Joe Walton, the offensive architect and innovator of the New York Jets' quartet of playoff teams in the early and mid-Eighties and head coach of many of the great players in franchise history from that era, died Sunday. He was 85 years old.
The Jets organization late Sunday issued a statement on their former coach's death:
"Joe Walton poured his heart into this franchise for nine seasons, joining us as Offensive Coordinator before taking over as Head Coach. Joe fielded some of the franchise's most productive offenses and helped the team to four playoff appearances during his tenure. He was a good man who cared for his players and loved the game of football."
Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, where Walton served as the first head coach for the Colonials' then brand new varsity football program in 1993 through 2013, announced his passing. It's understandable why, after his starting the program and posting a 115-92-1 career record, the school referred to him as "the architect of @RMU_Football." He guided Robert Morris to back-to-back NCAA I-AA non-scholarship national championships in 1999 and 2000, the latter with a 10-0 record.
Some of the players he coached during his Green & White years checked in with some thoughts and memories of their former field general.
"Joe was first and foremost a great family man," said Ken O'Brien, the Jets' QB for most of Walton's time there. "He loved his wife and kids, he was always proud of them. And the way he treated the team was just a family atmosphere. And it was great for me that he was the offensive coordinator prior to becoming head coach, he knew the offense real well, he was the playcaller as well. Joe taught me a lot and I really appreciated him."
"I had a good run with him," former Jets wide receiver Wesley Walker recalled. "I certainly had my differences with him, but as a coach, I had a lot of respect for him. He was instrumental in my career. Anytime you lose a loved one or someone who's been part of your life, there's a sting."
"I thought Joe was an excellent coordinator," said Jets radio analyst Marty Lyons, who played defensive tackle for Walton. "When he became the head coach and you have to deal with all the different personalities, I think he struggled. But it wasn't all his fault — the whole team struggled. And then he found a home at Robert Morris and created a football program. He found his niche, and he was so successful that they named their stadium after him."
Walton had the game in his blood. He was born in football country, Beaver Falls, PA, in 1935, eight years before Joe Namath was born in the same Western Pennsylvania city, and Walton was familiar with Joe and the Namath family long before reaching the Jets.
His father was Washington Redskins guard Frank "Tiger" Walton. And he followed in Tiger's footsteps as a football standout at Beaver Falls HS, the University of Pittsburgh and Washington in the NFL.
Coincidentally, Walton's passing came a day after two of his teams, the Jets and Giants, played their annual preseason game Saturday night. Walton played tight end for Big Blue as well, finishing his career with 178 receptions for 2,628 yards and 28 touchdowns. After his playing career ended, he became a scout and then the wide receivers coach for the Giants of then-HC Allie Sherman and was on the Yale Bowl scene when the Jets-Giants summer rivalry began in 1969.
Walton moved on to the Washington staff of George Allen from 1974-80, first as running backs coach and then as offensive coordinator, and was credited with the development of Redskins QB Joe Theismann, by no one less than Theismann himself, who said in a tweet today that Walton "was my coach, and my friend. He taught me how to play QB at the pro level. He touched so many lives, whether it was in pro ball or at the college level. We all have a part of Joe with us."
From the nation's capital, Walton returned to the New York area, this time with the Jets as OC in 1981-82, when they gained two postseason berths and played for the AFC title in Miami in early 1993, and then as their head coach from 1983-89 when they secured two more playoff berths, in 1985 and '86.
Yet the Jets' 1988 team had a special place in the heart of Walton and his players. The coach went with a youth movement that proceeded to put together an 8-7-1 record. That brought his career record with the Jets to 49-45-1 before a 4-12 mark in 1989 sank that record below .500 and led to his departure.
"I told the players I thought we learned a lot. And I conveyed to them how much I enjoyed coaching them," Walton said after that season. "And I think I learned you're never too old to change or try to do things differently. I said last year I thought the team and myself made mistakes. It was up to us to try to correct them. You never stop learning."
Walton also developed many elements of offensive football that are staples in the game today. Former Giant Pat Summerall told his former CBS booth mate John Madden, "Joe was the smartest player on the field. He knew what every player was doing on every play."
And legendary QB Y.A. Tittle once said, "Joe was trying things way before others did. He was one of the first people to use men in motion. In 1970, he was way ahead of most of the passing theorists in the NFL, the way he dictated what a defense had to do."
Long-time Jets public relations director Frank Ramos even recalled Walton's innovations in the field of sideline fashion. One time Walton wore a certain Jets sweater at the behest of NFL properties for a Monday night game, and the look prompted many callers to reach out to the Jets and the league beginning the next morning about how to get a hold of the sweater.
Then there was the matter of Walton's backwards Jets caps. "Joe was a catcher for the Beaver Falls baseball team," Ramos explained. "That's how he got to wearing his hat backwards at practices and got a lot of others to do it, too."
O'Brien and Walker were just two of the big names from the Green & White past who played on some or all of Walton's seven teams. Three-fourths of the New York Sack Exchange — Joe Klecko, Mark Gastineau and Lyons — played at the start of his Jets head-coaching career. RB Freeman McNeil, WR Al Toon, T Marvin Powell, LB Lance Mehl and S Erik McMillan were in uniform for some or all of Walton's time at the helm.
Klecko, Gastineau, Lyons, McNeil, Toon and Walker are all in the Jets' Ring of Honor. Mehl, McNeil, O'Brien, Toon and WR JoJo Townsell were the MVPs as selected by the players on those squads.
O'Brien remembered that Walton "loved the Jets, loved everything about them. He was really proud and happy to be a part of them."
And Lyons summed up the person his former coach was on and off the field: "Joe Walton made his mark in life."