A Long and Winding Road for Tony Wise

Sometimes plans go askew. Tony Wise wanted to be a coach, but the NFL was never his goal.

"I wanted to be like my high school phys ed teacher," he said. "I went to Ithaca specifically to coach and teach. The only reason I ended up here was I couldn't get a job in high school."

Not that Wise, in his 18th NFL season as an offensive line coach and his second with the Jets, didn't try to get a job at some smaller schools.

"I tried very hard to get the Middlebury job — assistant football, assistant lacrosse and assistant hockey. Back in 1977, I would have taken that job in a heartbeat. I tried to get the Hobart — the assistant football/assistant lacrosse — job," he said. "In some regard I kind of fell into this. I mean that when I say it because I had no aspirations to go coach for the New York Jets or the Dallas Cowboys."

A three-sport letterman at Ithaca College, Wise was an offensive lineman and a defenseman on the lacrosse and hockey teams.

"My best sport might have been lacrosse, honestly," he said. "I loved hockey and loved football, but I was actually decent at lacrosse."

Wise began his coaching career in 1973 at Albany State, mentoring the linebackers. He spent a season at three different schools before catching his big break at the University of Pittsburgh. With the Panthers, he worked as the assistant defensive line coach under Jimmy Johnson.

"In 1976, I met Jimmy when I was a graduate assistant at Pitt," he said. "He was the Pitt defensive line coach. He gets the Oklahoma State job and he needs young coaches that he can't pay very much, so I ended up going to Oklahoma State with him."

Wise coached the Okies' offensive line from 1979-83 and then Johnson lured him to the University of Miami from 1985-88. The Hurricanes were crowned national champions after the 1987 season.

"He had a great ability to bring guys along and give guys responsibility," Wise said of Johnson. "You felt like you had a real ownership, a real part of the team under him."

Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and hired Johnson to turn around America's Team. Johnson, replacing a coaching legend in Tom Landry, once again called on Wise to lead his offensive line.

"It was interesting because they hated us when we got there. When Jerry bought the team, they hated us," he said. "The feeling was, 'Why are you firing a guy who had been an icon there in Dallas?' Then we go 1-15 and Troy [Aikman] got hurt that first year and we stunk."

But they didn't stink for long. Wise reached the NFL pinnacle in 1992, earning a Super Bowl ring after the Cowboys completed an amazing reversal. In three years, they went from 1-15 to 13-3.

The 'Pokes had their share of superstars, but Wise helped mold a talented offensive line featuring the likes of center Mark Stepnoski, guards Kevin Gogan and Nate Newton, and tackles Mark Tuinei and Erik Williams.

Dallas would repeat in '93 but Wise had moved on to coach with the Bears when Dave Wannstedt, the Cowboys defensive coordinator who also worked as an assistant at Pitt in the late Seventies, was hired as head coach.

"I missed out on an opportunity to maybe keep that success going, but it was a good move. I was going to go with a very dear friend of mine," he said. "The only disappointing thing there is I went to Chicago right afterwards, so I did not get that sensation of going out in February in Dallas after you've won the Super Bowl. It was fantastic, all the presentation, and the next day I'm on a plane going up to Chicago."

Following his tenure in Chicago, Wise was a member of the Panthers and the Dolphins staffs before landing back in his native state. He is a funny character with a distinct voice. You often can hear him at practice yell, "Goodness gracious!"

"It's a lot of work, so I try to throw some humor into it. I try to be vocal to impress upon them that this skill we're working on right this minute is extremely important," he said. "Most of what we do is extremely mundane and we're trying to knock the living snot out of each other every minute. I feel if you don't have enthusiasm with it, it's a long day for an offensive lineman."

He said a good offensive lineman is tough and he plays with pride. Locker rooms are interesting places filled with a lot of different individuals, but the O-line usually is the closest unit on a team.

"They have to play so close together. They are always working together, talking together, they fall on each other and they're running into each other all the time," he said. "They have to have that feeling that 'I shoved him into you' and 'I felt you right over there' and 'I felt that before.' That's where the good lines get to. You'll hear a player mumble and know what they were saying."

The Jets have pass-blocked well this season, but the team has yet to find consistency running the football.

"Linemen have to realize that if something's not going well, it's always going to be them and that's part of it," Wise said. "We have to do a better job run-blocking. We have thrown the ball more, so I think we've got more experience."

If there is anyone who has experience, it's Wise. It wasn't part of the plan, but he's built up quite the professional résumé. You wonder if he'll come full circle someday after he's retired and finally coach in high school.

"I would go back to a small college or high school very easily. You get back into the true nuts and bolts of it and you've been here on Sunday," he said. "It's still the same game."

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