Harry Wismer, a colorful businessman, had been interested in sports for much of his life when he was granted a charter franchise in the American Football League. A three-sport letterman, football, particularly, stuck with Wismer who went on to play for the University of Florida and Michigan State before a knee injury ended his playing career. Undeterred, Wismer began his career as a broadcaster originally with Michigan State and become a pioneer of the industry. Later, as the Titans owner, Wismer formulated a league-wide policy which allowed broadcasting rights to be shared equally amongst the teams.
Wismer, who had previously had a 25% stake in the Washington Redskins, was interested in the American Football League and was given a franchise to develop in New York. Wismer, whose philosophy was who you knew mattered most, tried to make the team and the league a success. Unfortunately, his efforts began to accrue debt as the Titans’ first two seasons were mediocre with attendance dropping in the team’s second year. The franchise was sold for $1 million to a five man syndicate headed by Sonny Werblin of the Gotham Football Club, Inc. in February 1963.
Sonny Werblin graduated from Rutgers University and was employed by the Music Corporation of America, eventually becoming president of the company’s television division. With a vast knowledge of media, Werblin was determined to put the spotlight on the team.His first order of business, after changing the team’s name and jerseys, was to sign Joe Namath to an unprecedented contract. Werblin’s gamble would later pay off as Namath, who become a public star, led the Jets on to victory in Super Bowl III, though by then Werblin had sold his stake in the team.
Werblin’s partners, Townsend B. Martin, Leon Hess, Donald C. Lillis, and Philip H. Iselin, had a falling out with Werblin over the way the team was run—though the franchise had begun to make a profit, Werblin was making all the policies and decisions himself with little or no input from his partners, much to their dismay. Though Werblin initially resisted their ultimatum to dissolve the partnership, Werblin agreed to be bought out in 1968. Werblin remained involved in the sports community and became the first chairman and CEO of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority where he helped to create the Meadowlands Sports Complex, including Giants Stadium.
Leon Hess became well known for his Hess Corporation gas stations; however, he also played an instrumental part in the development of the Jets during his tenure as co-owner and eventual sole owner. Hess had often fought for improvements while the team was a tenant at Shea Stadium but generally stayed away from football operations, allowing his coaches and general manager to make football-related decisions.
Becoming the team’s majority stockholder in 1973, Hess bought Philip H. Iselin’s share upon his death in 1976 after which only two of Hess’ partners remained, Townsend Martin and Helen Dillon, who had inherited the stake from her father Donald Lillis, upon his death. Hess began to buy out the remaining partners in 1981 when he bought Martin’s 25% stake for $5 million. Hess bought Dillon’s stake three years later for another $5 million, acquiring sole control of the team.
Hess had a passion for his team and took losses hard. In 1995, following a mediocre 6–10 season under Pete Carroll, despite generally shying away from football operations, Hess announced “I’m 80 years old, I want results now” during a conference in which Rich Kotite was introduced as the team’s new coach. After two unsuccessful years with Kotite, Hess heavily involved himself in hiring Bill Parcells in hopes to see his team again reach the Super Bowl. He did not live to see his dream realized as he died on May 7, 1999.
With the team for sale, two potential buyers were found in Cablevision and philanthropist Woody Johnson whose grandfather, Robert Wood Johnson II, expanded Johnson & Johnson. Johnson was unknown amongst the other NFL owners at the time of his $635 million purchase of the franchise. However, Johnson has a passion for sports according to former Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld and desired to own his own team. Johnson has been considered to be an enabler who wants the best from his employees.
Much like Hess, Johnson left many of the football related decisions up to his management team and tended to avoid the spotlight however, upon hiring head coach Rex Ryan, Johnson had an increased presence as he molded the Jets into his team.