K.S. “Bud” Adams, Jr., an oilman, announces Houston’s entry into the American Football League, joining five other franchises—Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York. The AFL is to begin play in 1960. The name Oilers is selected for the team by Adams “for sentimental and social reasons.” John Breen is hired as Oilers’ player personnel director. Rice University refuses to allow professional football the use of its 70,000-seat stadium, which had been Adams’ first choice. In the first AFL player draft, the Oilers make Billy Cannon, All-American halfback and Heisman Trophy Winner from LSU, their first choice. The first players to sign with the team are Don Hitt and Tony Banfield, both of Oklahoma State.
The Oilers sign Billy Cannon, but later have to go to court to establish the validity of the contract because Cannon also signed with the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL. Lou Rymkus is named the Oilers’ head coach and hires Wally Lemm to handle his defensive backfield. John Breen, searching for an experienced quarterback, decides on George Blanda, formerly of the Chicago Bears, and lures him out of a one-year retirement. “While he is not the greatest quarterback in the world in some departments, he really knows how to take a defense apart,” says Breen.
Bud Adams leases Jeppesen Stadium, a high school facility, and spends $200,000 renovating it and increasing the seating capacity from 22,000 to 36,000. The team opens its first training camp at the University of Houston. The Oilers lose their first preseason game, 27-10, to Dallas, but beat Denver, 42-3, before 18,500 in the home opener at Jeppesen. Houston wins its regular-season opener, 37-22, over Oakland. The Oilers go 10-4, score 379 points, and clinch the AFL’s Eastern Division title by beating Buffalo, 31-23, in Houston. The Oilers win the first AFL Championship, 24-16, over the Los Angeles Chargers before 32,000 at Jeppesen Stadium, January 1. Cannon is named the game’s most valuable player.
Tight end Willard Dewveall, a former SMU star, becomes the first player to jump leagues, playing out his option with the Chicago Bears and signing with Houston. Harris County voters pass a $22 million bond issue to finance a new domed stadium designated to be the home of the Oilers. Bud Adams announces the team will train in Honolulu. Don Suman is named the club’s new vice president and general manager. Wally Lemm resigns as an assistant and enters private business. Six months later, after just one victory in the Oilers’ first five starts. Lemm is re-hired to replace Lou Rymkus as head coach. The Oilers run off 10 victories in a row, become the first pro team in history to score more than 500 points in a season, and win the AFL title for the second year in a row by defeating the San Diego Chargers, 10-3. George Blanda, the AFL’s player of the year, leads the league in passing, including a record 36 touchdown passes, and kicks a record 55-yard field goal. Billy Cannon leads the league in rushing and accounts for 331 yards and five touchdowns against the New York Titans on December 10, rushing for 215 and catching five passes for 116. Flanker Charley Hennigan sets a pro record with 1,746 receiving yards, while split end Bill Groman catches 17 touchdown passes.
Wally Lemm resigns to become head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL. Frank “Pop” Ivy is signed by Bud Adams as his third head coach in three years. Adams moves the training camp to Ellington Air Force Base in Texas. George Blanda enjoys an up-and-down season, throwing for six touchdowns against the New York Titans, but being intercepted a pro record 42 times for the season. After a slow start, the Oilers catch fire behind squat fullback Charley Tolar, who runs for 1,012 yards and catches 30 passes. The Oilers go 11-3 and win their third consecutive Eastern Division title. But in the AFL title game, Houston loses to the Dallas Texans, 20-17, in an historic six-quarter, double-overtime game.
Pop Ivy signs a new two-year contract as head coach and general manager. After eight weeks, the Oilers are in first place, but then they collapse, losing five of their last six and finishing in third place with a 6-8 record. Although George Blanda leads the league with 224 completions and 3,003 yards, an injury holds Billy Cannon to 45 yards rushing for the season, and without him the offense lacks consistency. The defense also dissolves at the end of the season, giving up 45 or more points three times in the final six games.
The Oilers sign number-one draft choice Scott Appleton. The club begins construction of a new training facility in Houston. Sammy Baugh is named backfield coach. Less than a month later, June 2, Bud Adams relieves Ivy as head coach, replacing him with Baugh and naming Carroll Martin the new general manager. Billy Cannon, once the club’s most distinguished player, is traded to Oakland. A 4-10 season ends with the final pro game in Jeppesen Stadium, a 34-15 Oilers’ victory over Denver. Charley Hennigan establishes a pro record in that game, finishing the season with 101 receptions. In still another coaching change, Baugh is relieved as head coach but stays on to assist his successor, Hugh “Bones” Taylor. Lou Rymkus also rejoins the staff as line coach.
The club announces it will not play in the Astrodome, Houston’s new domed stadium, because of “an unrealistic lease agreement.” A five-year lease is completed with Rice for its 70,000-seat stadium. The Houston contract with tackle Ralph Neely is declared invalid by an Oklahoma City Federal Court after the Oklahoma All-American signs with both the Oilers and the NFL Dallas Cowboys. The club makes Tommy Nobis, All-America linebacker from Texas, its number-one draft choice, but loses him to Atlanta. For the third year in a row, George Blanda leads the AFL in pass attempts and completions, but the Oilers again finish 4-10.
Bud Adams appoints Don Klosterman the club’s new executive vice president and general manager. Shortly afterward, Wally Lemm is rehired as head coach. Ernie Ladd, the Chargers’ giant tackle, signs with the Oilers. The league rules that Willie Frazier and Pete Jaquess be awarded to San Diego as compensation. Despite winning their first two games, 45-7 and 31-0, the Oilers drop to a 3-11 final, due in great part to the poorest defense in the league. One bright point is the play of rookie fullback Hoyle Granger, who averages 6.9 yards per carry.
In the first common draft involving the two leagues, the Oilers choose George Webster, the Michigan State All-America linebacker, number one. Two of the stars of the early years in Houston, George Blanda and Charley Hennigan, are let go. The club announces still another new training camp site, this time at Schreiner Institute in Kerrville, Texas. The Oilers become the first team to go from the cellar to the division championship in one season, going 9-4-1 with a defense that suddenly is among the best in the league, and a ground attack powered by Hoyle Granger (who finishes second in the AFL with 1,194 yards) and rookie Woody Campbell. On January 1, Oakland routs the Oilers 40-7 in the AFL Championship Game.
Bud Adams announces the team will move into the new Astrodome, after all, beginning with the 1968 season. The Oilers open in the Astrodome by defeating Washington, 9-3, in a preseason game. The regular season starts in the Astrodome, too, with Houston losing to Kansas City, 26-21. Although 16 Oilers are named to various all-star teams, the club finishes the season with a 7-7 record. George Webster is one of four AFL players named to the first combined all-pro team. Jim Norton, last of the original Oilers, retires and the club retires his jersey number 43.
It’s a case of the playoffs making the Oilers rather than the other way around. Despite a fine defensive unit, the Oilers have only one offensive threat—running back Hoyle Granger—and stagger to a 6-6-2 record while beating no teams with winning marks. But that’s good enough for second place in the East, earning Houston a playoff game with Oakland. On December 21, Daryle Lamonica throws six touchdown passes and the Raiders rip the Oilers 56-7. At the end of the season, George Webster is named to the All-Time AFL Team.