Former Jets coach Walt Michaels, architect of Super Bowl 3 upset, dies at 89

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Walt Michaels, a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker and former Jets head coach who was a key figure in one of pro football’s biggest upsets, died Wednesday, his daughter confirmed (via the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader). He was 89.

Michaels, who played 11 seasons in the NFL, became a coach after his retirement as a player and was the Jets’ defensive coordinator in their stunning victory over the Colts in Super Bowl 3, the first time the AFL defeated the NFL in the young championship.

His defense held the 13-1 Colts to a lone touchdown in what became a 16-7 victory for Joe Namath and the Jets, who entered the game as 18-point underdogs.

Michaels’ defenses — as a coordinator and later the Jets’ head coach — were a reflection of the man himself.

A native of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s coal country, Michaels never forgot his roots, as a player or coach.

”His work ethic did come from this area,” said his daughter, Mary Ann. “My father understood what hard work was. He never missed work — no sick days and no personal days. He never forgot his roots.”

Teammates and players alike respected that in Michaels.

He spent most of his playing career with the Browns and was part of two NFL championship teams with Cleveland, which made it to the NFL title game five times during his stint with the team.

Michaels left the Jets to become the Eagles’ defensive coordinator before returning in 1976 to New York, where he was promoted to head coach the next year.

In six seasons as the Jets coach, he went 39-47-1 and presided over a “Gang Green” team whose defensive line grew to fame as “the New York Sack Exchange.” 

During his tenure, the Jets advanced to the AFC championship one time, after the strike-shortened 1982 regular season. New York suffered a controversial loss to the Dolphins, 14-0, in a game dubbed “The Mud Bowl.”

The controversy sprung from the fact that the Dolphins never covered the Orange Bowl field during a 72-hour rainstorm that hit Miami ahead of the game. Field conditions limited Jets star running back Freeman McNeil and put the offensive onus on inconsistent quarterback Richard Todd as New York was held scoreless.

Nearly four decades later, the Jets remain winless in AFC championships (0-4) and haven’t reached a Super Bowl since their historic win in January 1969. Ironically, Don Shula was the Colts coach in that game, and later as the Dolphins coach he’s the man Michaels blamed for the sloppy conditions in Miami in the ill-fated AFC title game.

“Walt never wavered in his belief that Don Shula was responsible for the uncovered field,” longtime Jets beat writer Rich Cimini tweeted in the wake of Michaels’ death.

That turned out to be Michaels’ final game with the Jets; he resigned under pressure a short time after the loss.

He  would go on to coach the New Jersey Generals of the USFL in 1984 and ’85, going 25-11 in two seasons.