By the end of the 1987 season, the chant had begun: "Joe must go!"
After his Jets finished 4-12 in 1989, Joe Walton eventually did just that.
But history has treated his term as the team’s head coach better than it might have appeared in real time, given the long stretches of losing that have marked the franchise’s history before and since.
Walton, who died on Sunday at 85, was the only coach in the Jets’ first five decades in the NFL to manage consecutive seasons with double-digit victory totals, going 11-5 in 1985 and 10-6 in ’86.
As of 2021, Walton’s 53 regular-season victories ranked second among Jets coaches to the 71 for Weeb Ewbank, coach of the Super Bowl III champions.
That 1986 team in particular seemed to have the potential for greatness, even as it was overshadowed then and now by the ’86 Giants, who won New York’s first Super Bowl that season.
The Jets started 10-1 — the Giants were 9-2 at the same point — before losing their final five regular-season games and eventually suffering a devastating double-overtime loss to the Browns in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Walton went 6-9 in the strike season of 1987, 8-7-1 in 1988 (with bonus points for knocking the Giants out of the playoffs in the regular-season finale) and finally that last dud in ’89.
Walton was 54 at that point, having been a player, scout and coach for the Giants and then spending nine years as a Jets coordinator and head coach. He might have been expected to ease his way out of the football grind.
But he had a long, satisfying second act in store. After two seasons as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, he spent 20 years as the head coach at Robert Morris College, near his hometown of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.
He retired after the 2013 season, when he was 78. He was 53-57-1 as an NFL head coach and 115-92-1 at Robert Morris.
Walton was born on Dec. 15, 1935, in the football-rich environs of Beaver Falls, also the hometown of another Jets figure of some renown named Joe Namath.
His father, Frank, had preceded him as a player at Beaver Falls High, the University of Pittsburgh and the NFL, and as a coach. But Frank died in 1953 at age 41, when Joe was only 17.
A two-way end, Joe starred at Pitt, leading the Panthers to two bowl games and twice being named an All-American. He caught 41 passes for 616 yards and 14 touchdowns in his three varsity seasons.
Washington drafted him into the NFL in the second round in 1957, and he spent four seasons there and three with the Giants, who reached the NFL Championship Game in each of those years.
He finished his NFL career with 178 receptions for 2,628 yards and 28 touchdowns. He had five catches for 75 yards in a 16-7 loss to the Packers in the ’62 title game.
After missing the 1964 season with an injury, Walton stayed with the Giants as a scout and later receivers coach, then spent seven seasons on the Washington staff.
He was the Jets’ offensive coordinator in 1981 and ’82 — they reached the AFC Championship Game in the latter season — then succeeded Walt Michaels as head coach in 1983, the same year Bill Parcells took charge with the Giants.
In 1986, the Jets recovered from their five-game losing streak to defeat Kansas City in the wild-card playoff round, but then came the 23-20 double-overtime loss to the Browns.
Cleveland tied the game with a late touchdown drive aided by a penalty on Mark Gastineau for roughing Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, a game-turning development.
Walton was dismissed three seasons later, shortly after a 37-0 loss to the Bills before 21,000 fans at Giants Stadium, some of whom threw things at him as he left the field.
Having failed to garner warm feelings and loyalty among co-workers, there was little sympathy for him in the end within the organization, or among fans and journalists.
Greg Logan wrote in Newsday, "The reasons for the collapse of the Jets are many, but the key figure is Walton . . . Ultimately Walton found himself in over his head."
Newsday’s Steve Jacobson added, "Because Joe Walton has left almost no one else unblamed, it’s time to blame Joe Walton."
Walton was out of football and caring for his ailing wife, Ginger, when he was hired in 1993 to build the non-scholarship Robert Morris program from scratch. He went 10-0 in 2000 and was a four-time Northeast Conference Coach of the Year.
During his years coaching at Robert Morris and beyond, Walton lived in his hometown of Beaver Falls, even after his wife died and he remarried. The school’s football stadium is named for him.
"Once I was here," he told Allegheny West Magazine upon his retirement in 2013, "I never wanted to leave."