get professional football in its own right, their longtime rivalry with Nashville, mere lack of interest in professional football in general (the Canadian Football League’s Memphis Mad Dogs, who had played in Memphis two years prior, was one of the worst attended teams in that league as well) or general disgust at the prospect of a team that was only there for a temporary stay, Memphians showed no interest in the Oilers. Nashvillians balked at traveling 210 miles to see “their” team, especially since Interstate 40 between the two cities was undergoing a major reconstruction near Memphis. As a result, the Oilers played before some of the smallest NFL crowds since the 1950s. None of the first seven games in Memphis attracted more than 27,000 fans—not even half of the Liberty Bowl’s capacity of 62,000.
Despite the problems, Adams initially intended to stick it out. But, only one game, the finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, attracted a larger crowd than could have been accommodated at Vanderbilt. Although 50,677 people showed up, the crowd appeared to be composed of at least half, and as many as three-fourths, Steeler fans. As a result, Adams scrapped plans to play the 1998 season at the Liberty Bowl, and opted to play at Vanderbilt instead.
Only four of the eight regular-season home games at Vanderbilt sold out for the 1998 season. The move to Tennessee was beginning to be seen as a complete failure. To make matters worse, a major tornado had hit downtown Nashville area, tearing directly through the new stadium’s construction site and causing two tower cranes to collapse. The completion of the new stadium would seemingly be delayed again; the contractors managed to compensate however, ultimately allowing the team to move into their new stadium. Oilers players’ participation in the post-tornado cleanup proved to be a public-relations bonanza for Adams and his team, as did Adams’ large charitable contribution for relief for the storm’s victims. Due to this, there were public suggestions to rename the team the “Tennessee Twisters”.
With the team at its new stadium, the following year was one of major changes. During the 1998 season, Adams announced that the team would change its name to one better suited for its new home, the addition of navy blue to the team’s color scheme, and that the team would be considered the continuation of the former Oilers franchise, allowing them to retain all their team records. He announced he would open a Hall of Fame at the new stadium to honor the greatest players from both the Houston era and the present Tennessee era. A blue-ribbon committee selected The “Titans” to be the team’s new name.
Upon gaining their new identity and new stadium, the newly christened Tennessee Titans received a huge boost in support and excitement among the Nashville community. The Titans proceeded to finish the 1999 regular season with a 13–3 record, qualifying as a wild-card team. In their first-round playoff game against the Buffalo Bills, they won on a wild, controversial last-minute kickoff return play called the “Home Run Throwback” by the special teams coaching staff. Due to the last minute game-deciding nature of this play and the accompanying radio play call by Titans Radio’s Mike Keith, it is more commonly known as the “Music City Miracle”. The kickoff, caught by fullback Lorenzo Neal, was handed off to tight end Frank Wycheck, who made a lateral pass to wide receiver Kevin Dyson. Dyson ran the ball 75 yards down the sideline while Buffalo’s defense had converged on Wycheck on the other side of the field. Many Bills’ fans contended it was an illegal forward pass. The officials ruled it a lateral on the field and confirmed it was a lateral after reviewing the play via officials’ in-game replay review. Subsequent detailed forensic video analysis after the fact has also conclusively demonstrated that it was indeed a lateral. Despite this, there are still some Bills’ fans who refuse to accept that the play and officials’ ruling have been repeatedly proven legitimate.
Following their wild-card victory, the team went on to win two subsequent playoff games and appeared in its first-ever Super Bowl, in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. They lost 23–16 to the St. Louis Rams, having come just one yard short of a touchdown on the game’s final play, creating one of the most thrilling conclusions in Super Bowl history.
The unlikely run that Tennessee sustained in their first season as the Titans has proven to be the high-water mark for the Titans’ on-field success since. The team won the former AFC Central Division the next year, but fell short of the Super Bowl. They then won the AFC South in the 2002 season with an 11-5 record and made it as far as the Conference Championship, falling to a high powered, hard hitting Oakland Raiders team at the McAfee Coliseum. After the 2003 season the team advanced only to the AFC Divisional Playoffs, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. 2005 was the team’s worst season since its arrival in Tennessee, and it finished with an overall record of 4–12. They would not return to the playoffs again until 2007, when they sealed a playoff berth on the last day of the season. 2008 would see the Titans climb to the top of the AFC with a 13-3 record, but they were then knocked out of the playoffs by the Ravens in controversial fashion. During the Ravens’ game-winning drive, a ‘Delay of Game’ was not called after the play clock had hit 0 for several seconds, which enabled the Ravens to go on to kick the game-winning field goal. In the following season, the Titans had a woeful 0-6 start, including a 59-0 beating by the Patriots. The team then managed to finish at .500, after a change at quarterback, likely saving the job of long-time coach Jeff Fisher.
Adams was widely criticized for his decision to return to the role of team president rather than renewing the contract of the existing one. Reportedly Adams has arranged his affairs in such a way as to ensure his family would and did retain ownership of the team following his death. On November 15, 2009, Adams was caught on video displaying an obscene gesture towards the Buffalo bench after the Titans routed the Bills 41-14. Commissioner Roger Goodell, who happened to be attending the game, fined him $250,000. Afterwards, Adams remarked “Oh, I knew I was going to get in trouble for that. I was just so happy we won.” A promising 5-2 start in 2010 quickly fell apart after season-ending injuries to starting QB Vince Young and star WR Kenny Britt left them with an abysmal offense. The Titans lost 8 of their next 9 games, resulting in a 6-10 season and being placed last in their division. Multiple conflicts between Adams, Jeff Fisher, and Vince Young led to the latter two being terminated in January 2011.
In 2001, Adams purchased the rights to operate an Arena Football League expansion franchise in Nashville for a reported $4,000,000. He found it impossible at first to negotiate a favorable lease for the use of the Gaylord Entertainment Center (now called Bridgestone Arena) from that facility’s primary tenant and operator, the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators. A previous AFL team (the original Nashville Kats owned by Mark Bloom) had been forced by an unfavorable lease agreement to leave Nashville and move to Atlanta (with this team thus becoming known as the Georgia Force). This lease agreement resulted in sizable financial losses despite average attendance of over 10,000 per home game for the original Kats. Motivated by bitter memories of being a secondary tenant at the Astrodome, Adams briefly considered either financing the renovation of the Nashville Municipal Auditorium for use as an indoor football venue, building an entirely new facility with a seating capacity of 12,000 or so (dropped when Adams was convinced that the potential $30,000,000 price tag for such a building he had apparently initially been quoted was wildly optimistic), or expanding the Titans’ existing indoor practice facility (at “Baptist Sports Park”, named for a local hospital) for use as an Arena venue. As negotiations with the Predators dragged on and contingency planning continued, the Arena Football League extended his option on the new Nashville franchise at least twice.
By 2004, Adams and the Predators finally hammered out a mutually-acceptable lease agreement. Immediately afterward, it was announced that the new Nashville Kats franchise would begin play in the Arena Football League’s 2005 season. Late in 2004 it was announced that country singer Tim McGraw had bought into the Kats franchise as a minority owner. This second Kats franchise reclaimed the name, logo, and Nashville history of the earlier franchise as its own (The original Kats franchise continued to operate as the Georgia Force until folding in 2008; Similarly, that franchise was reincarnated in 2011 when the existing AFL team Alabama Vipers relocated to the Atlanta area and assumed the Georgia Force identity). As a result of limited on-field success and the subsequent drop in fan support and ticket sales, Bud Adams announced in October 2007 that the Kats would immediately cease operations.
Adams was an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. He had served on the executive committee of the Cherokee National Historical Society. He attended River Oaks Baptist Church in Houston. He and his wife Nancy Neville Adams were married for 62 years, until her death in February 2009 at the age of 84. They had two daughters, Susan and Amy, and a son, Kenneth S. Adams III, each of whom (and their children) are registered Cherokee. Their son died in June 1987 at the age of 29 from apparent suicide.
Adams died of natural causes at his home in Houston at age 90 in 2013. His body was found in his River Oaks home after police were called for a welfare check. At the time of his death, Adams’ 409 wins were the most of any current NFL owner. He gained his 400th career victory 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. Ownership of the Titans is now controlled by the consortium of Susan, her husband, Amy, and Kenneth IV.
- January, 03, 1923
- Bartlesville, Oklahoma
- October, 21, 2013
- Houston, Texas
- Forest Park Westheimer Cemetery
- Houston, Texas