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Burgundy & old pain
Cooke recalls sting of fumbling away Redskins to Snyder

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"I want to be buried in a burgundy-and-gold coffin. And when I'm gone, someone named Cooke is going to run this team. And when he's gone, someone else named Cooke is going to run this team."

-- Jack Kent Cooke, 1992

The last surviving son leaned forward and put his elbows on the stained mahogany partner desk, the same Canadian Victorian antique at which George Allen and Joe Gibbs used to sit across from his father. Built in the 1920s, the desk was moved 10 years ago from a spacious corner office in Ashburn into a muted-yellow cottage at the family estate just outside Middleburg.

On the roof of the cottage is a bow-and-arrow-toting Indian, a rusted-steel weather vane gifted to his father by George Preston Marshall, the original owner of the Washington Redskins. Same with the cigar-store Indian beside the door, "which I think George Halas gave to Marshall," John Kent Cooke said.

"At least that's the story dad always told me," Cooke said, sizing up the kitschy figure.

The first football snapped at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium -- now FedEx Field -- is on a bookshelf, above the chess set depicting the Redskins and Denver Broncos before Super Bowl XXII. Needlepoint coasters, each representing a 50-year arc of the team's helmet design, line the desk. Behind Cooke, through the sunlit window, lies the panorama of majestic green fields. The winery next door is teeming with Bordeaux grapes.

Personal wealth. Priceless mementos. Unending nostalgia.

Jack's son has it all -- all except the team.

When Jack Kent Cooke, the Redskins' flamboyant owner with three Super Bowl championships, died of heart failure in April 1997 at 84, his son was left to engage in an acrimonious auction that ended with Daniel M. Snyder, then a 34-year-old businessman, emerging with the Redskins.

The loss of the team, which his family had had a stake in since the 1960s, devastated John Cooke, enough so that he left the country, moving with his wife to Bermuda. He would not return for two years -- and only now, 10 years later, has he chosen to speak about working for his father and the resentment he still feels about having lost a franchise he always assumed would be his.

The team memorabilia throughout his estate might as well be old love letters stashed in a nightstand -- passionate reminders of a romance that ended 10 years ago, kept by a man who still can't let go.

"I think that if he had lived another few years, it would have gotten done," Cooke said of his failed quest to buy the team. "Unfortunately, we just ran out of time."

In two wide-ranging conversations at his Virginia estate, Cooke spoke at length about the auction in which he and Snyder became rivals for control of the Redskins. He revealed that he had held a clandestine meeting with Snyder, in which Cooke believed he would be courting a minority partner and was stunned when Snyder told him that he intended to buy the team himself. The meeting went badly, Cooke said, and ended with Cooke telling an associate that he no longer wanted anything to do with Snyder.

Through a team spokesman, Snyder declined to comment for this article.

Cooke also spoke of what he would have done differently if he had been the Redskins owner the last 10 years and of his deep disagreements over the way the franchise is being operated today. But, while bitter over losing the team, Cooke said he has nothing but admiration for his father, the man who made sure he would never want for anything in life other than the ownership of the Washington Redskins.

"Absolutely, I miss him," Cooke said of his father. "And I think he would be horror-struck of what has happened to this wonderful franchise we were privileged enough to run."

'12 wonderful years'

Next to the heirlooms and history, he is merely 68 behind the craggy mug of a seafarer. Yet the crevices in his forehead seem to smooth rather than recede. Like the Brad Pitt character in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," John Kent Cooke is a man appearing to grow young beside these old things.

"If you were there when my father owned the team," he said, "you felt a part of something much bigger than yourself."

From 1981 to 1992, the Redskins under Jack Kent Cooke -- and the coach who won his loyalty, Gibbs -- competed in five conference championship games and four Super Bowls, winning three.

The team played its games at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, and made legends out of names such as John Riggins, Darrell Green, Art Monk, Dexter Manley, Joe Theismann and a group of big, sweaty offensive linemen with mud-caked uniforms, known as the Hogs.

"Everything was perfect," Cooke said. "The stadium was old, dilapidated, crumbling -- it was wonderful. The last day there, after the last game, there were women in their mink coats out on the field to get a hunk of grass."

That extended period of revelry almost did not happen -- or at least would not have included Gibbs -- if not for what Cooke said was his own intervention with his father, who was prepared to fire Gibbs after the team's terrible start in the coach's rookie year and replace him with legendary Redskins coach George Allen. As Jack Kent Cooke rode home after the Redskins fell to 0-5 in October 1981, he turned to his son, the team president, and said he was going to make a change. He said he'd summon Gibbs and Bobby Beathard, the general manager, to deliver the news.

"Dad said to me, as we were driving back from the park, 'I think I'm going to get George Allen back.' " Allen had coached the Redskins for seven years in the 1970s, guiding the team to Super Bowl VII in the 1972 season, which it lost to the Miami Dolphins.

"And I said, 'Oh God, dad, you can't do that -- all hell will break loose!' " Cooke recalled. "He thought about it. And he decided not to do it. And then, all of a sudden, Joe starts to win. And starts to win in an exciting way, throwing the ball down the field. Then lo and behold, there were 12 wonderful years for all of us."

Beathard, in a telephone interview from Nashville, said Allen had been approached before the 1980 offseason, before Beathard persuaded Jack Kent Cooke to hire Gibbs. By the time the team had lost its first five games under the future Hall of Fame coach, Cooke "had stopped talking to me about what he was going to do," Beathard said. "I could have been on my way out, too. So I definitely believe that Mr. Cooke was thinking about bringing back George Allen then. Made perfect sense to him."

Jack Kent Cooke, after all, was used to embracing the bump-and-grind chaos of professional sports.

He once owned the Los Angeles Lakers and the National Hockey League's Los Angeles Kings. He built the Forum before selling the Lakers and the arena to Jerry Buss in 1979 after his wife, John's mother, who's now 94, won a record divorce settlement of $42 million. A self-made Canadian tycoon, Cooke paid for his first honeymoon while selling encyclopedias door-to-door along the way. He owned a minor league baseball franchise in Toronto, where a young John sold peanuts, and presided over the Lakers during their championship season in 1971-72 that included future Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.

"What I see in my memory are different scenes of my family, not just the Redskins but all of these things," his son said. "The height of my father's life, the epitome of it, was not the Lakers or that wonderful year that they had. . . . It was the 12 years put together that we had with the Redskins. My father was revered in town because of what he did with the team. In those days, we were the only team in town."

Then, a year before he died, Jack Kent Cooke told his son he would have to wait in line to buy the Redskins like every other millionaire interested in owning one of the NFL's most venerable franchises. Appointing estate trustees to open the bidding, he told his son, was the only way to procure the most money for a charity he wanted to establish: the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which affords scholarships to needy students who demonstrate the perseverance to finish school, which Jack never had.

Overshadowed by his father's outsize personality, John nonetheless had his hand in as many day-to-day operations of the team as his father. But as Jack grew frail, neither John's name nor his experience guaranteed he would inherit his Redskins.

"I remember the conversation; I had fully expected that it would stay in the family and I told him that, absolutely," said Cooke, who said he outlined his plan to his father about how he would partner with investors to ensure the team was kept in the family. "He was considering it before he died."

That did not change the fact that eight revisions of Jack Kent Cooke's will were made in the decade leading up to his death. It included a 1993 change that deleted a clause that would have awarded the team to his son.

'I was the runner-up'

John Kent Cooke said he never met Snyder before a friend from Arthur Andersen served as a liaison in 1997, soon after his father's death. All he knew was that Snyder had enlisted a partner at the now-defunct consulting giant to set up a meeting.

"I never heard of the guy," Cooke said of Snyder, who dropped out of the University of Maryland before he built Snyder Communications, which outsourced marketing for smaller businesses.

The two men, each accompanied by friends who arranged the meeting, walked into the first-floor dining room of a four-story office building in Fairfax, near the Merrifield Post Office, and ate breakfast, Cooke said. The meeting did not go well, according to Cooke and another person in the dining room, who gave an account on condition that his name not be made public.

"I was talking about the tradition of the Redskins and telling him all the things I thought were necessary to continue on, and I happened to mention that even though I was looking for partners, I was going to be the one to run the show," Cooke said. "That I was going to be majority partner and leave the team for my sons, both of [whom had] been working for the team for some time.

"After all," Cooke continued, "my family had owned that team for 38 years."

Snyder's response, which Cooke said included Snyder saying he wanted to leave the team to his offspring, stunned Cooke. "He said, 'Well, I don't want to do that.' . . . He was just totally insensitive to my position."

An hour after the meeting, Cooke said, he called his friend and said, "I don't want to have anything to do with that guy."

Months later, the NFL rejected a bid by real-estate mogul Howard Milstein and Snyder because it was secured by real estate, which wasn't easily converted to cash if needed. Snyder, one of Milstein's minority partners, then took the opportunity to form a group of his own investors to match their original offer. The bidding process was not reopened.

Cooke was outbid in the first round, and was never given the opportunity to bid again. "I bid $750 million, which I was led to believe by my advisers and my lawyers . . . was going to be very competitive," he said. "But it was a fait accompli. I was the runner-up."

In July 1999, Snyder bought the Redskins and the two-year-old Jack Kent Cooke Stadium for $800 million; today the team is valued at $1.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

By the spring of that year, the people, players, coaches and Sunday afternoons in Washington that had hallmarked Cooke's adult life were officially gone -- two years after his father had passed away. Losing the Redskins, and one of the seminal ties that had forged a bond between Cooke and his father, pained Cooke enough that he left for nearly two years.

"I was very disappointed with the whole thing," he said. "It was totally mismanaged from the very beginning. It was a textbook example of how not to do anything. And by the time it was all over, I needed to get out of here -- and I did."

Cooke and his second wife, Rita, his former secretary, left for Bermuda. They would not return until 2001, starting a vineyard and winery at Boxwood, his 150-acre estate near Middleburg. Cooke also owns three daily and 10 weekly newspapers in North Carolina, and a daily and string of weeklies in Florida.

He has sailed, golfed and regretted little over the past 10 years. Five years ago, he said, he engaged in serious conversations with Gabe Paul Jr., who was then the executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, about the possibilities of bringing a Major League Baseball franchise back to Washington, for which Cooke would have served as majority owner.

Asked whether he would still entertain the idea of owning a professional sports team, he added: "I would be only interested in it if it were in the Washington area. And I would prefer football.

"I've had so many other experiences in life that I am thankful for," he said, peering through wire-rimmed spectacles across the desk. Putting his fist down gently, Cooke added, "But, yes, I would have liked to own the team."

He bristles at the handling of the Redskins since the Cooke era. "Dan Snyder destroyed the reputation of this franchise," Cooke said. "I sure as hell don't like the way he gutted the organization after we left. And he commercialized the Redskins like my father would have never commercialized the Redskins. People brought cushions and pennants to the games. You know how they got those? My father gave them out at fan appreciation days."

Cooke also took issue with recent controversy over tickets. "Suing season ticket holders?" he said, incredulously. "My God, it's embarrassing. We would have never done such a thing."

Redskins officials have said the lawsuits, against individuals and companies trying to back out of long-term ticket agreements, were a last resort involving a small percentage of premium seat contracts.

Of this week's decision to hand over play-calling duties to Sherman Lewis, who was hired as an offensive consultant, Cooke added: "Total madness. You've now undermined the authority of your coach. You don't have to say you'd never fire him. But just for the sake of stability, I would give Jim Zorn a vote of confidence and then say, 'Let's see how well he does.' It's a shame they continue to operate so recklessly."

'Give a guy a chance'

Cooke's connection to the Redskins today is like that of any other fan away from FedEx Field -- the television. He shakes his head the way a disappointed parent might when asked his thoughts on the team.

"We were rebuilding the club with Norv Turner," Cooke said of the coach fired by Snyder 13 games into the 2000 season when the Redskins were 7-6. "You talk about continuity, but it's not just continuity, it's patience. You got to give a guy a chance. And the mistake that Snyder made is that he got rid of Norv too soon."

In six-plus seasons with the Redskins, Turner had a record of 49-59-1, including 14-17-1 in John Kent Cooke's two years as owner.

Cooke said he thinks the team's performance the past 10 years -- a 78-88 record under Snyder heading into Monday night's game against Philadelphia -- results from the management failure to have a long-term perspective on how to build a team.

Those who know Cooke's handling of the team during the two years the estate controlled the Redskins before the sale say he was far less brash than his father. As for whether he would have been an effective owner?

"I think he learned so much from his father [that] John would have been a great owner," Beathard said. "His dad wasn't a hands-off guy, but he wasn't a meddler. He didn't want to come over and want to watch films or tell us who to take. John helped me to show me how to approach his father."

Sonny Jurgensen, the Hall of Fame quarterback who now broadcasts the team's games, said: "John is a good man. But if his dad thought he was capable of running the franchise, I think he would have given it to him. They could have taken care of the charitable trust when John sold the team."

Cooke, though, refuses to blame his father. He said his father could not have given him the franchise and fund the foundation at the same time because of estate and gift taxes. His father was also doubtful that his son could raise the money necessary to buy the team because the family businesses were not as valuable then as they had been previously.

"Those last games my dad was carried into his seat," Cooke said. "He forced himself to the elevator door and he couldn't stand very well, and at halftime, the end of the game, win or lose, the fans would turn around and salute my father because of the way he ran his company. The way we ran the company. And that's the thing that was destroyed. And if [Snyder] doesn't win he'll never get it back."

Special correspondent Stephen Ball contributed to this report.

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