Originally created 01/25/00

No sad country songs in Nashville: Titans super



NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The city of Garth, guitars and the Grand Ole Opry isn't singing one of those sad country songs these days.

In just the second year Nashville has had an NFL team, the Tennessee Titans are in the Super Bowl.

At the Wildhorse Saloon, an upscale honky-tonk that is a symbol of Nashville's country music industry, the dance hall became a sports bar Sunday. More than 2,200 fans watched on a big-screen TV as the Titans upset the Jacksonville Jaguars 33-14, earning a spot in the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams.

The floor where country dancers in bright Western attire normally do the two-step was filled with boisterous Titans fans in a blur of blue team gear.

"There are probably a lot of people disappointed that we whoop and holler over a football team when we need schools and roads," said Peggy Beyer, a massage therapist who moved to Nashville from St. Louis seven years ago. "But the core issue is what unites us, and the Titans have."

For the town whose national image has been cornpone jokes on Hee Haw, the Titans' success has left Nashville agog. Titans jerseys and other team merchandise are selling faster than Garth Brooks CDs. A strip club was offering free admission all week to people wearing Titans gear.

"To say that folks are excited is the understatement of the year. Here they are in the Super Bowl, bypassing everyone's wildest expectations," said Rob Blackman, a sports talk show host for radio station WNSR.

"This town appreciates the way they've won. This team is not full of Heisman Trophy winners or All-Americans. They have devoted themselves to being good in the NFL and the fans appreciate the team for doing well with a lot of no names."

Even Vice President Al Gore, a former Nashvillian, has Titans' fever. He quietly attended Tennessee's December game against Jacksonville in Nashville. Last week, he wore a Titans' jacket and handed out Titans' T-shirts to reporters on Air Force Two.

Just four years ago, Nashville seemed a longshot to field a Super Bowl team. It was one of the biggest cities in the country (population 510,000) without a big-league team in any sport.

Then the Houston Oilers decided to move to Nashville. While Nashville built a 67,000-seat, $292 million stadium, the team played in Memphis in 1997, then at Vanderbilt University's stadium in 1998.

The team went 8-8 in each of its first two years in Tennessee and attendance was lukewarm. In the first year at Memphis, it was so quiet during some games that players could hear fans talking in the stands. In 1998 there were only three sellouts in eight games at the 41,000-seat Vanderbilt stadium.

But this year, the team changed its name and colors and went 16-3. The Titans were undefeated at home, before sellout crowds in the new stadium.

"No one would have thought we would be where we are right now, let alone that we would have gotten the support we've gotten," coach Jeff Fisher said. "It shows an awful lot for the relationship between this organization, the players and the fans."

Rob Blackman, a sports talk show host for radio station WNSR in Nashville, said many of his callers Monday poked fun at the media and oddsmakers for not taking the Titans more seriously. The team was an underdog in the last two games.

"Callers were saying, `Hey, take that,"' Blackman said.

In Memphis, 200 miles away, the city is still disappointed that Nashville landed an NFL team that Memphis sought for more than 20 years.

"There is some state pride and support for them," said Paul Davis, a talk show host and program director for radio station WREC in Memphis. "But some people still remember that when they played here, they felt like they were doing us a favor."