February 10, 2011

1976: Jets Hire Lou Holtz as Head Coach

On February 10, 1976, the New York Jets announced that they had decided to dip into the college ranks to fill their head coaching vacancy. Lou Holtz, most recently the coach at North Carolina State, was named to the post.

The hiring was in line with a recent trend in the NFL toward taking on successful college coaches. UCLA’s Dick Vermeil had just been hired by the Eagles and John McKay of USC was chosen to be the first head coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The 39-year-old Holtz was not well known nationally, but had built a reputation as a college head coach who could turn struggling programs around. The Jets, who had not produced a winning season since 1969, hoped that the amateur magician could work the same magic at the pro level. Holtz received a five-year contract.

Frail and looking more like a college professor than a football coach, Holtz had put together a 33-12-3 record, including four bowl appearances in as many seasons at NC State. It had been a losing program prior to his arrival, and he had achieved similar success at William & Mary before that.

“I have great confidence in myself,” Holtz said at his introductory press conference. “I believe in God, Lou Holtz and the New York Jets in that order. Coaching is coaching no matter what level you're at. You need a good staff and you need athletes and you need people who want to win. That's what I intend to have here.”

While Holtz was known as an offensive-minded coach in college, he made clear that defense would be his first priority in New York.

The Jets went 3-11 in 1975, with the lowest-ranked defense in the NFL. Head Coach Charley Winner, the designated successor to Weeb Ewbank following his retirement after the ’73 season, was fired nine games into his second year on the job. Offensive coordinator Ken Shipp took over in the interim to finish out the dismal season.

One of the initial concerns that the new coach had to deal with was veteran QB Joe Namath, who had openly suggested a trade rather than continue to take a battering with the woeful Jets. While Holtz indicated that he still wanted the 11-year veteran on the team, he also said “If Joe wants to play for us again and help us, fine. If he doesn’t, we’ll find someone else.” With their first pick in the ’76 draft, they took QB Richard Todd, who, like Namath, came out of Head Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s program at Alabama.

Beyond that, the offensive line was aging and the running game hindered by the loss of FB John Riggins, who had played out his option and signed as a free agent with the Redskins. Walt Michaels, an assistant under Ewbank in better days, was brought back as defensive coordinator to sort out the unit that had performed so abysmally in 1975.

Things did not go well for Holtz or the Jets in 1976. The coach tried to inject a college spirit into the team, and it fell flat. He wrote a fight song for the players that became a source of ridicule and had them line up by height along the sideline for the national anthem prior to each game. In short, he simply was not prepared for the pro game at that point in his career (and admitted as much years later).

The team, very much in turmoil, was still bad, too. There were 14 rookies on the roster, including Todd. While RB Clark Gaines, a first-year player who made the club as a free agent, was a pleasant surprise, many of the others proved not to be keepers. Gaines led the team in both rushing (724 yards) and pass receiving (41 catches).

The battered Namath threw for just 1090 yards with four touchdowns and 16 interceptions in his final season with the Jets. Todd started six games and the team won two of them. While he caught only 31 passes for 391 yards, TE Rich Caster was still highly regarded, and WR David Knight contributed 20 receptions for 403 yards (20.2 avg.).

The defense continued to be dreadful, ranking 26th in the league – only the expansion Buccaneers and Seahawks ranked lower. They intercepted 11 passes and registered a mere 16 sacks for the season. Still, FS Burgess Owens and SS Phil Wise played well, and LB Greg Buttle earned all-rookie honors and offered hope for the future.

The team’s final record was again 3-11, although Holtz didn’t last to the end. He accepted an offer to return to college coaching at Arkansas and left the Jets with one game remaining. As he stated upon announcing his decision, “God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach in the pros.” Director of Player Personnel Mike Holovak (formerly head coach of the Patriots) served as interim coach for the season finale, a 42-3 shellacking at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Holtz stayed at Arkansas for seven years before moving on briefly to the University of Minnesota and then Notre Dame. After stepping down as head coach of the Fighting Irish, he moved to the broadcast booth for two seasons and returned to college coaching once more at South Carolina, retiring for good in 2004.

Overall, Holtz compiled a 249-132-7 record as a college coach, going 12-8-2 in bowl games spread across six different programs, and won a national championship with Notre Dame in 1988. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, but his brief failure in the NFL likely soured any likelihood of being pursued by a pro team (although the Vikings reportedly showed some interest at the time he left Notre Dame in 1996).

As for the Jets, Walt Michaels was promoted to head coach in 1977 and, after a third straight 3-11 campaign, they began to show improvement. Helped along by some good drafts, New York eventually reached the playoffs in 1981 and ’82.