COMMENTARY : Jets' Owner Hess Needs to Appoint Knowledgeable GM


It is not as if the person who runs the New York Jets has shut his office door to the turmoil outside. That man does not even have an office at the nerve center of the National Football League franchise. That is just one of the distinguishing characteristics of the organization.

Leon Hess was a silent partner in the five-man syndicate that purchased the New York Titans in 1963, renamed them and nurtured them to major-league status. Hess still chooses to be silent, even though he now bears the title of chairman of the board and casts the only vote that counts in determining company policy. At a time when the team is under intense pressure from the media and a segment of its fans, his influence is projected by telephone.

Not all the owners in the NFL feel the necessity to dance on the sidelines in the manner of the New Orleans Saints' Tom Benson. And not all of them choose to become thoroughly involved with the details of the operation as has new arrival Jerry Jones, who moved his entire business empire into the Dallas Cowboys' command post. But those who abhor the high-profile existence by which the rich become famous invariably assign the task to a general manager. Hess has chosen otherwise.

In fact, the Jets have not had a general manager since Al Ward -- a one-time public relations man -- resigned in December 1977, one year after the Lou Holtz fiasco. Several months earlier, Jim Kensil, former assistant to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, was hired as president and chief operating officer. In 1981, when Coach Walt Michaels' job appeared in jeopardy after an 0-3 start, Kensil said that he had never fired anybody. Nor did he start with Michaels, who would "retire" following the 1982 season after his outbursts during the playoffs embarrassed Hess into behind-the-scenes action.

When Kensil took medical retirement in June 1988, he was succeeded by Steve Gutman, the Jets' corporate treasurer and administrative manager. Remarkably, Hess not only attended the press conference at which the change was announced but actually said he planned to take a more active role in club affairs. The possibility that he would place a man with football expertise in charge of the franchise also was raised.

"Last June, I believe what we said is that we were going to determine, as conditions developed, whether we were going to hire a so-called football man or general manager, and we would have more to say about that when there's more to say about it," Gutman said Monday after the Jets suffered an ignominious defeat in New Orleans, their fifth loss in six games. The team president sat still for an interview at the request of reporters who have despaired of ascertaining any comments from Hess. Gutman said he and the owner talk "regularly" about the state of the Jets.

Sixteen months after that news conference, Hess remains as aloof as ever and the Jets still are without a football man at the helm. "There is no more to say about it," Gutman reported. "When there is, there is."

Hess has spared no expense on the franchise: the Jets boast the fourth-highest payroll in the league. Their facility at Weeb Ewbank Hall on a corner of the Hofstra University campus in Hempstead, N.Y., is modern and first-rate. When Hess tired of the conditions at Shea Stadium, he moved the team into Giants Stadium and ordered the construction of a spacious and comfortable locker room. The only deprivation suffered by the players, the coaches and the front-office staff is his presence on a regular basis.

Under different circumstances, his distance might be a boon to the organization. In this era of ego aggrandizement, there is no shortage of proprietors who hog the spotlight and who override the opinions of knowledgeable employees for the glory of a headline or a sound bite. Unfortunately, in Hess' absence, there is no one to oversee the different facets of the organization and set them on a unified course. The result has been ineffective drafts and a 14-19-1 record over the last three seasons, discounting the three strike games in 1987.

Gutman chose not to lay the blame on Joe Walton for the dismal 1-5 start this year, which is only fair under the circumstances. "We're losing as an organization," he said, "up, down and sideways." Not that it's his choice whether the coach goes or stays. That decision will be rendered by telephone.

Walton has received the brunt of the fans' ire because he is the most visible member of the organization. Obviously, that's not the case with George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees or even the Cowboys, where the owner is in total charge. "I think the problem is throughout the Jets," Gutman said. "The problem is everywhere."

And that includes ownership, even at a time when Hess may be distracted by the shutdown of his St. Croix refineries after the damage caused by Hurricane Hugo. As a ritually private person at the helm of the public spectacle that is an NFL franchise, he has been largely unresponsive to the team's constituents. Indeed, there is reason to believe the Jets deliberately have taken the opposite tack when confronted by critics. Their goal-line defense off the field has been superb.

If New York suffers because Steinbrenner reacts too much like a fan, expecting his team to win every game, the Jets' basic flaw may be that Hess is devoid of such emotion for the game. The man stays in touch and is interested, but there remains a lack of passionate leadership at the top. The solution is not for Walton to go. The first step on the road back is for Hess, or a representative who knows the NFL the way Hess knows oil, to stay on top of the situation.

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