When the 1968 Jets are honored this Sunday at the Meadowlands, they'll be without their head coach.
Weeb Ewbank, who led the Jets from 1963-73 and was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1978, will forever be remembered as a program builder, an excellent coach and a wonderful man.
"He was such a successful head coach because he played so much attention to detail," said Larry Grantham, the former Jets linebacker who was a five-time AFL All-Star. "Everything we did was geared towards details, on offense or defense. We'd never see him in our defensive meeting unless we gave up a lot of points or yards, and then he'd come in there and go back to basics with us."
Ewbank is the only head coach to win championships in both the NFL and the AFL, actually guided Baltimore to crowns in 1958 and '59 — the Colts' 23-17 OT victory over the Giants in '58 was dubbed "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Then Ewbank helped the Jets beat his old team in the most important game in football history, Super Bowl III.
"Weeb's secret to success was his ability and his desire. He's a people person — he treated players like men," said Winston Hill, the Jets standout at left tackle and one of the best linemen to ever play. "He wasn't a screamer or a hollerer. He wasn't a Vince Lombardi type, and I couldn't have played for Vince Lombardi, but I could play for Weeb."
A patient teacher, Ewbank helped Hill and others become more versatile players.
"He let you develop and he'd assist. In fact, he taught me to play center," Hill said. "That ended up putting me in the Pro Bowl as a center. But he'd ask about your folks. He was interested in what you were doing, in what made you tick."
To Ewbank, there was much more than Xs and Os. He saw his players as people and developed tangible relationships with his men.
"Weeb was so good to me. My dad died in 1961, and after Weeb came to the Jets as head coach he became more or less like a father figure to me," Grantham said. "I never felt there was anything I couldn't go and talk to Weeb about. He and I got to be fairly close throughout the years."
Grantham said Ewbank was also concerned about his players once their careers were over.
"So many of these coaches I think nowadays are just interested in what the guys can do for them on the football field, where he was interested in what you were going to do with your life and what you've got ahead of football," he said.
On Nov. 17, 1998, Wilbur Charles Ewbank passed away. But the '68 Jets still are in touch with the Ewbank family.
"I still call my favorite girlfriend, besides my wife, two or three times a year. Her name is Lucy and she's 103," Hill said proudly. "She still lives by herself, she drives, she plays at the bridge club and she's sharp as a tack. And I think she was another secret to Weeb's success — Lucy was his wife."
Lucy Ewbank still resides in Oxford, Ohio. Ewbank attended Miami University in Ohio and coached McGuffey High School long before joining the Navy in World War II.
"That's where he made his home," Grantham. "I visited Weeb about six months before he passed away. It was just a real blessing to be able to see him at his home and visit with him and enjoy his company."
When Ewbank led the '68 Jets to that landmark victory over the Colts, his team accidentally let him down in the midst of a joyous celebration.
"He didn't complain a lot. We won that championship game and they picked him up in the shower and dropped him." Hill said. "He broke his hip and he never complained. We never knew how serious it was until later."
"He did tell us right before we went on the field for the Super Bowl that after we won, don't pick him up and put him on our shoulders because he didn't want to hurt his hip again," said Grantham. "He was that confident that we were going to win the ballgame."
It's too bad fans won't be able to see Ewbank on Sunday, but Hill contends his coach will once again be with his guys.
"There will be so many Weeb stories," Hill said. "He will be out there."