By Mike Wise
Thursday, August 28, 2008
A private jet belonging to Daniel Snyder landed at a small airport in Iron County, Wis., on Friday morning, Jan. 25. Greg Blache, sequestered in the retirement home he built with his wife, Lynn, eventually hopped aboard a whirlwind plane ride. His 12-hour journey to the owner's mansion and back would irrevocably alter the course of the franchise and fracture a deep friendship between two proud, stubborn men -- one of whom returns tonight, with the visiting team.
Cue "The Godfather" theme. This is how it went down.
Blache, a defensive coach then on the verge of turning 58, had decided to retire two days earlier, knowing in his gut that Gregg Williams, the head of Washington's defense and the man who brought Blache here to impart mayhem on a football field, was most likely not going to succeed Joe Gibbs. He and Lynn even made the announcement to friends that evening at their neighbors' home. Over homemade pasta, they clinked glasses of supermarket red wine with other couples and their families.
The topic of conversation at the dinner party essentially became, Greg Is Finally Getting Out and Having Time to Hunt and Spend with Family. The couple arrived home at 10:30 that evening, feeling their future was set -- until the phone rang at 12:30 a.m. and a groggy Blache answered.
It was Vinny Cerrato, the general manager.
"Hey, Dan wants to talk to you," Cerrato said.
"I'll be back in the office on Monday," Blache replied.
"No, Dan needs to talk to you tomorrow."
"Vin, I'm in Wisconsin. I can't get back."
Snyder got on the phone.
"Hey, I need to talk to you. Come over to my house, we're eating dinner tomorrow. I'll send a plane. What's the closest airport?
"What?" Snyder said. Blache had to spell out the airport closest to the town of Mercer, Wis., which bills itself as "The Loon Capital of the World" -- pop. 1,732 at the 2000 census.
Blache had no idea what to expect as he arrived in the Washington area and rode by car service to Snyder's palatial Potomac home for supper that Friday night. He only knew neither Snyder nor Cerrato had returned Williams's calls for two weeks as a parade of candidates had interviewed for the job Williams believed was his after Gibbs's second retirement.
With only hunting clothes and sweats at his Wisconsin home to wear to dinner, Blache was forced to buy work pants with cargo pockets at a hardware store, where his wife picked out a lovely green plaid flannel shirt. He found brown socks to match his loafers near the rat traps in the back.
As he entered Snyder's foyer, a doorman, clad in suit and tie, looked him up and down -- "Like, 'Who is this bozo?' " Blache recalled.
At Snyder's home, Blache quickly learned Williams was out, the evening before Snyder would tell Williams. Snyder also implored Blache to take the job that, at least contractually, Williams still had as head of the defense.
"They had made up their minds [Williams was out] before I walked in the door," Blache said. "That decision was made whether I took the position or not."
"I was disappointed he didn't get the position, because I thought he was [going to get it]. Everything would have been perfect -- you know what I'm saying?"
Within hours, Blache had shifted gears and wanted back in. Snyder's sell job was that good.
After his decision to remain was made, a perception developed that Blache was thrown oodles of cash to replace Williams and not retire -- that everyone has a price, and Snyder effectively met Blache's.
"I got a minuscule [raise], literally minuscule," Blache said of Snyder's offer. "That night, he said, 'This is what I'm offering you because you've always been overpaid.' I said, 'All right, that's a real recruiting line.'
"Look, he's honest, he's real and he's got a heart nobody understands. He sold me on not having a Super Bowl ring and being there for the players and coaches. For me to come back and have a chance to get him a ring and help the players get a ring is a mission of mine and it's something that appealed to me. He didn't appeal to my mercenary side at all -- at all. He went strictly to the things that emotionally touched me."
Snyder also connected with the Blache who had grown up in the outdoors of Louisiana, the part of him that has photos of a mammoth 12-point elk in his office and of Blache in the snow, straddling a buffalo he had hunted and killed.
That night the owner handed Blache "a beautiful shotgun -- a piece of art," he said -- a Beretta over-and-under -- the Lamborghini of firearms.
"What if I retire?"
" 'If you retire, it's a retirement present,' " Snyder said. " 'If you come, it's a present.' "
Blache said his eyes welled up with tears.
"He knew me," he said. Pausing between each word, enunciating, Blache again said, "He knew me.
"The guy's a billionaire for a reason. He knew what touched me. And he gave it to me no strings attached."
Blache signed the contract that evening, effectively taking the job his friend would not be relieved of until the next morning.
Williams called Blache on Saturday morning, Jan. 26, before he met with Snyder for what would be their final encounter -- a "very, very hard phone call," Blache said. "I could not tell him what I knew because I was instructed by my employers to wait till a period of time," he said.
Like the mafia, it is said pro football is business, not personal. But privately, Williams is still wounded by the perceived betrayal.
"Yes, we have spoken on more than one occasion since then," Blache said of Williams, acknowledging the relationship is not the same.
It's fair to ask: How does Williams's close friend and top lieutenant not inform -- either personally or through a liaison -- the man who brought him in that he had been asked to essentially take his job? That, in NFL parlance, Williams was about to get whacked.
"If you're ever in position of authority, you understand what it is when you tell somebody something you expect them to honor your word, that you can't run back and tell your friend," Blache said.
Pressed, Blache added: "Bottom line, me taking this job had nothing to do with Gregg. They had the body buried and put away. There was no CPR to do, believe me, because I tried CPR.
"Was I going to let the rest of the staff and the players down? Because if I didn't take it, they brought somebody from outside, that person wants other people and other players and the continuity wouldn't be there."
When Blache sees any one of his three daughters, he says, "Always do the right thing," and they repeat it back to him. "That was the lecture," he said. "I often did the right thing for the wrong reasons, because it was the right thing. This, I felt like I did the right thing for all the right reasons.
"I felt good with it. But I felt bad for Gregg."
The night Blache was handed that Berretta over-and-under shotgun, Snyder moved decisively toward a future without Gibbs. And though everyone involved in the cloak-and-dagger game that evening might be better off today, it came at the cost of a real bond between two good men who need to reconnect again.
"Look, you work with somebody over a period of time, you show them who you are," Blache said of Williams. "And if over that period of time, he doesn't think you're a man of integrity, then that one instance is not going to make a difference.
"We spent a lot years here together in this office and a lot of hours," he said, recounting the events of last winter in his new corner office, which used to be Williams's.
"If I didn't prove myself as a man prior to that time, then he has a right to feel any way he wants to feel. If I did prove myself with integrity prior to that time, once the emotion passes he'll recognize who I am."