Jets greats have fond memories of ‘old school’ Walt Michaels

Marty Lyons remembers his first meeting with Walt Michaels.

The Jets had just selected Lyons with the 14th-overall pick in the 1979 draft. He and second-round pick Mark Gastineau met Michaels to take some photos for the press.

The Jets coach looked at both of them and said, “The name of the game is to get to the quarterback,” Lyons recalled Thursday.

“I believe that was the only thing he said to me my entire rookie season,” Lyons said. “I was very intimidated by him. … After that, we built a strong relationship. He was a tough, hard-nosed coach. He had one way of doing it and that was hard work.”

Michaels died Wednesday in his home state of Pennsylvania at the age of 89. He is best remembered for his six seasons as head coach of the Jets, when he brought the team back to respectability, and for being the defensive coordinator of the 1968 team that won the franchise’s only Super Bowl.

“If we were in the middle of practice and practice wasn’t going the way he wanted, he would blow a whistle and we’d start the whole practice over again,” Lyons said. “I think as players we learned to respect that. He wanted to win just as much as we did.”

His former players talked about a tough coach who they grew to love.

“Walt was old school,” Jets legend Joe Klecko said. “Walt reminded me so much of my dad. He and my dad walked in the same shadow it seemed. You could do everything right and he’d never say much to you, but you did one thing wrong and he’d climb down your neck. That’s the way I grew up.

“You talk about a guy who was fair. You felt like you wanted to go to war for him and wanted to do anything for him because he would do the same for you.”

Michaels played linebacker in the NFL for 11 full seasons (1951-61), with an additional one-game cameo with the Jets in 1963, and was selected for the Pro Bowl five times. He was taken in the seventh round of the 1951 draft by the Browns. He played for the Packers for one season before a long stint with the Browns, playing on two title teams with Cleveland in 1954 and ’55.

He joined the Jets as an assistant coach at the end of his playing career and was with them from 1963-73. The highlight came in 1969 when his defense helped orchestrate one of the biggest upsets in sports history in Super Bowl III when the Jets stunned the Baltimore Colts, 16-7.

Michaels became the head coach in 1977, replacing Lou Holtz. After going 3-11 in his first season, the Jets went 8-8 in back-to-back years then dropped to 4-12 in 1980. But Michaels turned the team around, going 10-5-1 in 1981 and making the playoffs for the first time since 1969.

In 1982, Michaels led the Jets to a 6-3 record in a strike-shortened season and won two playoff games. The Jets lost to the Dolphins, 14-0, in an AFC Championship clash known as the “Mud Bowl” because of the sloppy playing conditions.

Michaels blamed Miami coach Don Shula for not covering the field with a tarpaulin before the game. The Orange Bowl didn’t own a tarp, a violation of NFL rules. The muddy conditions slowed down the speedy Jets, and Richard Todd’s five interceptions doomed them.

“[Michaels] was upset that the field wasn’t covered,” Lyons said. “It didn’t matter who he was talking to, he was going to voice his opinion.”

He resigned a few weeks after the loss, saying he needed a break from football. It was always believed he was pressured to resign and there were rumors of conflict between him and management.

Michaels went 41-49-1 as Jets coach (including the playoffs). Only Weeb Ewbank, Joe Walton and Rex Ryan won more games as the Jets coach.

In 1984 and ‘85 Michaels coached the New Jersey Generals in the USFL, working for now-president Donald Trump.

Michaels grew up as the son of a coal miner in Swoyersville, Pa. He is survived by his four children: Mary Ann, Walt Jr., Mark and Paul.

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