After 3 years, Titans a big hit in Music City

Nashville: Super Bowl-bound team has put Opryland on the map - for its pro football.

January 29, 2000|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- At the famous Nashville Palace, across the highway from the famous Opryland Hotel in this Middle Tennessee land famous as Music City, man-about-town Eddie Paschall is ribbing Allyson, his regular bartender.

"What time are you relieved from duty?" Eddie asks Allyson, who pretends to cold-shoulder him. Eddie, who's buying drinks for the bar (all four souls), says something about who helped you get into those black jeans, Allyson?

"I ain't listening to you no more, Eddie," she hollers back.

At the Palace, flirting is a pastime, right up there with open-mike nights for would-be country stars and, this year, talking Titans. That's the Tennessee Titans, the city's brand-new recycled NFL football team.

Recent developments have elevated interest in the Titans beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

The Titans, sporting a 15-3 record including playoff games, have slugged their way into tomorrow's Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, where they will take on the St. Louis Rams. The Titans, formerly the Tennessee Oilers, formerly the Houston Oilers, formerly of only passing interest, are better than they've looked -- and they've surely looked better than those Arena Football-style jerseys they began wearing this year. But one thing about Nashville, it doesn't make a fuss over appearances. A billboard for one of its nightclubs boasts, "100 Beautiful Girls and Three Ugly Ones."

The Titans' season wasn't always pretty, either.

"They win ugly," admits Ray Elrod, a friend of Eddie's and a contributor to Eddie's mounting bar tab at the Palace. Another friend at the bar, Roger Steveson, leans into his complimentary Miller Lite.

"Yessir," he says, "the Titans have gotten to be a big deal."

Yessir, after three years and three stadiums, the Titans are right up there now, bigger than the Nashville Kats arena football team, nearly as big the Nashville Predators hockey team and the almighty Volunteers in Knoxville. Right up there with the likes of flirting and even country music.

If they wrote a song about Nashville's odd affair with its Titans, it could go something like this:

"Any pro football team looks good at closing time."

Strangers in a strange town

Way, way back in 1997, when Baltimore was still trying to get its arms around its newly arrived Ravens, the Oilers left Houston for Tennessee. One of the original American Football League teams (and the last to make it to a Super Bowl), the Oilers were strangers in a new town -- a country music town, a college football town. The feats and hands of Oilers greats like George Blanda, Ken Houston and Earl Campbell were bygone memories from a land called the Astrodome.

Up until then, Nashville didn't do pro football. Nashville was and is the Grand Ole Opry. Nashville is Gibson Les Paul Double Cut Studio Guitars. Nashville is the land of "milk and honey," peach crisps, sour mash whisky, and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge on Broadway, where Pasty Cline would drop in to sing.

Nashville is Music Row on Demonbreun Street and home to RCA Studio B, where the "Nashville Sound" was born in the 1950s.

Nashville is still Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Little Jimmy Dickens, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, George Strait. But Nashville is now Al Del Greco (the Titans' kicker), too.

Country music and pro football have become partners in Nashville. There's George Jones and now Eddie George, star running back. There's Flatt & Scruggs and now McNair & Kearse (quarterback Steve and lineman Jevon). Yes, the NHL Predators are packing them into their glassy, glossy downtown arena. But the Titans, after a slow start in town, have finally caught on.

Maybe because there's one thing country music and pro football both crave: hits.

"They've put us on the map. We're known for country music, and now, pro football," says Kerry Davidson, who sells 49-cent guitar picks and other stuff at Nashville Gifts near the hockey arena. "The Titans have our undying support."

Heard where the town had quite a showing for the Titans when they came home from beating Jacksonville for the AFC championship.

"We did better than that," Davidson says. Nearly 40,000 people showed up at the Titans' new stadium. Those aren't quite Garth Brooks numbers, but it was one heckuva pep rally for a team that spent its first two years in town borrowing other stadiums. The team was here but not here.

In its first two years, still as the Oilers, the team played one season at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis -- a never-mind, 3 1/2-hour drive from Nashville -- and the next at Vanderbilt Stadium. Finally, they moved into the $292 million Adelphia Coliseum in downtown Nashville. On a Greekish roll, the Oilers became the Titans.

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