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A New League And A New Team, Part 5

Here comes Sonny & Weeb

David Sonny Werblin Photo By: Frank Hurley/NY Daily News via Getty Images

With the sale of the Titans complete to a five man group of investors the AFL took a sigh of relief. The bailouts involving huge sums of cash stopped flowing into the Big Apple. Unlike a few years earlier, now financial viability was paramount for ownership of an AFL franchise. The investor group that bought the Titans were all officials of Monmouth Park or had serious connections to horse racing.

The de facto leader of the group was one David Abraham “Sonny” Werblin a native New Yorker who was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn. He was born in 1910 and always cherished the fact he was born on St. Patrick’s Day. That St. Patrick’s significance will become more relevant later in this article.

As a high school kid he played football at Erasmus Hall and James Madison high schools. He went to Rutgers but injured his shoulder as a freshman and never played again. He graduated in 1932 then went to work at the New York Times as a copy boy. Less than a year later he went to work at MCA (Music Corporation of America), a company founded only eight years earlier as a talent agency for musicians.

You have to realize this was a time when radio was just beginning to become an entertainment medium in the US. The TV industry was still in its infancy, and only 60% of US household even had radios in 1934. That was about to change in a big way, and Sonny was sitting in a position to profit from that soon to happen explosion of interest.

Unbeknownst to anyone at the time Sonny had a skill. He was not a star performer, but he had an eye for talent. He also knew what it took to transform somebody with talent into a star. Sonny was the first talent scout in the USA. This was decades before the term “talent scout” was ever used. He knew right away whether a person would be able to demand attention from others either on radio (voice) on television (acting) or in film (both acting and music).

His company grew into the biggest media talent corporation in the world. They controlled major parts of the music, TV, and film industries. There was a time when you could not shoot a movie or start a TV show without Sonny’s approval. He was the guiding force and the maker of stars like Jackie Gleason, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Carson and scores of others. In fact he put Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show then realized his wardrobe was seen by millions every night. He and Johnny started a clothing line and made millions at a time when a million was a serious amount of money.

Sonny had control of so many actors and musicians that he would often control the making of a movie. Many times if you wanted a certain actor or actress you had to also find a place for their husband or wife in the movie If you wanted a band in the show it had to be a certain band and so on. To Sonny control was power, and that power led to money. His stock in MCA alone was worth in excess of $10 million back in the early 1950s. That was a like being a billionaire of today. He had a lot of clout and knew many powerful people.

In 1951 he became the president of MCA-TV, and he made it so successful the Justice Department forced them to break up their company because it violated US antitrust laws. If the great entertainer PT Barnum was alive when Sonny was conducting business he would have learned a thing or two.

For all his success Sonny remained the same person. He was gregarious but straightforward, self-effacing, understated, and very direct.

Sonny’s life was his work, and work was Sonny’s life; they were the same. He would get up, get to work, and continue working. Then Sonny made deals with all the right people.

When he did something he was all in so when he bought the Jets in January 1963 he would soon move away from the entertainment part of his life. When he finally left MCA in 1965 the headline in Variety Magazine read “Mr. Show Business Retires.”

Sonny hadn’t come close to retiring. He just moved to a new entertainment venture, sports. The way Sonny looked at things, sports was a form of entertainment that hadn’t been fully realized. His fault was he didn’t realize that sports is more than entertainment, although the sports guys didn’t realize that sport was entertainment. They still struggle with that. To Sonny the spectacle of the event along with some spectacular plays was enough to bring in the fans. Problem was that fans want to win, and the Jets were not in a position to win.

This is not to say that Sonny didn’t want to win. He most certainly did. The problem was Sonny had no idea how to make that happen. The only thing to do was to bring in another coach to see if he could turn the “Titans” around.

Here Come the Jets

When Sonny took over he immediately fired coach Bulldog Turner and hired another coach who had been fired just days earlier. He had nothing against coach Turner. He just wanted a proven coach with a certain tract record of success.

That man was Weeb Ewbank. Ewbank had taken the Colts from expansion team to the championship in 5 years so he knew how to build a team that could compete. Werblin had officially named his organization the Gotham Football Club. It was changed later as you will see.

The same day he hired a new coach, Sonny made some bold moves to change the franchise forever. Remember when I said that Sonny being born on St. Patrick’s day was a big deal? Well Sonny changed the colors of the team from Blue/Gold (colors of Notre Dame) to Green and White which are the colors of St. Patrick’s Day. The reason Sonny gave for the color change was simply “because they’re my colors.”

He also changed the name of the franchise to the “New York Jets” not because of the air traffic in New York. Most people think that the Jets changed their name from the Titans because of all the planes that fly over Shea Stadium. When you are in the stadium when a game is going on you can sometimes feel the stands shake with the noise vibration.

You have to remember that when the Titans became the Jets they were still playing in the decrepit Polo Grounds because of construction delays that caused Shea Stadium not to open until 1964. The Jets and Mets played a season together in the Polo Grounds which wasn’t a happy arrangement. It only got worse.

The reason the Jets are called the Jets is a convoluted idea based on the way he world was changing. Remember that Sonny was a rich man. He associated with rich people. He saw the way rich people would go anywhere and spend a huge amounts of money for fun.

For reference at the same time that Shea Stadium was being built; the New York area was also building the World’s Fair which is still partly there today. There was a lot of money coming into the area.

So Sonny came up with the name Jets for “Jet Setters” who fly around the world for fun. Sonny envisioned a family flying into New York for the weekend staying at a fancy hotel. With Broadway, dinning, site seeing they would be entertained. Sunday they would attend the game then fly out in the next morning or later that night.

The term “Jet Setters” was new and provocative. It was the future in Sonny’s eyes which made it special. The fact that it sounded like “Mets” who were the darling of the town was also a bonus.

Weeb Ewbank

Wilbur Charles “Weeb” Ewbank was the 3rd coach for the AFL New York franchise and the first coach of the New York Jets. He was named coach and general manager the same day the new team name “Jets” was announced.

He was called Weeb since childhood. It stemmed from his younger brother who mispronounced his name Wilbur.

Weeb was a man of short stature (5’ 7”) but still was a a star in baseball, basketball and football. He led his high school to state championships in each sport. He went on to play QB in college at Miami of Ohio. He was teammates with Paul Brown who the Cleveland Browns are named after. Like Brown, Weeb started coaching high school football right after college. He spent 12 years coaching in and around Oxford, Ohio, until he enlisted in the Navy in 1943.

In the Navy was sent to Great Lakes Naval Academy where he coached football as an assistant to his friend and former teammate Paul Brown. Brown was also a former high school coach in Ohio but won acclaim when he coached Ohio State to its first national championship in only his 2nd year there in 1942.

After leaving the Navy, Weeb was the head coach at Washington University for two years until he was reunited with Brown as an assistant with the Cleveland Browns for five years. He was then hired as the head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1954. The Colts were starting only their second year in the league when Weeb took over so he had to build the program from the ground up.

Weeb coached more regular seasons (9) than any coach in Colts history, and his 112 regular season games coached ties him with Tony Dungy as the person who coached the most games in franchise history.

Weeb (a former QB) had a way of developing young QBs. You could say he was the first QB whisperer. He helped make Otto Graham a star in Cleveland. He took a kid named Johnny Unitas who was drafted in the 9th round by Pittsburgh (his hometown) but couldn’t make the team (even though the Steelers were terrible) and made him a Hall of Fame player.

Weeb won back to back NFL championships in 1958-59 and was voted the coach of the year by UPI and AP in 1958. He was fired after the 1962 season when the team wanted to promote a younger coach to head coach status, that coach was Don Shula. The two would meet again at the Super Bowl in 1969 (1968 season).

Immediately after Weeb was fired he was hired by Sonny Werblin to lead his new team. Weeb also brought in great assistant coaches like Chuck Knox (offensive line and running backs), Walt Michaels (linebackers) and Clive Rush (wide receivers). All became successful head coaches. There were only two defensive coaches, Walt and Jack Donaldson, who handled the secondary. Weeb handled the Quarterbacks. There were no coordinators.

Weeb is the coach who first started the “5 year plan” of coaching when he was asked by reporters how long it would take for the Jets to become winners. “I had a 5 year plan in Baltimore and I don’t see why I can’t build a winner here in 5 years.” Weeb said.

Weeb was not a fiery coach. He was subdued with a folksy type personality. He was practical and homespun but would always have some weird saying he would relate. When things were not going right he would say, “I’ve seen sicker cows than this get well.”

Weeb was a nice man, but he also had an intensity about him. Hos knowledge of the game was one of the greatest of his time. He won his first NFL Championship in 1958 against the Giants on Alan Ameche’s overtime TD run. It was considered the greatest game ever played. It made Johnny Unitas a star and was the game football historians said put football on the television map.

The Colts had had some average years following their back to back championships, but they were still very competitive. The Colts owner was a egomaniacal character named Carroll Rosenbloom who though Weeb was too old to continue coaching even though he was only 56 when he was fired. He hired Don Shula who was 23 years younger and Weeb’s top assistant.

The Problems for the Coach

Weeb was not used to coaching in the AFL which differed from the NFL in many ways. In 1963 in the NFL you could have 37 players active for a game. That number dropped to 33 in the AFL which could cause problems. Well it did cause problems in the first road game played in Weeb’s tenure.

As Walt Michaels recalled, “We had 4 linebackers on the 33 man roster, and 3 got hurt” Weeb said, “Where are we going to get a linebacker from?” Chuck Knox (who was always a big kidder) said, “You got one right here who used to play,” pointing to Walt Michaels. Walt said “Me? Well at least I know where to line up. I’m the coach.”

So with that Weeb dropped Walt from the team as a coach (His salary was $11,000 a year.) and signed him to a players contract at $15,000 prorated for one game. Michaels remembers everything about the move.

“I made about $300 for the game. I played the tight end side, I remember it like it was yesterday. It was up in Boston, it was hot, like 85 degrees. I was fine until the end of the game. I hung in there and then Babe Parilli (Boston’s QB) scrambled and I was too tired to extend myself and he made a first down.”

The Jets had no facilities at the Polo Grounds. Although they had been there longer they were second class citizens next to the Mets. Walt said, “We used to meet on Mondays at Weebs house in Westchester. We didn’t have a facility where we could do anything at the Polo Grounds. We only had one projector there, there was a locker room and nothing else. We bought two more projectors.”

The Jets were not allowed to practice on the field during baseball season and had to find a place to practice. Once Weeb took the team out on a bus then yelled, “Right here! Here’s the place!” It was a little park on the side of the road. The Jets practiced right there, no football field just a park. Weeb said, “I remember the kids came over to watch practice, and I said to one, ‘Sonny will you move your bicycle?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s as much my park as it is yours.’”

Even when the Jets moved to Shea Stadium they were not allowed on the field during baseball season. The AFL would schedule the Jets for road games in the early stages of the season to avoid problems with the Mets.

Walt Michaels remembered, “We were flying into LaGuardia and Weeb said there’s a field down there let’s find out whose it is. It was on Rikers Island prison grounds. The authorities said OK you can come in but only if you let our prisoners watch during recreation time.” So the Jets went to prison to train. The prisoners loved it. They would cheer at the plays in front of them.

The Jets finished 5-8-1, but they were building a team and had quality coaches. he next year they were moving into a brand new stadium. It was just the beginning.

Up next

Troubles in their new home

Here comes Joe


The Sonny & Joe show... a can’t miss episode