Walt Michaels, the coach who helped bring the Jets out of a 12-year playoff drought in the early ’80s, died Wednesday, the team confirmed. He was 89.
“We are very sad to hear about the passing of Walt Michaels. Walt was a great leader who inspired players to take their games to another level,” Jets CEO Christopher Johnson said. “A defensive mastermind, he had one of his finest moments when he coordinated our unit in the Super Bowl III victory over the Colts. Later as a head coach, Walt led us to back-to-back playoff berths in 1981 and 1982. Walt had a tireless work ethic and took an honest approach with his players. He will have a lasting impact on our organization, and our thoughts and condolences go out to his family and friends.”
Michaels’ younger brother Lou, who died in 2016, was a defensive end and kicker for the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Their parents were Polish-born immigrants, and the brothers said they got their drive from their father, a coal miner in western Pennsylvania.
Michaels became head coach in 1977 after Lou Holtz’s resignation and coached the Jets for six seasons. They made it to the AFC wild-card game in 1981, their first postseason berth in 12 years, and to the 1982 AFC Championship Game, the infamous “Mud Bowl” against the Dolphins. Michaels was convinced that Dolphins coach Don Shula intentionally left the tarp off the Orange Bowl’s field during a waterlogged three days to slow down the Jets, who were faster. The Jets lost, 14-0, and Michaels resigned after that season, citing personal reasons.
His next coaching gig was in the short-lived USFL, leading the New Jersey Generals for two years, beginning in 1984. Michaels and his staff were fired by owner Donald Trump. Michaels also coached in Helsinki in the International League of American Football.
Michaels, who grew up in Swoyersville, Pennsylvania, was drafted by the Browns in the seventh round in 1951. After being traded that summer to the Packers, the 6-foot, 230-pounder played linebacker and special teams for Green Bay. He returned to the Browns in 1952.
The Browns made it to the NFL Championship Game five times during his 10 seasons with them, and won consecutive titles in 1954 and 1955. Michaels’ playing career spanned 13 years, including 1963, when, as Jets defensive line coach, he played one game as an emergency linebacker. The five-time Pro Bowler had 11 interceptions — four in 1952 — and two touchdowns.
His coaching career began in 1962, as the Raiders’ defensive backs coach, before sending him to the Jets and Eagles, and back to the Jets again as head coach.
“He taught me how to do things and how to pick apart the weaknesses of players and know the strengths of players,” former Jets linebacker Greg Buttle said. “He was so precise with that, and I have to tell you he was never wrong. He looked at football as a chess board and it was all three-dimensional, it was geometry and it was angles. And he never put anybody that I know of in a position to fail.”
Michaels’ wife, Betty, died exactly six years before him. He is survived by four children, Mary Ann, Walt Jr., Mark and Paul.