Ewbank overlooked figure of AFL glory

Among a league of bold men, an impish fellow with a grandfatherly style gave it credibility.

As the NFL celebrates the 50th anniversary of the AFL, there has been plenty of discussion about Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, former San Diego Chargers coach Sid Gillman and New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath.

Ewbank and Namath prior to a '72 preseason game.
(Herb Weitman/US Presswire)

All of them left indelible marks on the game by challenging the game itself. Davis was crafty when it came to acquiring players. Gillman sparked changes in the passing game. Namath, well, he was simply Namath, an iconic figure even by New York standards.

However, it was Jets coach Weeb Ewbank who took the AFL from carnival scheme to legitimate enterprise. It was Ewbank who gave Namath the confidence to sign with the renegade league rather than the traditional NFL. Moreover, among all the great coaches such as Vince Lombardi, Don Shula and Bill Parcells, Ewbank remains the only one in modern NFL history to win championships with two teams.

Two extraordinary titles, as a matter of fact. Ewbank was the winning coach in the two most important games in the history of professional football: the 1958 NFL title game with the Baltimore Colts over the New York Giants and Super Bowl III in 1969 when the Jets stunned the heavily favored Colts.

“When I was coming out of Alabama, coach [Bear] Bryant told me that I should get to know the people I was going to work with and make sure I trusted that they knew what they were going to do,” Namath said recently. “Obviously, I got to know Mr. [Sonny] Werblin [the Jets owner] and I knew Weeb. I knew that Weeb understood how to run a team. He was an accomplished coach, so I felt good about coming to the AFL. I knew it wasn’t any different than the NFL.”

Of course, the then-record $427,000 contract Namath got from the Jets prior to his rookie season of 1965 didn’t hurt, either. Then again, the NFL pulled out all the stops at the end. Namath said that the Giants even approached him before he signed to see if he’d play for them when it was apparent he wouldn’t play for the St. Louis Cardinals (the NFL team that held his draft rights).

It didn’t matter; Namath was set to play for Ewbank.

Ewbank joined the Jets shortly after being fired by Baltimore owner Carroll Rosenbloom after the 1962 season. Rosenbloom had replaced Ewbank with Don Shula when Rosenbloom felt the Colts were slipping from their place atop the NFL. The Colts had won back-to-back titles in 1958 and 1959. The 1958 title game over the Giants is, to this day, referred to as the greatest game ever played because the thrilling end helped launch the NFL to its current position as the most popular sport in the country.

Bringing in Ewbank gave the AFL a sense of legitimacy. More specifically, it gave the Jets, formerly the Titans, a sense of dignity that was crucial to the league. As the AFL’s team in New York, the Jets represented the league on a higher level. Their first three years, the Jets were a ragamuffin team coached first by former great quarterback Sammy Baugh and then Clyde “Bulldog” Turner.

“Baugh coached like he’d rather be sitting on his ranch in Texas,” said Larry Felser, a retired columnist from the Buffalo News who covered the AFL and wrote “The Birth of the New NFL: How the 1966 NFL/AFL Merger Transformed Pro Football.”

“The [Jets] were buffoonery at its worst before Werblin and his group took over and hired Ewbank.

“Ewbank’s presence in the league was critical … [Hall of Fame coach Sid] Gillman taught the league how to be professional, but Weeb gave them presence. Because he was part of the ’58 game. He had tremendous respect from players and coaches and fans.”

At the same time, the AFL had just signed a contract (with Werblin driving the negotiations) with the television networks guaranteeing each team $900,000 a year for the next five years. It was a crucial juncture for the AFL and having Ewbank there was part of the package to sell the league.

“Weeb was a real coach,” former Jets wide receiver Don Maynard said. “When the AFL first got started, the writers used to knock it all the time, saying it was filled with ex-NFL guys who couldn’t make it over there. Then Werblin comes in, brings Weeb over and all of a sudden, the news media started to take us seriously. It got to be fun.”

Ewbank, who died in 1998 at age 91, was also different. He was a squat man, often referred to as “munchkin” by his players. He defied the Lombardi-Shula notion that coaches had to be generals, using a more tactful approach.

“Oh, Weeb was the best,” former Jets center John Schmitt said. “He’d give us the same speech at the beginning of every season, but he wasn’t trying to intimidate us. It was more like just advice on what to do. How to handle yourself.”

Schmitt can and does recite the speech verbatim. It includes a line about how players should refrain from chasing women … but if you are going to chase a woman, chase an older woman, Ewbank told his players.

“Because they don’t tell,” Schmitt said with a chuckle as he imitated Ewbank.

“Weeb was clever. Every Saturday night before a game, he’d go right to the hotel bar and buy drinks for everybody. The whole team, the coaches, everybody would be there. If we were at home, he’d tell the guys to bring their wives or girlfriends and we’d have a party right there,” Schmitt said. “Maybe it was different, but Weeb was smart. He knew his guys wanted to go out on Saturday night. But this way, guys didn’t go out. They’d stay right there and have a good time.”

Ewbank’s record with the Jets
Season Record/Outcome
1963 5-8-1, fourth in AFL East
1964 5-8-1, third in AFL East
1965 5-8-1, second in AFL East
1966 6-6-2, third in AFL East
1967 8-5-1, second in AFL East
1968 11-3, first in AFL East, SB III champs
1969 10-4, first in AFL East, playoff loss
1970 4-10, third in AFC East
1971 6-8, fourth in AFC East
1972 7-7, second in AFC East
1973 4-10, fourth in AFC East

Said Felser: “When the AFL teams would go play exhibition games, they’d go to these small towns and the Rotary Club or the Kiwanis Club or whatever would always host a party the night before the game. A lot of the coaches wouldn’t go. Even back then, the coaches were maniacal about being prepared. But Weeb always went and he made his whole coaching staff go. He didn’t believe in all that working-around-the-clock stuff. He wanted people to enjoy each other, have a good time. He’d go to the party and say, ‘I’m not leaving until I dance with every woman here.’ He’d do that to show that he was good guy and it would get back to the players and they loved him for it. They wanted to play hard for him.”

On game day, Ewbank had a similar way of bringing players into his fold. He was self-deprecating, but armed with a plan. He’d stand on the sideline and humorously claim that Namath and other players never listened to his play calls and instructions.

“We were playing a flag football game years later against the Colts to celebrate the Super Bowl game and we were standing there and Weeb said, ‘Schmitty, they’re still not listening to me,’   ” Schmitt said.

All the while, Ewbank was following a plan he had laid out. When he was first hired by Baltimore, he got the job after telling Rosenbloom that it would take five years to build a winner. Rosenbloom was impressed by Ewbank’s straight talk. Later, when Werblin interviewed, he said the same thing. There was no over-the-top salesmanship, no trick, no false bravado.

But there was confidence.

Just before the Jets took the field in their Super Bowl upset of the Colts, Ewbank was telling dirty jokes to his players to loosen them up. He finished his pregame speech by warning his players that he had a bad leg.

“Yeah, he said, ‘I got a bad leg guy, so you have to be careful how you carry me off the field after the game when we win,’ ” Felser said.

It all worked. Players adored Ewbank.

“As a coach, I liked him 95 percent,” Maynard said. “There was only 5 percent that I ever disagreed with. As a general manager, I hated his guts because he’d steal from his own players [in contract negotiations]. As a human being, I loved him.”

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Dec 3, 2009