TJB Hall of Fame: Sonny Werblin

It’s the same each season. Every Sunday we don the green and white, yell out the J-E-T-S chant and sit and watch the game, lamenting the fact the team hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1969. Without this year’s first inductee into the TJB Hall of Fame, none of that would be possible.

Sonny Werblin’s impact, not just on the Jets, but on the NFL and professional sports in general is virtually unparalleled. While he’s most commonly remembered as the man who brought Joe Namath to New York, his influence reached far beyond that. He was not only the architect of a championship team – the only one so far in franchise history – but also the man behind the Jets as we know them. Although he died over 20 years ago and hasn’t been directly involved with the Jets for almost 50 years, his impact is still prevalent within the organization to this day.

Werblin was never regarded as a football mind, but he was so influential in the rise of the AFL and the prominence of the Super Bowl that some feel he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, not just our own humble project. It wasn’t just securing the services of Namath that led to this, but in many ways that’s the move that best defines his business acumen. A former Hollywood talent agent that had worked with some of the biggest names in America, Werblin understood the concept of “star power” and the move for the talented Namath wouldn’t have created the same buzz without his ability to market and build a household name.

However, in order to fully appreciate everything Werblin did for the franchise and football in general, we need to recount his career achievements.

While he was born David Abraham Werblin, his mother called him Sonny from an early age, as he grew up in Flatbush. His father ran a successful paper bag company and passed down some of his business knowledge to Sonny. Ironically, paper bags would become associated with the post-Werblin Jets for completely unrelated reasons.

After a successful career in Hollywood, where he represented the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Ronald Reagan, Werblin turned his attention to sports, where he would be the innovator of “sports stars” as we know them today. Heading up a five-person syndicate, Werblin negotiated a purchase of the struggling New York Titans AFL franchise for $1m in 1963 and immediately set to work making changes that are still felt to this day.

Within 17 days, he had renamed the team. From a list of 500 possibilities, he decided on “Jets” because it sounded more contemporary than “Titans” but also because it rhymed with “Mets” and would attract fans of the popular National League expansion franchise with whom the Jets would share a stadium, starting in 1964. He also made the team’s uniforms and color scheme more modern, settling for green and white, not – as widely believed – to match with the color scheme of the business belonging to fellow owner Leon Hess, but because green and white were his favorite colors, having been born on St. Patrick’s Day. The Jets as we know them were starting to take shape.

1964 was a turning point in the franchise’s fortunes, as the move to Shea earned them more respect from the local media and the venture proved successful behind several of Werblin’s own marketing ideas. He decked out security staff in Jets-themed gear, introduced a band to the sideline and ran promotions at training camp to raise the profile of the Jets franchise as a more modern alternative to the stuck-in-the-mud Giants. Werblin actually crawled from his sickbed to watch the Jets defeat Denver 30-6 in their home opener. He had also been a significant figure in the negotiation of a TV deal between the AFL and NBC during the offseason, something which would further raise the profile of the league and, by extension, his team.

It wasn’t just the off-field moves which had a positive effect. On the same day the Jets announced their new name, they also introduced new Head Coach and General Manager Weeb Ewbank. Werblin would also start to make moves to improve the on-field product. He is credited with drafting Matt Snell in 1964, but – more importantly – managing to convince him to join the Jets rather than their cross-town rivals. Snell is still the only Jets player to score a touchdown for them in a Super Bowl. The Jets also drafted two cornerstone defensive players that year – Ralph Baker and Gerry Philbin – further legitimizing the team in the eyes of the media.

The following season would be his biggest splash yet, as he drafted Joe Namath in the first round of the AFL draft and Heisman Trophy winning quarterback John Huarte (from the high-profile Notre Dame program) in the second round. Huarte was the bigger name locally, but he was little more than a fallback plan in case Werblin had been unable to lure Namath away from the NFL teams chasing his services. Over $400,000 later, an amount unheard of at the time, Namath was a Jet and Werblin knew that his star quality would make the investment worthwhile, even though the move was a risk because Namath already had issues with his knees.

Namath quickly became one of the best known sports stars in America and would go on to cement his legacy by leading the Jets to the AFL’s first ever Super Bowl success at the end of the 1968 season. The concept of a “sports star” had come to fruition and the story had wrapped up with a Hollywood ending. Ironically, Werblin – a veteran of Hollywood himself – was not around to see it, having been forced out by the ownership group on the eve of the season. They were said to be upset with him because he made transactions without consulting them and because of his willingness to spend money.

Werblin hadn’t wanted to leave and the Jets players did not want to see the popular figure ousted. Running Back Emerson Boozer, drafted in 1966 was quoted as saying , “I felt a sense of loss or that a piece of the puzzle was missing in that he was not there to share the Super Bowl, because he put the club together.”

Werblin’s involvement with the Jets ended there, but he did indirectly influence another key aspect of Jets history. In 1971, he funded the construction of the Meadowlands Complex in New Jersey and ran it through 1977, as it would become the home of the New York Giants. He defended the fact that a New York franchise could play out of state by saying, “If you pave the Hudson River, it becomes 13th Avenue.” That would also become the home of the Jets in the mid-eighties and the venue for the New Meadowlands Stadium which they currently call home.

Some in the media have attributed the Jets’ inability to repeat their Super Bowl success to a “Curse of Sonny Werblin” despite the fact that the Jets win came after he was forced out. There was some hope that knocking down the old Meadowlands Stadium would exorcise these demons.

Werblin’s success was undeniable and maybe his style continues to permeate within the DNA of the current Jets. There’s no question that many of Werblin’s moves were business moves, yet he remains the most successful principal owner in Jets history. He understood that creating a buzz and selling tickets would make New York a desirable place to play and that this would attract talent to the organization. He also recognized that the best way to be successful financially would be to win, so the business side of all the moves he made went hand in hand with football logic. Nothing underlines this point better than hiring Weeb Ewbank on the same day you introduced a new look for the team.

Fast forward to the modern day and the current owner Woody Johnson has shown that he has a reverence for Jets history. For example, hiring Rex Ryan to be head coach and install an old-school defensive attack mentality was a nod towards Ryan’s father, Buddy, who was the defensive coordinator on the championship team.

In recent years, Johnson has been much-maligned for some of the moves the Jets have made, on the grounds that they were made purely for business reasons, but maybe it’s Werblin’s path that he aims to follow. While some of his moves have not worked out and the success of others have still to be determined, they have all been successful in creating a buzz around the franchise over the last few years. If the franchise is able to make the next step and turn this buzz into an on-field product that can regularly contend for a championship then perhaps Werblin deserves much of the credit.

Werblin, who was known as “Showbiz Sonny” and “Sonny as in Money” played a big part in steering a struggling franchise in the right direction. While he sadly died of a heart attack in 1991, his legacy lives on. The Sonny Werblin Recreational Center still stands at Rutgers University and Werblin’s place in Jets history should not be forgotten.

We are pleased and proud to induct Sonny Werblin into the TJB Hall of Fame as 2012’s first inductee. Please share your thoughts and tributes in the comments section.