Jackson Michael is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Maxwell Football Club. He is a freelance writer, journalist, and author of The Game before the Money (Nebraska 2014). Visit his website or follow on Twitter or Facebook.
“When you’re talking Houston, you’re talking Super Bowl”—a paraphrased quote from the “Houston Oilers #1,” fight song of the late-1970s, aptly describes this week as Super Bowl 51 descends upon the Bayou City.
Super Bowls and Houston have rarely walked hand-in-hand. The Oilers won the first two American Football League championships before the AFL/NFL merger agreed upon in 1966 birthed the Super Bowl. The Oilers lost the 1967 AFL Championship Game to the Oakland Raiders, missing out on a trip to Super Bowl 2.
Houston’s football team couldn’t provide the city with a Super Bowl, but the NFL awarded Super Bowl 8 to Rice Stadium in Houston. The Miami Dolphins pounded the Minnesota Vikings 24-7. In The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, Dolphin quarterback Bob Griese stated he thought the Dolphins team that won Super Bowl 8 was even better than the undefeated 1972 Dolphins of the previous season.
The Super Bowl wouldn’t return to Houston for a very long time. Super Bowl dreams, however, vividly painted the minds of Houston Oiler fans in the late-1970s. Known as the “Luv Ya Blue” era (featured in my new documentary, We Were the Oilers: The Luv Ya Blue Era), the Houston Oilers captured the hearts of fans across the country. As the “Urban Cowboy” fashion fad gained popularity, the Oilers featured a real cowboy as head coach, Bum Phillips. The Oilers also had one of the league’s most exciting running backs in Earl Campbell, and the flamboyant Dan Pastorini at quarterback. The Oilers became so popular that starlet Farrah Fawcett called Pastorini after a game, leading to a brief romance.
The Oilers came within one game of the Super Bowl two years in a row—in 1978 and 1979. Hall of Fame Defensive End Elvin Bethea recalled not having dry jerseys to change into at halftime during the icy 1978 AFC Championship in The Game before the Money, and humorously remembered teammates’ parkas catching fire on the sideline in We Were the Oilers.
Although the Oilers lost both AFC Championship Games to the Pittsburgh Steelers, an estimated 50,000 fans packed the Astrodome each time to greet the Oilers after the team returned home. The frenzied crowds waved Columbia Blue pom poms and danced to “Houston Oilers #1.” After the 1979 AFC Championship Game, Bum Phillips famously told the crowd, “One year ago we knocked on the door. This year we beat on the door. Next year, we’re gonna kick the son-of-a-*!#$# in!”
The Oilers would never kick the door in, however. The franchise didn’t make the Super Bowl until after the team moved to Tennessee in 1998. Houston wouldn’t host the Super Bowl again until February of 2004, when the New England Patriots battled the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 28.
The Patriots and Panthers provided fans with a thrilling fourth quarter. The Panthers outscored New England 19-18 in the game’s final frame, but it wasn’t enough, and the Patriots prevailed 32-29. The game’s excitement, however, lost its thunder to the halftime show. Justin Timberlake’s and Janet Jackson’s performance yielded the famous “wardrobe malfunction,” and unfortunately, most viewers remember that, forgetting a game that turned out to be pretty good.
Super Bowl 51 marks the third time the Super Bowl has visited Houston. The Big Game’s popularity, as well as the National Football League’s, has grown tremendously since Houston hosted the Dolphins and Vikings. Last year’s Super Bowl had an estimated 167 million viewers, more than triple the estimated viewership of Super Bowl 8.