Joe Walton, who as a player helped take the Giants to three consecutive N.F.L. championship games in the early 1960s with his outstanding pass-catching and blocking, but who found considerably less success coaching the N.F.L.’s other New York team, the Jets, for most of the 1980s, died on Sunday in Englewood, Fla. He was 85.
Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh, announced his death, but did not provide a cause. Walton was hired as the university’s first head football coach when it was known as Robert Morris College and coached the team for 20 years.
Walton first drew national attention as an All-American receiver at the University of Pittsburgh in 1956. Washington chose him in the second round of the 1957 N.F.L. draft, and he spent four seasons there before being sent to the Giants in July 1961 in a three-team deal.
At 6 feet and 200 pounds, Walton was undersized for his position, tight end. But he thrived in Coach Allie Sherman’s offense, which featured Y.A. Tittle at quarterback, who was quoted as calling Walton “the best third-down receiver in the game, bar none.”
As Frank Gifford, the Giants’ Hall of Fame halfback, told The New York Times in 1983, the year Walton was named the Jets’ head coach, “Joe got more mileage out of his body than anyone.”
“He wasn’t fast. He wasn’t tall. But he was a thinker,” Gifford said. “He was always the last guy on the practice field. He worked hard. He had to.
“As small as he was,” he added, “Joe blocked linebackers and defensive ends. He had the initial charge. He’d come out like a bullet.”
For all their talent, the Giants were stymied in their championship games of the 1960s, losing twice to the Green Bay Packers and then to the Chicago Bears in 1963.
After his playing career ended, Walton was an offensive coach or coordinator for the Giants and Washington, then worked as the Jets’ offensive coordinator in 1981 and 1982, Walt Michaels’s last two seasons as their head coach.
Except for the Jets’ stunning 1968 season, which was capped by their upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III behind their star quarterback, Joe Namath — who like Walton was a native of Beaver Falls, Pa. — the Jets had never reached a league championship game before Walton took over.
“Joe fielded some of the franchise’s most productive offenses,” the Jets said in a statement. “He was a good man who cared for his players and loved the game of football.”
However, in his seven seasons as their head coach, Walton, like Michaels before him, seldom pulled the Jets out of mediocrity.
He took them to the playoffs in 1985, but they lost to the New England Patriots in an American Football Conference wild-card game. They got off to a 10-1 start in 1986, but incurred a string of injuries to linebackers and interior linemen and lost their last five games.
The Jets went on to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs in a wild-card game. But they were beaten by the Cleveland Browns, 23-20, in double overtime in a divisional title game after leading by 10 points late in the fourth quarter. A penalty for roughing the passer called on Mark Gastineau over a late hit on the Browns’ quarterback Bernie Kosar, leading to a touchdown drive, proved a crushing blow.
The Jets were plagued by divisiveness during an N.F.L. players’ strike in 1987, when the defensive linemen Gastineau, Joe Klecko and Marty Lyons and the center Joe Fields, their captain, took the field alongside the replacement players who filled out rosters for two games before the walkout ended. They finished 6-9 in a season cut short by one game.
Walton acknowledged his role in the team’s troubles that year. “I’ve admitted I probably didn’t handle it very well,” he was quoted as saying by Gerald Eskenazi of The New York Times in “Gang Green” (1998), an account of the Jets’ misadventures over the years. “The strike probably hurt our team. Some of the coaches just let the new guys who came in do it by themselves, didn’t even coach them. My mistake was trying to coach the kids who came in, and some of the veterans resented that.”
In December 1989, “Joe must go” chants from the stands of Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, where the Jets played their home games, reverberated as the Jets lost to the Buffalo Bills, 37-0, to finish at 4-12. Walton was fired by Dick Steinberg, the Jets’ new general manager, who cleared out his coaching staff and the front office as well.
Walton’s Jets teams won 53 games, lost 57 and tied one.
After his time with the Jets, the Pittsburgh Steelers took Walton on as their offensive coordinator for 1990 and 1991.
He was hired in 1993 to build the first football team at Robert Morris College, which in 2002 became Robert Morris University. There he led teams that won or tied for Northeast Conference championships six times in his 20 seasons as coach, compiling a record of 114-92-1. The Robert Morris football stadium is named for him.
Joseph Frank Walton was born on Dec. 15, 1935, to Frank and Ida (Hendrickson) Walton. His father preceded him as a football player at Beaver Falls High School, Pitt and Washington and was also an assistant coach in the N.F.L.
Joe Walton starred for Pitt teams that faced Georgia Tech in the Sugar Bowl and the Gator Bowl, losing both times. In his seven playing seasons in the N.F.L., he caught 178 passes for 2,628 yards and had 28 touchdown receptions.
His survivors include his wife, Patty Sheehan Walton; two daughters, Jodi and Stacy, and a son, Joe, from his marriage to his first wife, Ginger, who died in 2007; and six grandchildren. He lived in Englewood.
Walton’s head-coaching career in the N.F.L. of the 1980s became entwined with the franchise for which he had starred in the 1960s.
In all but his first year as the Jets’ coach, Walton, his players and their fans were cast in the Giants’ shadow; the Jets played all eight home games each season at Giants Stadium after leaving Shea Stadium in Queens.
“It’s like playing 16 away games,” Walton said in “Gang Green,” recalling the lack of inspiration from the stands.
“After a couple of years, their big fan base from Long Island left, dropped out,” he said of the Jets. “No matter how many banners you put up, it’s still Giants Stadium.”
Jordan Allen contributed reporting.