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Jets owner Leon Hess dies at 85

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Posted: Friday May 07, 1999 05:04 PM

  Leon Hess lived to see the Jets regain respectability after years of losing. AP

NEW YORK (AP) -- Leon Hess, the oil tycoon and paternalistic owner of the New York Jets who longed to see his team return to the Super Bowl one last time, died Friday. He was 85.

Hess died at Lenox Hill Hospital of a blood disease, the team said. He had been hospitalized with a broken hip in early April and discharged. But a day later he re-entered the hospital.

Hess, one of the wealthiest and most reticent owners in professional sports, made his fortune in oil, with a company that bears his name.

He was part of a group that bought the Jets of the American Football League in 1963, when they were the New York Titans. He eventually bought out his partners, notably Sonny Werblin and Phil Iselin, in 1977.

The Jets began play in Shea Stadium in 1964 after four seasons in the Polo Grounds. But 20 years later, Hess, unhappy with the facilities at the home of the Mets, moved the Jets' home to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Hess died without seeing the Jets back in the Super Bowl. Their only appearance came in 1969 when Joe Namath led them to a landmark victory over the Baltimore Colts.

The Jets came close last season to fulfilling his wish for another championship. With Bill Parcells the coach, they got into the AFC title game but lost to the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos 23-10.

"Leon Hess was a great American success story," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "He was a prince of a man at a time when such individuals are rare. We will deeply miss him and his always-wise counsel. ... There will be a terrible void as the Jets pursue their dream of another Super Bowl victory."

Known as a generous owner who promoted a family atmosphere for his team, Hess rarely went outside the organization to hire coaches in his early years in charge. But in 1989, at the end of a 4-12 season, he hired Dick Steinberg as general manager.

Steinberg, who died in 1995, hired Bruce Coslet as coach. He lasted four years, replaced by Pete Carroll.

After the Jets lost their final five games of 1994 under Carroll, Hess fired the coach and hired a former Jets player and assistant, Rich Kotite. He even tracked down Kotite while on vacation to offer him the job.

Kotite went 4-28 in his two seasons, but Hess allowed him to resign rather than fire him.

He then hired Parcells from New England in 1997, paying a compensation of four draft picks. Parcells quickly rewarded Hess by turning around one of the most hapless franchises in the NFL.

Hess often was cited for his kindness toward Jets players. When Dennis Byrd was temporarily paralyzed in an on-field collision with a teammate during a 1992 game, Hess offered financial and medical support throughout Byrd's recovery.

"To him I owe everything," Byrd said. "The success of what's happened and what he's done for me."

Hess was the son of a Russian immigrant who was a kosher butcher. He started building his oil company from his father's one-truck oil delivery business in Asbury Park, N.J., during the Depression in the 1930s.

"Everybody was broke in those days," Hess recalled. "I had to pay for the truck before I could deliver the oil."

Hess supplied oil to Gen. George Patton's troops during World War II. He acquired Amerada in 1969 after an ownership battle with Phillips Petroleum. He stepped down as chairman and chief executive officer in 1995. Forbes magazine last year listed his net worth at $720 million.

He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Norma; two daughters, Marlene and Connie; and a son, John, who succeeded him as chief executive officer of Amerada Hess Corp; and seven grandchildren.

The funeral is Monday in Manhattan.

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