1960: The First Houston AFL Champs

January 1, 1961: The Houston Oilers Defeat The Los Angeles Chargers, 24-16, in First AFL Championship Game at Jeppesen (now Robertson) Stadium on the UH campus. I am there in the crowd behind this game action. You can't see me. I'm too high to be in the picture.

All the clamor this week over the Houston Texans winning their first AFC SOUTH division championship brings back a flood of memories from the first 1960 season of the American Football League and the local Houston Oilers. The boys of Bud Adams took that first new football league crown as winners of the East Division over the west division champion Los Angeles Chargers in the AFL’s first championship game at old Jeppesen Stadium (now old Robertson Stadium) on the UH campus on Cullen Boulevard. The date was News Years Day, 1961, before a full house of under 30,000 capacity in those days. Tickets were so available and affordable that even guys like me in my first year out of UH managed to score a pair in the low-level nosebleed section of that hallowed old Bayou City sports battleground.

The 1st AFL Championship Game Program

Lou Rymkus was the Head Coach of that first Houston “big league sport” club. Former Chicago Bears chunker George Blanda was both the Oiler QB and placement kicker. And RB Billy Cannon was the running-gunning offensive star that the fledgling league stole from under the noses of the established NFL with a contract signing under the goal posts at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge following his last college game. It was a deal sealed directly on the field by club owner Bud Adams – and it stood out as the major act of “we are here to stay” defiance by the AFL in the face of the established NFL.

The league was pretty simple back then. Eight teams divided into two divisions and everyone played a home and away round-robin schedule with each of its seven opponents. As noted, the Oilers took the East with a 10-4 record, followed by the Buffalo Bills (7-7), the New York Titans (5-8-1) and the Boston Patriots (5-9).

The West Division champs were the Los Angeles Chargers (10-4), followed by the Dallas Texans (8-6), the Oakland Raiders (6-8), and the Denver Broncos (4-9-1).

The two division winners were scheduled to meet in the championship game on New Years Day and that was it for the one-game playoff system in place that first year. Meanwhile, the separate, established NFL had their own championship game and there was no inter-commerce between the two mortal enemy leagues in those days. It was a time for roster raids and full commitment to one-upmanship, with nothing even close to a “Super Bowl” game between the two league champs on the horizon.

When the NFL and AFL finally made an uneasy peace in the late 1960s, it was all about self-preservation of both leagues and it was not until their third NFL-AFL inter-league championship game (1969, I believe, the year of their third encounter) that Lamar Hunt of Dallas gave it the name off the cuff as the “Super Bowl” of all post-season football contests.

The name stuck, but back in 1960-61, we had never heard of such an animal. We were just excited that the City of Houston had finally moved up to win something, even if they called it the East Division of the American Football League. And now we wanted it all. And “it all” added up and boi;ed down to beating Los Angeles on New Years Day in an afternoon game at “The Jepp.”

My girl friend of the time and I had done New Years Eve to the hilt the previous night, so, in spite of the fact that we were only 23 and 21 at the time, we were ready for a less strenuous afternoon in the stands. And, as fans did in those days, we arrived for the game dressed to the nines. My lady wore a beautiful sky blue afternoon dress and I wore a herring bone sport coat and sky blue and white rep tie.

We were young. In love. And full of hope for the future. Those are the conditions I remember most. As we all get to discover over time in some way, sometimes things don’t work out as we plan, but the memory of the way we were stays fresh as time goes by. (There has to be a song title in there somewhere. Forgive me if history sometimes takes me sideways into my personal past. Things worked our more than OK for me in the long run.)

The Oilers won that first AFL championship game in an exciting squeaker, 24-16. The Oilers led 10-9 at the half and 17-16 at the end of the 3rd quarter, but the LA Chargers kept coming on like the big bad wolf. It felt as though they were going to blow our house in as we hit into the 4th quarter.

Then came the magic.

George Blanda's Helmet

Mired on their own 12 South end zone yard line, Blanda flicked a little pass to the right and it was caught full-stride by Billy Cannon as he headed toward the right sideline.

But Cannon didn’t go out-of-bounds. He turned the corner and headed north, running hard and big and agile – like a runaway freight train. Before we could even get to full roar in the stands, Billy Cannon had taken the little dump pass all of 88 yards for a breathing room Oiler TD. Houston led Los Angeles by 24-16 with just a few minutes left to play.

The Chargers didn’t stop. Charger QB Jack Kemp passed, huffed, and puffed LA all the way to the Oilers’ 22-yard line before the California boys ran out of fiery breath and time. The Oilers had won. And Houstonians then partied like it was 1980!

A lot of things changed in pro football as a result of the new AFL. For one thing, the money bags hooked up to the sport as the networks began to televise weekend games on an expanded organized basis. The great Jack Buck was the play-by-play man for that first AFL title game. We also started seeing more black athletes as the AFL aggressively pursued and out-hustled the NFL for the best available talent. And we also saw the first soccer-style kickers that are now the norm.

The one thing those pioneer clubs failed to grasp at first was ancillary revenue streams. Unlike the massive run on Texans apparel on sale this week, Oiler fans of 1960 had nowhere to go to buy anything like that – and maybe it wouldn’t have worked anyway, back then, when people got dressed as though they were going to church to go to football games. We didn’t do it for baseball, but we did for football and I can’t explain why.

It’s been a lifetime ago since 1960-61. A lot has changed, but not winning. It still feels great when it happens.

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9 Responses to “1960: The First Houston AFL Champs”

  1. Steve Bertone Says:

    I remember it well….I was listening to the game on my grandfathers radio. Yes Virgina we had gray and white television but I do not recall this game being shown.

  2. Patrick Lopez Says:

    I was living in NYC when the AFL started in 1960, Titans owner Harry Wismar , one time sports announcer was a colorful fixture
    in the first two years of its existance . I followed the Oliers and Blanda from afar , while theTitans struggle to attrach crowds in the old Polo Grounds ,the team went broke 3 years later.Competion from the great NY Giants teams of that era smushed the Titans.

    In 1962 I moved from NYC back to Houston.
    I wore a coat and tie , my wife in a smart black dress & heels, to attend the second baseball game played in the Astrodome , a preseason game with the Astros and Yankees,I worked for the Houston Architects who designed the project .First game tickets were hard to get, we dressed the same for the rest of that first season games in the Dome.

    When Warren McVey signed up with U of H, there followed many great cougar players , The teams gave Houston National recognition with games in the Astrodome ,I had season tickets for years, The wife and I always “dressed up ” for Saturday night & those exciting Gougars,

    Coach Bill Yeoman , had an imaginative Veer-offence ,strong defence ,coached many great U of H teams ,He made winning at football a habit here, never did he threaten to leave for another venue , Houston Texas was his home, his place to be.

  3. Bob Hulsey Says:

    I have a videotape/DVD of the 1960 Oilers season highlights which includes the championship game. It can be purchased through Doak Ewing’s company “Rare Sportsfilms”.

    Jeppessen Stadium was considered a “high school stadium” before the Oilers upgraded it however, it is clearly a bunch of wooden bleachers from those old films and it is unclear to me if today’s Robertson Stadium is actually the same stadium or simply standing on the same property as Jeppessen Stadium. When I went to UH in the mid-70s, I don’t recall the stadium being present however the Cougars played at the Dome so I may not have noticed it. I recall Hofheinz Pavillion and the baseball field but no football field.

    If anyone could clarify this for me, I would appreciate it.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Bob:

      The exterior structure of old Jeppesen Stadium is the same as the current Robertson. It has been there since 1939 when it went up as a WPA project and it stands in living testimony to UH’s need for a completely new facility, The under the stands concession facilities are narrow and dingy and the ramps into the upper stands are both steep and dangerous.

      The place has been through several “enlargements” with the addition of end zone metal seating stands and also had some expensive “enhancements” with the lowering of the playing surface and the removal of the external field running track to improve the stadium sight lines, All it needs now is a total demolishment and complete replacement.

      You obviously had an eye for only the beautiful things in life as a UH student. That would explain your inability to even see poor old Jepp sitting out there on Cullen and directly west of the Zeke.

      • Bob Hulsey Says:

        Thanks, Bill. I probably had more of an eye for pretty co-eds back then than anything else.

        I lived in the Quadrangle my freshman year. There was a construction area near the Zeke when I was there with fences and tarps covering it from oursiders. Maybe this was the Jepp undergoing one of its “enhancements”.

  4. Mark Wernick Says:

    I definitely saw it in 1968-1969, when I was a junior at U of H and a commuter student, because I invariably had to park my car pretty well near the old football stadium, prior to making the long, long hike to class.

    Mark

  5. Mark Wernick Says:

    P.S. My car was a 1959 Edsel Ranger 4-door sedan. Solid steel with no power steering, it was like driving a tank, and parking a boat. And it was one of the best cars I’ve owned until the one I’m driving now: a 2004 Toyota Prius.

  6. Vito Schlabra Says:

    I was their and at every home game back in 1960 & 1981. I sold new Chevrolets at Chuck Davis Chevrolet and in 1964 sold Charlie Hennigan a El Camino and talked with George Blanda and his family about a station wagon. Also sold another Oiler a Old Tornado but forgot his name in 1965.

  7. Bill Gilbert Says:

    Bill-

    This column brought back some great memories. I was living in Baton Rouge at the time but I was in Houston that wekend visiting a friend and we went to the game. I still remember Cannon’s run, especially since it was so similar to the run I had seen in Baton Rouge against Ole Miss the year before on Halloween night.

    Bill Gilbert

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