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Sunday, January 30, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Owning up to controversy

Seattle Times staff reporter

BUD ADAMS, owner of the Tennessee Titans, and Georgia Frontiere, owner of the St. Louis Rams, have endured criticism brought on by the decisions to move their franchises. Now the beleaguered owners and their relocated teams face each other in the Super Bowl.

ATLANTA - Bud Adams has arrived at a news conference in his honor. The room is warm, the lights above the podium are hot and people are rolling up their sleeves. But Bud Adams will not shed his overcoat or the scarf draped around his neck.

"I think, with all the excitement here, I picked up one of those Houston viruses. You know what those are like," he says, his words coming slowly in a laborious wheeze.

Adams, owner of the Tennessee Titans, pauses for a laugh, but there is none. The room has gone silent as people watch the spectacle of the old man with a shag of hair that seems to have turned an odd shade of hound-dog brown, clad in an overcoat and a scarf, huffing as he tries to finish his sentences. For a moment, it looks as if he will topple to the floor.

Then Bud Adams begins to talk.

And talk.

And talk . . .

It is the story of his life, starting with the beginning of the Houston Oilers, winding through the creation of the American Football League and culminating with his decision to move the team to Tennessee. This meandering discourse lasts for 10 minutes, and by the time he is done, the guests in the room are sitting with mouths agape, unsure what they have seen or heard.

"I'm glad I got to the Super Bowl," Adams says. "I'm getting a little older. . . . I wanted to do this before. I don't want to have to be wheeling up in the wheelchair to the game."

Georgia Frontiere, one-time showgirl, weather girl and the holder of a doctorate in philanthropy from Pepperdine University, has been given a chance to make everything right. She has a microphone: The country is listening; 66,000 in the TWA Dome are listening; Los Angeles, the city whose football team she took away, is listening, too.

"Do you feel sorry for the people of Southern California?" she is asked.

"No," she says. "They can watch us on TV, just like they chose to do when we were there."

Then she begins to wave. There are so many people who have come to see her on her way to Atlanta - singers, producers, interior decorators, even the woman from her spa. They are waving back. And Georgia is blowing kisses, serenading the crowd with a song.

They are so different - Bud Adams and Georgia Frontiere, the almost mythical beings that loom above this Super Bowl.

Unless you go to the places they have forsaken, the cities left behind when both moved on in pursuit of the dollar. Then the rambling old oilman and the one-time Vegas showgirl are one and the same.

When Adams said he couldn't generate enough revenue from the Astrodome and announced he was moving to Nashville, the fans cursed him and stayed away from the games.

When Frontiere said she couldn't generate enough revenue from Anaheim Stadium and announced she was moving to St. Louis or Baltimore, the fans cursed her and stayed away from the games.

"We didn't want to leave," Adams says. "But we leased that stadium from a baseball guy, and we weren't getting the revenues. We weren't getting the concessions or those advertising signs. We were the smallest stadium in the NFL. We weren't going to make it on that."

Frontiere doesn't defend her move. The fans didn't care, she says. They never came to the games, so why should she bother to worry what Los Angeles thinks of her now?

Adams pines for the day when he used to be able to pay a player's bonus with a herd of cattle or a car.

What a strange pair these two are. A few weeks ago when the Rams complained that the Titans were piping noise into the sound system to make the crowds at Adelphia Coliseum seem louder, Adams approached Ram President John Shaw at a league meeting.

"Why don't you get with it? We're only using a three-inch pipe, not a two-inch pipe," Adams joked. "I saw (Ram Coach Dick) Vermeil looking around trying to find the pipe."

Shaw stared blankly in return.

Frontiere has been known to bring crystals to the Ram locker room and to have good-luck spells cast on her team. She once visited the team before a game and gave each player a Cabbage Patch doll.

And while fans in California may growl when they hear her name, she has built up so much goodwill on her team that she insulates herself from the hatred that still comes her way from 1,500 miles away.

"There was a point in time when the guys on our team would look around at the other teams and see these domineering presences on the sideline and say that we were lucky to have a lady," says longtime Ram offensive lineman Jackie Slater, now a TV analyst for Fox. "She had a lady's touch, always giving a lot of parties."

She did not choose to be an NFL owner, instead inheriting the role in 1979 when her husband at the time, Carroll Rosenbloom, mysteriously drowned while swimming in the ocean. Not only did she become the league's lone female owner, she immediately became a suspect in Rosenbloom's death, which officially was ruled accidental but remains the subject of countless rumors and conspiracy theories.

"You know, I've only found Georgia to be terrific," St. Louis Vice President Lynn Stiles says. "She comes to the locker room and speaks to the team sometimes. When she first started doing that, I think that was when the players could see her consideration in the face of adversity. She wouldn't just come by when we won; she'd come by when we lost, too."

And if Los Angeles hates her, well, then fine. She is back home, in the city of her birth, has gone through seven husbands and has immersed herself in cultural activities, from holding a place on the symphony board to pushing a United Way drive. When she left the field in St. Louis last week, the fans leaned over the railings and shouted, "We love you."

She told them she loved them back.

Bud Adams does not evoke love. There is nothing endearing about him as he stands beneath the lights clad in his overcoat and scarf, huffing as he tries to speak. He will forever be the one who moved the Oilers out of Houston and tossed a team into chaos by dragging it all around the state of Tennessee the last two years. Then when the club failed to do better than 8-8, he told Coach Jeff Fisher that his job was on the line.

"Bud's one of the most misunderstood guys in the sport," says Floyd Reese, Titan vice president. "He's never been one to jump up and defend himself. When people are saying things and tearing him apart without even caring if it's true or not, he doesn't say anything. He figures people will figure it out for themselves."

"He's a focused guy," Reese continues. "He was going to take care of business because he knew what he was doing was right."

The old owner doesn't seem to care much for explanations or mending a broken love. Life goes on, and he's in the Super Bowl. What else is there, really? As he stands beneath the lights, he reaches into the breast pocket of his overcoat and fiddles with a piece of paper. It's the contract extension for Fisher, he says.

"If only I can get him to sign it," he puffs.

What a pair they are, Bud Adams and Georgia Frontiere.

The oilman and the showgirl - both of whom took their NFL teams away for good.

This weekend belongs to them.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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