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Titans' road to Super Bowl began in Houston
The story of how the Tennessee Titans reached Super Bowl XXXIV doesn't begin during the 1999 season.
It doesn't even originate in the Volunteer State.
This is a tale that starts in Houston before shifting to Nashville before shifting to Memphis before going back to Nashville before moving to Atlanta for Sunday's game against St. Louis at the Georgia Dome.
Along the way, the franchise changed its name, its uniforms and, ultimately, its identity -- but not before enduring enough hardship to raise questions about whether the Titans should have been named the Titanics.
"If I had to write a book about it, it definitely would fall in the fiction section," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said. "You wouldn't believe the type of things we had to do."
Neither did the players.
Until this season, the Titans spent the previous three years with three home bases -- each of which had a set of problems.
In 1996, Houston became apathetic when it became obvious the franchise -- then known as the Oilers -- was going to leave town because of team owner Bud Adams' inability to strike a stadium deal with city officials.
In 1997, Memphis was apathetic because fans knew the Oilers were moving to Nashville.
The team practiced in Nashville during the week, then made the two-hour trip to Memphis for home games.
And when the Titans decided to move their home games to Nashville in 1998 despite Adelphia Coliseum not being completed, the situation got worse.
The Titans played at 41,000-seat Vanderbilt Stadium and endured their second season with team headquarters in a building that doubled as medical offices.
"At the time we were going through the move with the small crowds and no true home-field advantage, you really started to question whether this is all worth it," said Titans left guard Bruce Matthews, who has played with the franchise for 17 seasons.
"At the same time, our success now is directly attributed to what we went through. We have a mental toughness from all we've gone through."
When asking longtime Titans about the lowest point of the past four years, most horror stories center on the team's first season out of Houston.
Because of inadequate space at the medical offices, the coaches' offices were in trailers in the parking lot.
"Having meetings in a trailer park, you wonder if you're in the National Football League," Titans strong safety Blaine Bishop said.
"I didn't know if I was there or (at a small college). That was tough."
When the team arrived at the practice site, permanent goal posts hadn't been installed.
That forced kicker Al Del Greco, ex-Titans punter Reggie Roby and their position coach to grab screwdrivers and erect the structure.
"They transported all our stuff (from Memphis) and it was tossed over to the side along with all the other sleds and stuff," Del Greco said.
"If we wanted to aim at something, we had to put it together ourselves. I don't know if it was a low point, but it definitely was a funny point at that time."
Not only was Vanderbilt Stadium the NFL's smallest venue by more than 19,000 seats, but players were forced to dress in a pea-sized locker room.
"There was no air conditioning," Titans left tackle Brad Hopkins said. "It was really tough to try and shower. Everybody was crammed into one area.
"You're thinking, 'This is professional football, but there has to be something better."'
Actually, playing at Vanderbilt Stadium was better than in Houston or Memphis.
When the Oilers were about to leave Houston, where the franchise was founded in 1960 as one of the original American Football League teams, fans turned their backs.
The Oilers played in front of fewer than 22,000 fans for four home games during the 1996 season, including an announced attendance of 15,131 in the finale against Cincinnati. Any crowds larger than that were attributable to the opposition having a following in Houston.
The situation didn't get much better in Memphis, which was a stopgap measure because a stadium deal with Vanderbilt fell through.
A state fair drew more people (an estimated 20,000) than the 17,737 fans who watched Tennessee play Baltimore across the street at the Liberty Bowl in the second week of the 1997 season.
En route to a second consecutive 8-8 season, Tennessee drew 50,677 fans for the home finale against Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, the majority were Steelers faithful.
"We walked out and were like, 'Yeah!'" Titans middle linebacker Barron Wortham said. "Then we saw they were all Steelers fans. I was like, 'This is insane.'
"We came from the city of Houston all the way to this -- getting booed in your own stadium. That stuck with me for a long time, knowing that we didn't really have the support even when we came to Tennessee."
Realizing the situation wasn't going to get better, Adams bought his way out of a lease with the city of Memphis and ironed out an agreement with Vanderbilt officials.
Even then, the Titans received lukewarm support and failed to draw capacity crowds for five of eight home games in 1998.
"When we went to Vanderbilt, we expected better support and had to fight through that," Titans General Manager Floyd Reese said.
"We basically had to play 16 road games, and no one had ever done that. ... It was always, 'What's going to be our problem this week.'"
Throughout the turmoil, Fisher was trying to keep a frustrated team united while working behind the scenes on such projects as offering advice on the design of the practice complex and Adelphia Coliseum.
Such diligence also explains why Fisher kept his job despite not posting a winning record in his first five seasons as Tennessee's coach.
"If you name it, we did it as a coaching staff," Fisher said.
"Because of the enormous distractions over the last four years, it seemed like coaching took a back seat. It has been very difficult. ... It is hard enough to win in the NFL when things are perfect and everyone's on a level playing field."
The franchise finally began to turn the corner in the offseason when Adelphia Coliseum and a state-of-the-art training complex were completed.
Nashville residents also jumped on the bandwagon and turned Adelphia Coliseum into one of the NFL's loudest stadiums.
Wortham said he doesn't believe the Titans could have gotten this far had the team remained NFL gypsies.
"Bouncing around like that, you just have no stability," said Wortham, who was drafted by the franchise in 1994. "Guys aren't happy. If they aren't happy, obviously it's going to affect their performance.
"But once we got stable and got into a new facility with new uniforms and a new stadium, you started to feel like you were in the National Football League."
As happy as the Titans are, Wortham knows his team will draw on the unpleasant memories of recent years for inspiration entering Super Bowl XXXIV.
"It makes you tough," he said. "We believe we can go into any venue and win every time. That's just our attitude because we've been through the fire.
"When you've been through the fire, it's nothing new to you when you go through the fire again."