Long before they ever met, the Dallas Cowboys were the biggest rivals the Houston Oilers had. The Cowboys were unaware of this except at the management level, where TV ratings were studied with pleasure. As recently as 1964 the ratings showed far more people in Houston watched the Cowboys on TV than watched the Oilers either in person or on the tube. To the Oilers this was an affront that demanded some sort of Texas satisfaction. Preferably the sort Sam Bass got from bank clerks—a payoff in violence and money, the state's leading values.
But to the Cowboys the notion of a rivalry with Houston was degrading. Especially after the Dallas Texans moved to Kansas City, the Cowboys thought of themselves as the only genuine pro football team in the state. A few years ago Oiler General Manager Don Klosterman suggested to his Dallas counterpart, Tex Schramm, that their teams have a series of exhibition games on a home-and-home basis. Schramm laughed and said no thanks, he'd rather play the Oilers in Houston if at all. "We've got a lot of fans in Houston," said Schramm. "You don't have any fans in Dallas."
Though Klosterman was offended, what Schramm said was true. Oiler games have never been regularly televised in Dallas. But for the last 10 years the Cowboys have been on TV in Houston almost every autumn Sunday. It might be argued that more people in Houston would recognize Bob Lilly and Bob Hayes out of uniform than could identify Bud Adams and Judge Hofheinz with numbers on their backs.
The first Dallas-Houston exhibition game came in 1967 after the NFL-AFL merger was agreed upon. The players called the game the Neely Bowl. Offensive Tackle Ralph Neely had signed a contract with Houston and then had returned his check and signed with Dallas. After lengthy skirmishes in court, it was legally decreed that Neely belonged to Houston. Neely swore he would quit rather than move down to the Gulf Coast. So Schramm bought the rights to Neely for a first, a second and two fifth-round draft choices—with which the Oilers acquired three starting players—and a promise of three exhibition games in Houston.
On a rainy day two years ago the Cowboys beat the Oilers 30-17 in Rice Stadium before a crowd of more than 50,000, the largest that had ever seen Houston play. Last season the Oilers moved into the Astrodome and Dallas again won, 33-19, before 52,289, once more the largest crowd that had ever seen the Oilers at home. By then the Oilers were convinced they had a dandy vendetta going. Maddeningly, the Cowboys still wouldn't admit it. As far as the Cowboys were concerned, if they had any rival in pro football it was Green Bay.
"I guess this could turn into a real rivalry with Houston sometime," Tex Schramm said last week. "But I don't know of any real rivalries between Texas cities. Dallas and Fort Worth are supposed to be big rivals, but the SMUTCU game doesn't seem to mean much anymore. The way to create a rivalry is to have two very good, very well-matched teams playing each other. When I was with the Rams in the early '50s, we had a strong rivalry with San Francisco, but both cities had good teams. Later the caliber of football in those two cities went down for a while, and the rivalry disappeared.
"I don't mean to disparage Houston, but Kansas City would draw more people in Dallas than Houston would. The Chiefs have a better record. Because of our two championship games and our national TV games with the Packers, our rival is Green Bay. The Bears and Green Bay have a traditional rivalry, but most others are born of the competition of the times. They come and go. Like Baltimore and the Rams lately, New York and Cleveland in the old days, Detroit and Cleveland before that, our rivalry with Green Bay may dissipate quickly.
"The Oilers are improving," Schramm continued, "but, frankly., they wouldn't do as well in Dallas as some of the more successful clubs. The attraction depends on who's winning. The hot article now is the Jets. Our game with them in the Cotton Bowl is sold out. But our coaches think the Oilers may be a big attraction pretty soon. They're a very rough team. In the near future we might have a home-and-home arrangement with Houston."
Klosterman believes the Oiler-Cowboy rivalry is already here. "A lot of emotion has been built up about this," he says. "The games we play with Dallas are always mean—well, let's say very brisk. The Cowboys get lots of publicity, they're supposed to be the best. It's like the Jets got tired of hearing about the Giants. We're tired of hearing about Dallas."
Dallas and Houston are 240 miles apart on the map but farther apart in style. Dallas is a nest of bankers and insurance men, a white-collar town, humorless, conservative in its politics, dull in architecture, dominated by an oligarchy and distinguished by the number of citizens who claim godless Communists are going to steal their money. Houston, the country's third-largest seaport, is a sprawling confusion of freeways connecting clumps of buildings laid across a vast coastal plain that is coated with smog; it is rather like a smaller Los Angeles, except for the lack of broken terrain. Houston is the nation's capital for gas and oil dealers (though its first great fortunes came from cotton), is noted for its hospitals and, of course, for NASA, and is possibly the most thoroughly air-conditioned city in the world. It is also a violent, hysterical place.
In the last few months a group of moral vigilantes burned down the movie theater showing I Am Curious (Yellow), bombed an underground newspaper called the Space City News, bombed a radio station and covered the city with leaflets reading "The White Knights of the KKK are watching you." Last week in Houston, Tex Schramm was almost run down by a thief in a stolen car and then came close to being shot by a pursuing private cop—and this while taking his wife to dinner.
Oiler Owner Bud Adams has had four general managers and five head coaches since 1960, and the Oilers have played in three different stadiums. On the other hand, the Cowboys have had the same head coach, Tom Landry, for 10 years, the same general manager, the same chief scout, the same equipment man—Schramm has even had the same secretary.
But the Cowboys have changed this year, both in personnel and, they say, in attitude. The change began after Dallas lost to Cleveland in a playoff last season. The Cowboys were disgruntled when they went to Miami to play in the Third Best Bowl. They believed they should have been playing in the Super Bowl. The players called a meeting to find out why they had lost twice to the Packers in championship games and had been unable to beat Cleveland when it counted most.
Among the speakers at the meeting were Neely, Defensive Tackle Bob Lilly and Middle Linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. Many Dallas fans were blaming the quarterback. Don Meredith, for not winning the big games, but the players decided the fault lay with themselves. They said they simply were not determined enough, not in good enough shape and were too mild of manner. They asked Landry to transform them, beginning with the 1969 training camp.
Before that camp, Meredith and Fullback Don Perkins quit. Meredith had been losing his enthusiasm for the game, particularly since he was yanked in the second half against Cleveland, and he so dreaded returning to training camp that he chose to devote himself to other enterprises. He was offered sports-announcing jobs by at least two TV networks, but he turned them down, saying his interest in football was over. Perkins had retired before and had been talked out of it, but this time he meant it. At camp the players were uneasy about the absence of Meredith and Perkins, who had been two of their leaders. Landry informed the team he was going to do as requested and run a very tough camp, and anyone who wished to leave was free to do so.
"He asked each one of us if we intended to stick it out. and we said yeah," says Neely. "We knew it was going to be hard. We used to depend on Meredith and Perkins to pull us out of trouble, but they were gone. In ability, Craig Morton and Walt Garrison might eventually surpass them, but their leadership will be difficult to replace. Still, we made up our minds we were going to beat everybody in every way—on the scoreboard, mentally, physically. People always say the Cowboys have a lot of class, a lot of style, but never that the Cowboys will knock your head off. This year we will."
"We're more aggressive now," Lilly says. "Maybe the word for it is mean. We don't stand around. You see a guy, you knock him down. There is definitely a different attitude. Our guys are getting older, and it's time for us to win a championship. Maybe we're more determined because Don and Perk retired, but I haven't heard their names mentioned since the second day of camp."
The feeling has carried over to the rookies. Calvin Hill of Yale kept calling the Cowboys from the College All-Star camp, fretting that he wasn't being worked strenuously enough and might get out of shape. Interest in the new Cowboys rose to such a pitch that their first home exhibition game, against Green Bay, was a sellout, with thousands of people milling around the gates begging for tickets.
This was not lost on the folk in Houston, either. The Oilers were displaying muscles of their own, beating Buffalo and Chicago and losing to Baltimore on a long pass in the final seconds. Two weeks before Houston's game with the Cowboys, there wasn't an unsold Astrodome seat. If the Cowboys did not as yet view this game as a true rivalry, people in Houston did. Oiler Coach Wally Lemm said it was no special event to him, but one of his quarterbacks, Don Trull, said, "They're billing this game as the Championship of Texas, and I guess that's right. We sure do hear about the Cowboys all the time. It would be good to beat them."
Texas Governor Preston Smith was persuaded to fly to Houston to present a new trophy—called the Governor's Cup—to the winning owner. This news was greeted with some sarcasm by observers who noted the governor should be happy to escape Austin, where the legislature was floundering over a tax bill and the state was about to run out of funds. When the governor was introduced at the Astrodome, which was packed with 55,310—including about 10,600 who had bought standing-room tickets—the biggest "money gate" ever, he was booed as if he had turned off the air conditioning.
And last week, for the third year in a row, it was the biggest crowd ever to see the Oilers at home. Tickets were being openly scalped downtown for $35 to $60. Houston TV Announcer Bill Enis said he had been called that morning by an oilman who offered $100 each for Enis' four tickets. "I didn't sell them," Enis said, "but I told my wife and kids they'd better enjoy this game."
The Oilers defensive unit shut out the Cowboys in the first half, and Houston led 3-0. In the third quarter Dallas controlled the ball, and the Oilers began to weaken. Morton threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Lance Rentzel, who had a most unenjoyable night. He had broken his nose the week before against the Packers and he was knocked cold twice by the Oilers, whom he accused of overuse of elbows. "On top of all that," Rentzel said, "I was coming up the ramp after a game and a fan rushed up to get my autograph and hit me on the nose. I want out of here."
Hill, who is going to be outstanding as a running back, scored again for Dallas on a three-yard run. Very late in the game Trull flipped a three-yard touchdown pass to Jim Beirne and then passed to Hoyle Granger for the two-point conversion to pull the Oilers up to 14-11. It ended that way after an onside kick was recovered by Dallas.
Up in Judge Hofheinz' box, the judge, the governor, Bud Adams and Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and James McDivitt were waiting when Cowboy Owner Clint Murchison—who insists his new bubble-topped Texas Stadium in Irving will be superior to the Astrodome as a football plant—walked in to get his trophy. As Smith started to hand it over, Beirne caught the touchdown pass. "Hold it," Murchison said. Moments later he accepted the trophy, saying, "I would like to express my appreciation for the strategy planned for us by Granny Emma."
"Well, fine," said Governor Smith, who didn't know Granny Emma from Grandma Frickert. Fine, indeed. Granny Emma is a Dallas disc jockey who had bet a day's pay on the game with a Houston disc jockey. Whether or not the Cowboys admit it, the rivalry is alive and well in Texas.