Tuesday, September 2, 2008

J-E-T-S (Just Exiting This Campus)

I took this picture while on campus the other day and figured it would make for a neat picture for a post I’m writing about Wayne Chrebet’s surreal summer of ’95, which began with a security guard denying him entrance to the Jets’ complex because he didn’t think he was actually a football player and ended with Chrebet earning a spot in the starting lineup. (That post is coming later this week)

But I realized almost immediately that it’s a better summation of the end of Hofstra’s association with the Jets. The sun officially set on the 40-year relationship last week, when Gang Green packed up and made the 63-mile drive to its new palatial digs in Florham Park.

There’s no denying bigger and better and more important things than a football team will eventually take place on the land once occupied by the Jets. That said: For all the talk of the boost in recognition the presidential debate will give Hofstra, the truth is that the best free advertising school will ever have just bolted for the Garden State. Even if only half of the news reports about the Jets mentioned Hofstra, how many stories/standups is that? Hundreds. You watched clips on TV and tried to figure out if your dorm was in the background.

Hofstra, whose decision-makers spend every waking hour obsessing over publicity, could not pay for anything that effective. Especially 13 years ago, when Chrebet, an unsigned free agent from Hofstra, walked across the street and made the Jets.

Even before Chrebet became a star, untold numbers of people from outside the state knew of Hofstra as where the Jets practiced. I didn’t go to Hofstra because of the Jets connection, but I brought this book with me to campus because I was sure I’d see Ronnie Lott scarfing down a Hofstra Burger in the Student Center. In retrospect, of course, that was foolish. I blame the sitcoms of my youth, where famous people just randomly showed up to hang with normal folks like you and I.

Four decades at Hofstra made the Jets Long Island’s football team (and the closest thing we’ve had to a major professional sports franchise the last 15 years, that’s right, I’m not counting these guys). It also made the Jets the metro-area football team worthy of the New York moniker. If they didn’t play their home games in the state of New York, at least they practiced and were headquartered there.

Being a Jets fan isn’t easy—I’ve never rooted for the Jets, but having rooted for this historic loser, I know all about loyalty in the face of unrelenting bleakness—but there was an endearing accessibility at Hofstra, even under control freaks such as Bill Parcells and Eric Mangini.

I remember Long Island native Vinny Testaverde biking from Weeb Ewbank Hall to the Netherlands, where fans would gather for autographs as players entered the cafeteria (home of the best Hofstra tradition ever: Steak night on Wednesdays!). And as Newsday’s excellent Mark Herrmann wrote Sunday, dozens of Jets came from elsewhere but became Long Islanders.

Of course, it’s not the Jets’ job to publicize Hofstra. It’s just business and the Jets owe Hofstra nothing. But by picking up and moving to New Jersey, Woody Johnson proves he’s another guy who can spend a billion bucks buying and putting together a professional sports franchise but can’t buy a clue as to how to read his fan base. But hey, the Jets have more T&A than most teams! (A brilliant idea, given the Jerry Springer Show-like behavior exhibited by some Jets fans last year)

The Jersey move should also serve as a reminder that Johnson promised his tenure would be measured by his ability to give the Jets a home of their own…in New York. Page 564 of the Jets’ 2004 media guides includes and an artist’s rendering of the riverfront stadium the Jets expected to open on the West Side of Manhattan in 2009 and the promise that “[T]he Jets and their fans will finally have a home to call their own; a home that they have long deserved.”

So, of course, as of this writing, they’re localized entirely in New Jersey and preparing for a new stadium they’ll share with the Giants. It’s not all Johnson’s fault: Having been screwed by Cablevision, he does in fact have at least one thing in common with his Long Island-based fans. Still…if I’m rooting for the Jets, I see his failure to come through as he promised and I’m not exactly holding my breath on him bringing the Lombardi to New Jersey.

Oh sure, the Jets are spinning this as a victory and an opportunity to finally develop some identity. The name of the new stadium will go to the highest bidder—meaning, perhaps, the next generation of football fans won’t associate the Jets with Giants Stadium—and the place will be decked out in the colors and décor of whomever is hosting the game. And as part of the stadium deal, the Jets agreed to set up operations in New Jersey, which presents them a chance to establish a new tradition.

Except, of course, the one tradition the Jets had WAS Hofstra. Indeed, Hofstra was more a part of the Jets’ identity than the Jets were a part of Hofstra’s identity.

For nearly 50 years, the Jets have been the tri-state area’s nomadic franchise—too often leaderless and perpetually homeless. Their Super Bowl III win was perhaps the biggest upset in football history (surpassed seven months ago by this, I’d say), but it was more fluke than a sign of things to come for a seemingly star-crossed franchise known best for ineptitude and an amazing ability to grab defeat from the jaws of victory at the most gut-wrenching time. Like they did here. And here. And here.

The 2003 media guide commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Jets with five special then-and-now covers (Joe Namath/Chad Pennington, Ewbank/Herm Edwards, Freeman McNeil/Curtis Martin, Joe Klecko/John Abraham and Don Maynard/Chrebet) that only served as a reminder of how meager the Jets have been. In addition, 10 of the team’s 17 head coaches lasted two years or less, including the guy who wigged out after one day.

The Jets have been secondary citizens in their “own” stadia, and come the fall of 2010, when Giants Stadium follows the Polo Grounds (1960-63) and Shea Stadium (1964-83) by meeting thousands of sticks of dynamite, the Jets’ history will be a pile of rubble.

The one place the Jets could authentically call their own was the northeast portion of Hofstra’s campus. It’s the only place that paid homage to the Jets—and, as Herrmann noted, the only place that linked the Jets generations.

The Jets have a new home now, one that is as extravagant as it is empty. Left behind is Hofstra and the sprawling canvas they’d spent 40 years creating—one that was rarely impressive but always unique.

Hofstra went out on top, though, as the Jets’ final paint strokes provided the school one last splash of free advertising better than any promotional campaign it could have mustered. It’s hard to imagine anything that happens in New Jersey topping that. And even if Peyton Manning comes out of retirement in August 2015 to try and snap the Jets’ 46-year championship drought, big deal. In New Jersey, nobody tunes in to Jets reports to see if he can find Vander Poel Hall in the background.

No comments: