“Whatcha Gonna Do When The Well Runs Dry?”
By ED WETTERMAN
Once champions of the AFL, the Oilers had fallen on hard times by 1964.
A lack of draft preparation and the constant bidding wars with the NFL were taking their toll.
Older players were not playing well, leaving the team for greener pastures, or simply retiring, and they were not being replaced with young players of similar talent.
The Oilers’ front office was virtually nonexistent in terms of draft preparation and scouting.
Houston owner Bud Adams was more concerned with selecting players he thought he could actually sign than going after good ones.
In a draft that contained 11 future Hall of Famers (Bob Brown, Charley Taylor, Carl Eller, Paul Warfield, Mel Renfro, Paul Krouse, Dave Wilcox, Bob Hayes, Bill Parcells, Leroy Kelly, and Roger Staubach), the Oilers went with defensive lineman Scott Appleton with their first pick.
Appleton had played for the 1963 Texas Longhorns national championship team and was indeed considered one of the top linemen of the 1964 draft.
Adams inked Appleton to a large contract, a good signing bonus, cattle, and a gas station.
One particular point of pride for Adams was his track record of signing four of the five first-round draft picks in Oiler history to that point.
Adams wore this as a badge of honor, because NFL franchises managed to sign most of the great college players due to having much more money to spend.
AFL owners tried to call a truce and asked for a mutual draft to save both leagues from the bidding war, but NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle refused to even acknowledge the upstart AFL and still hoped to destroy the young league (so much for a man who’d been named as Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated one year prior).
Perhaps one of Rozelle’s motives was based upon his memory of how Adams had finagled LSU’s Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon away from the Los Angeles Rams in 1960 while Rozelle was still serving as general manager for the Rams, who’d also drafted Cannon.
But for Adams and the Oilers, signed players were not turning into star players, and unfortunately, Appleton followed that trend.
In his book Oiler Blues, author John Pirkle describes how the NFL (very likely with at least the knowledge of Rozelle) was telling black players that the Oilers “were prejudiced and would not give them a fair chance.”
In 1960, only two members of the Oilers team were black, and all the high draft picks in Oiler history had been white as Adams and staff passed over the likes of Ernie Ladd, Mel Renfro, and others.
Whether the rumors were true or not, the Oilers failed to ink several of their black draft choices in 1964 and 1965.
Pirkle goes on to state that the Oiler reputation was tarnished as many “players were simply avoiding what they saw as a circus environment in Houston with its amateur front office and revolving door head coach policy.”
These are the Oilers’ 1964 draft picks:
ROUND (PICK): NAME – POS – SCHOOL – OUTCOME
1 (6): Scott Appleton – DT – Texas – Three seasons in Houston, two in San Diego
2 (9): Charley Taylor – WR – Arizona State – Signed with NFL’s Redskins, Hall of Famer
2 (14): Billy Truax – TE – Louisiana State – Signed with the Rams, played nine seasons
3 (22): Bob Crenshaw – OG – Baylor – Never played
4 (30): Ode Burrell – RB – Mississippi State – Played for Houston 1964-69, 1,088 career rushing yards & 3 TDs, 1,379 career receiving yards & 9 TDs.
5 (33): John Varnell – OT – West Texas A&M – Never played
5 (38): Sid Blanks – RB – Texas A&M-Kingsville – Four seasons in Houston, two with Patriots
6 (46): Dave Wilcox – LB – Oregon – Signed with NFL’s 49ers, played 10 seasons, Hall of Famer
8 (62): Ezell Seals – RB – Prairie View A&M – Never played
9 (70): Jerry Burton – DB/LB – Northwestern State – Never played
10 (78): Sammy Odom – LB – Northwestern State – Played in 1964 for Oilers, 2 INT
11 (86): Owen Dejanovich – OT – Northern Arizona – Never played
12 (94): Benny Nelson – DB – Alabama – Played in 1964 for Oilers, 1 INT
14 (110): Ken Henson – C – TCU – Signed by NFL’s Steelers, played one season
15 (118): Pat Crain – RB – Clemson – Never played
16 (126): Bill Munson – QB – Utah State – Signed with NFL’s Rams, played in NFL 1964-79
17 (134): Dick Leeuwenburg – OT – Stanford – Signed with NFL’s Bears
18 (142): Bob Nichols – OT – Stanford – Signed with NFL’s Steelers
19 (150): Carl Robinson – DT – Prairie View A&M – Never played
20 (158): Pete Jaquess – DB – Eastern New Mexico State – Two seasons with Oilers, eight-year career
21 (166): Jerry Cole – E – Southwest Texas State – Never played
22 (174): Ed Kessler – RB – NorthCarolina – Never played
23 (182): Jim Whitehead – OT – Georgia – Never played
24 (190): John Garrett – LB – Oklahoma – Never played
25 (198): Dick Bowe – OT – Rice – Never played
26 (206): Alex Zenko – OT – Kent State – Never played
Of the 26 1964 draft picks, the Oilers only signed six who would make the team.
In1963, they only signed five of 29 picks who made the team, and in 1962, they’d only signed 16 of 34.
This lack of productive young players would truly haunt the Oilers for the next few seasons, including 1964.
Financially, the AFL struggled since its inception.
The NFL dominated the signing of rookies, and most AFL teams were bleeding money.
Because of head-to-head competition with NFL franchises, the Chargers and Chiefs relocated.
But one person was able to wave the same magic wand twice and help transform the AFL into a viable business venture.
The Titans of New York had financially collapsed but had been rescued by Sonny Werblin and rebranded as the New York Jets.
Werblin would follow that act by also financially rescuing the entire league by signing a television broadcast rights deal with NBC worth $36 million over five years.
Soon, NFL owners began secret negotiations for an eventual merger which would absorb the AFL franchises into the NFL.
UP NEXT: The 1964 Season, Part 2
Ed Wetterman is a native Houstonian and lifelong Oiler fan/historian. He is a teacher, genealogist, game creator, and writer who lived and died on Sundays with the Oilers. Ed has created many games such as “East Texas University: Degrees of Horror” and written short stories such as “HellFighter,” published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Football has always been one of his greatest passions. He experienced the highs and the lows of being an Oiler fan, and like many others, he was crushed when the Oilers left Houston. Writing for Miss Ya Blue! gives him an outlet for his Columbia Blue love.
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