How A Former Pro-Football Player Led Houston’s Soccer Revival

Written by Ian Thomson
Oliver Luck addresses Dynamo fans outside Houston's City Hall after the club's 2007 MLS Cup success (Photo: Ian Thomson)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Oliver Luck, the athletic director at West Virginia University, is wrapping up his working week. Guitar riffs from The Rolling Stones waft from his office perched above the concourse of WVU’s Coliseum basketball arena in Morgantown as his assistant schedules Luck’s upcoming meetings with the school’s various sports coaches.

Gold and blue-colored football memorabilia cascades down a bookcase between Luck’s desk and a boardroom table, breaking the humdrum of his windowless room. A speckle of orange arises on closer inspection, hidden in the background of a picture taken at the White House with Luck, his children and former United States President George W. Bush.

“The second championship,” said Luck, who presided over Houston Dynamo’s back-to-back Major League Soccer titles in 2006 and 2007. “We brought Bush a whole bunch of Dynamo stuff.”

Houston Dynamo opens its new 22,000-seat BBVA Compass Stadium against D.C. United Saturday, and Luck will be there to witness the conclusion of a process that began almost a decade earlier. Luck, a former National Football League quarterback for the Houston Oilers during the 1980s, was raised playing traditional American sports, but he was the driving force behind professional soccer’s re-emergence in Houston.

“My mother is German and we used to go over there all the time,” said Luck, a native of Cleveland, Ohio. “I didn’t play soccer as a kid, but from a fairly young age I recognized its cultural importance. A lot of Americans don’t get that.”

Luck’s appreciation for soccer’s unique significance deepened while working for the NFL in Europe during the 1990s. The league’s mission was to promote football through a feeder division, NFL Europe, using teams based in Germany, Spain, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom. That involved understanding where American football could fit into the psyche of European sports fans raised on the religious differences between Celtic and Rangers or the political divide between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

“You get all this great history that we just don’t have in many cases with our sports teams,” Luck said. “You can teach a college level history course using soccer clubs as examples of the different cultural strains, stresses and socio-economic difficulties and the political differences in Europe.”

It’s a history that’s impossible to resist once you understand it, according to Luck.

“It means so much more than a sporting event,” he said. “That’s what’s often difficult to explain to American folks because our events typically don’t have political and cultural ramifications. It’s a game. You go, you have fun, you drink beer, you root for your team, you win or lose.”

Luck returned to Houston in 2001 as chief executive of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, a political entity overseeing the development of new sports venues. The organization delivered Minute Maid Park for the Astros baseball team and Reliant Stadium for Houston’s Rodeo and Texans football franchise. It was when the Toyota Center basketball arena was nearing completion that Luck turned his attention toward securing an MLS team to play in a prime downtown location. The city’s diverse ethnic breakdown coupled with its affluence made it a “no brainer” for soccer, according to Luck.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber was well known to Luck from their NFL days. They began a dialogue aimed at bringing a franchise to Houston at a time when Anschutz Entertainment Group was running into a dead end in its attempts to build a soccer-specific stadium for its San Jose Earthquakes team.

“Without Don it wouldn’t have happened,” Luck said. “He was extraordinarily helpful. AEG ultimately moved the franchise down, so they clearly saw the benefit as well.”

AEG also had the perfect man to run its team once the decision was taken to relocate to Houston for the 2006 MLS season.

“AEG didn’t hire me because of my soccer knowledge,” Luck said. “They hired me because I knew enough about local government, where we could find taxpayers’ dollars, how to work that system and ultimately come up with a building, which is what we did.”

That building, resplendent in the Dynamo’s brilliant orange that’s now merely spot on Luck’s bookcase, completes the missing piece to Houston’s sports landscape.

Comments: 1

  1. MartinHajovsky (@MartinHajovsky) says:

    Excellent piece Ian. Without Luck, none of this happens. None of it.