April 15, 2010
On April 15, 1963 the newly-renamed New York Jets took a major step in changing the franchise’s fortunes by hiring Weeb Ewbank as head coach and general manager. That the team had survived to play in a fourth American Football League season was an accomplishment in itself.
The club had started out in 1960 as the New York Titans, owned by the volatile Harry Wismer and playing at the decrepit Polo Grounds. Attendance was sparse (and the numbers often inflated) and money tight, but the club managed to finish at a respectable 7-7 under Head Coach Sammy Baugh’s direction in each of the first two seasons. But by 1962, the team was struggling both on the field and financially. In November, the league took over the team’s finances, Wismer declared bankruptcy, and Commissioner Joe Foss began searching for new ownership.
The new ownership turned out to be a five-man syndicate fronted by entertainment executive David A. “Sonny” Werblin. Werblin took steps to transform the club, changing the name from Titans to Jets and the colors from navy blue and gold to kelly green and white. And he brought in Weeb Ewbank to transform the team on the field.
Ewbank had already proven that he could build a winning team from modest beginnings. A former assistant to Paul Brown at Cleveland, he had taken over as head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1954, steadily building a team that had been 3-9 in ’53 into a back-to-back NFL champion by 1958 and ’59. However, injuries and aging brought the Colts back to earth over the ensuing three seasons, and Ewbank was let go after a 7-7 finish in 1962.
The refurbished Jets sought to build upon talent already on hand while adding some new arrivals in 1963. Ewbank went with Dick Wood at quarterback, who was lanky (6’5”, 200 pounds) and immobile, but also strong-armed and intelligent. Star split end Art Powell had played out his option and signed with Oakland, but that still left flanker Don Maynard, who had a typically solid season although injuries kept his numbers down (38 receptions for 780 yards with 9 TDs). Split end Bake Turner, a converted halfback who had played for Ewbank with the Colts, was a pleasant surprise in replacing Powell as he caught 71 passes for 1009 yards and six scores. FB Bill Mathis had injury problems, and was supplemented by Mark Smolinski, another former Colt. HB Dick Christy had been a productive all-purpose back, but his numbers dropped off significantly in ’63; the running game was a problem for Ewbank all season. Center Mike Hudock anchored the spotty offensive line which gained the services of rookie OT Winston Hill.
The best of the defensive linemen were ends Bob Watters and LaVerne Torczon, although talented DT Paul Rochester joined the club late in the year. Larry Grantham was considered one of the best outside linebackers in the AFL, but the remainder of linebacking corps was subpar. Clyde Washington was the best of the cornerbacks, while the safeties played well as up-and-coming veteran Dainard Paulson and rookie Bill Baird both intercepted six passes. Punter Curley Johnson was consistently good, although placekicker Dick Guesman was not.
The team went 5-8-1, only marginally better than 1962’s 5-9 tally, finishing third in the Eastern Division. They were still playing at the Polo Grounds, but a highlight of the 1964 season was the move to a fresh venue as the Jets took up residence at brand new Shea Stadium.
FB Matt Snell, a key rookie signee out of Ohio State, was a major addition in ’64, and the arrival of QB Joe Namath in 1965 was a further significant step in building toward a championship (not to mention also bringing publicity to the team). Also joining the team in those years were PK Jim Turner, LB Ralph Baker, G Dave Herman, DE Gerry Philbin, DE Verlon Biggs, C John Schmitt, LB Al Atkinson, DB Jim Hudson, and split end George Sauer - there was also MLB Wahoo McDaniel, who was more a colorful character and fan favorite than cog in an evolving championship team. HB Emerson Boozer and TE Pete Lammons arrived in 1966, DT John Elliott and G Randy Rasmussen in ’67.
It had taken Ewbank five seasons to win a championship in Baltimore, and it would take six years to do the same in New York. But in both instances, he proved his ability as a builder of football teams and delivered titles. From the humble beginnings as the Titans, the Jets became a winning and financially viable franchise over the course of the decade.