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COMMENTARY : Jets’ Owner Is Life of Party Every Decade

NEWSDAY

Good old Mr. Hess, whatta guy! He emerges from his modesty every decade or so for one of these historic New York Jets news conferences and makes himself the life of the party. He tells us his Jets are headed for the light at the end of the dark tunnel because he’s impatient with the same old stuff.

And he’s 80 years old, don’t forget. He was only 69 the last time.

He does it with the kind of old-time style we don’t see much these days. They tell us Leon Hess, the oilionaire, is really a shy fellow, which is why he doesn’t stand up in front of news crowds very often, but he comes on with the presence of 99-year-old George Burns, lacking only Brooke Shields and a trademark big cigar.

He could hide with surprising laughs the truth that Pete Carroll was being given the shaft. He should have had another year. Nobody turns around the weight of that franchise in one season except in the eyes of the people who overrated the players they put in place.

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Again there is no continuity except for the continuity of Mr. Hess. He believed it when he was told they were good enough for the playoffs this year. And now the Jets again will deceive themselves into thinking they can win next season.

When they collapsed into their history after the thunderbolt loss to Miami, clearly it had to be the coach’s failing. Mr. Hess decided that Carroll, the man the braintrust made head coach even though he’d never been a head coach anywhere, had to go -- regardless of who was available.

Anyhow, Mr. Hess was telling the hilarious story Thursday about how he was developing his fine, deep suntan on one of his islands in the Bahamas, putting off whatever action he planned to take with his team that hasn’t won anything since he was middle-aged. There he was basking, when his daughter came out with news that Rich Kotite had been fired by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Right then that got Mr. Hess’ wheels turning. He raced inside in time to watch Kotite being fired on CNN. And then Mr. Hess phoned the home office to find how to reach Kotite. He remembered the nice impression Kotite made as an assistant coach in the ill-fated Joe Walton regime.

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And out was Pete Carroll. And there we are. Poor Pete Carroll. He’s the one who got the bad deal -- him and the thousands of Jets fans. “Let’s not talk about Pete Carroll,” Mr. Hess said. “I wish him well. He’s a great man.” Great, but not for his football team.

Mr. Hess busted his day in the sun to fire a coach who had lost five in a row and replace him with a coach who had lost seven in a row. Heh-heh-heh.

This was the man Mr. Hess wanted so much that he took Jimmy Johnson’s media denial at face value and never contacted Dennis Erickson or Tony Dungy or whomever.

Carroll was through, whether for Kotite or the man in the moon. Mr. Hess is 80. He’s had a part of the franchise since 1963. He had the partial ecstasy of the Joe Namath Super Bowl triumph, and since then the Jets are the only team not to have won a division championship.

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What Mr. Hess has given these fans is the move from New York-tax-Shea Stadium to New Jersey’s Meadowlands and its superior bathrooms -- it’s flushing New Jersey, not Flushing, N.Y. -- and disappointment. “I’m 80 years old. I want results now. I’ve waited 25 years,” Mr. Hess said, making it come out a laughline.

So Thursday, Mr. Hess presided with his seniority on the podium with Kotite; Steve Gutman, the president of the club, and Dick Steinberg, the ailing general manager who is taking a reduced role during the course of his medical treatment. That means, in Mr. Hess’s evaluation, Kotite is “head of the family”

His qualifications are, Mr. Hess said, that he is “a leader, a builder, a fighter, a dese and dose guy.” Indeed, Kotite is from Brooklyn, played at Wagner on Staten Island. He says don’t judge him on the dreadful circumstance of his last season with the Eagles, with players gone and going and ownership undercutting him. But Kotite was the personnel man who couldn’t dese and dose the Reggie White franchise into staying over the owner’s closed pocketbook.

Mr. Hess chose the wrong time to get impatient. He let Steinberg and Gutman fire Bruce Coslet and elevate Carroll. A week ago Steinberg said he expected Carroll to be back. This time Hess took the decisions of who shall go and who shall come for his own. Maybe Kotite is a good coach. He won 10 and 11 games in the first two of his four years with the Eagles.

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Mr. Hess thought Carroll would win 10 games with his age-movement Jets -- maybe eight, certainly not go 6-10. Note that history is full of good coaches who lose in their first top job: Chuck Noll was 1-13; Joe Gibbs, 8-8; Mike Ditka, 3-6; the sainted Bill Parcells, 3-12-1, and Jimmy Johnson, 1-15. Of the conference championship-winners since 1967, only Weeb Ewbank and Marv Levy had ever been fired as a head coach.

Of course, some first-time coaches are quickly identified as misjudgements, but even Ray Handley got a second chance. Carroll had to deal with the Jets’ history of being outnumbered by November and December, of being overwhelmed and baffled by adversity. Kotite’s Eagles were 1-13 against the last two Novembers and Decembers.

“I wouldn’t say Pete was a mistake; it just didn’t work out,” Gutman said. Nobody changes a losing tradition instantly. “There’s pain and suffering,” Carroll said over the phone Thursday, meaning not only his own. “We didn’t know how long it would take.”

He certainly didn’t know how little time he would have. He thought he was weeding out those who “weren’t willing to go where we wanted to go.” He had identified Brian Washington, who didn’t show up for the 15th game because he’d lost his starting job, and James Hasty, who barely waited for the end of the 16th game to say he wanted out.

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“It’s taken a long time to get it to this point,” Carroll said, “and it’s going to take a long time to turn it around.” Carroll may not have been an outstanding coach this season, but he had a chance to evolve.

Mr. Hess wants it done like pulling the trigger at the pump. So they’ll draft to win in short order and not recognize that this is more than a job of patch and fill. When Walt Michaels was fired it was the end of Richard Todd; when Joe Walton was fired it was the end of Ken O’Brien. Is Boomer Esiason going to be the quarterback when and if this team is good enough to contend?

How long is Kotite’s contract, he was asked? He dodged the question, as coaches will do. But Mr. Hess rumbled, “Go ahead and tell them.” It was good for another laugh.

He has a three-year contract. Pete Carroll had four.

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