Fumbling the Redskins

THE GREAT ESCAPE: John Kent Cooke spent two years in Bermuda after Daniel Snyder bought the Redskins.
THE GREAT ESCAPE: John Kent Cooke spent two years in Bermuda after Daniel Snyder bought the Redskins. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Mike Wise and John Kent Cooke
Washington Post staff writer and son of former Redskins owner
Thursday, October 22, 2009; 2:15 PM

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

Cooke was online Thursday, Oct. 22 at 2:15 p.m. ET with Washington Post staff writer Mike Wise to discuss his enduring resentment over the loss of the Redskins, which his family had had a stake in since the 1960s, and why he thinks Dan Snyder has "destroyed the reputation" of the franchise.

A transcript follows.

Read Mike Wise's profile of Cooke.


Mike Wise: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining John Kent Cooke and me today. Between his winery, newspaper businesses (God bless anyone, by the way, who supports the newspaper business), he's a very busy man. So let's get right to the questions. I've got 45 min. or so to answer.


John Kent Cooke: Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here to answer as many questions as I can..........


Washington, DC: Why are you doing this chat?

Mike Wise: Because I love attention. : ). I know, that question was probably for Mr. Cooke. But I can tell you in all seriousness that anytime you get to interact with readers in these kind of forums, as a writer, it gives you a better feeling for what people are actually thinking -- as opposed to just editors and writers working in a vacuum.


Paul, MD: Mr. Cooke, I just wanted to let you know that I as a fan am extremely sorry your family does not still own the Skins. Your father built the Skins into what they are monetarily by what he did to make it enjoyable as a fan. His devotion was to his customers, the fans first. His not charging season ticket holders for preseason games, giving the opportunity to those on the waiting list reflected that and is in sharp contrast to the way the ownership operates today. My foregoing the family's 4 tickets that were held for decades is a testament to the fact that the experience is lost. As a dedicated fan since a kid -- through thick and thin -- I find it sad that I do not care what happens to the organization anymore. Life is more important than a game, and I can not take any enjoyment in giving my money to a man that sues fans in economic hard times when their money is needed elsewhere in their lives.

No question, just wanted to thank you and your family for the great years.

John Kent Cooke: It is a sad situation. Thank you for your kind comments.


Native Washingtonian...: ...whose blood runs burgundy (well, it used to...).

There's no other way to put it: the story about you broke my heart. The way Mr. Snyder has run this team is the polar opposite of everything you and your father did. You built something. He's trying to buy something. I have been a Redskins fan since the day I was born, but am finding myself sorely tested these days...

I did think the quote from Sonny at the end of the piece -- that had your father thought you could run the team, he would have left it to you, was out of line. (After all, he's well known to be in the pro-Snyder camp.)

While I don't think you would share exactly what you really think of Sonny and his comment, I am curious at your thoughts on it in general.

John Kent Cooke: Sonny was mistaken. My father could not leave the Redskins to me and the family for two reasons: he wanted the foundation to be significant and the size of his estate at that time was not as large as it was previously, and subject to estate taxes. When my father realized this he changed his will that had previously allowed him to pass the Redskins to my family and Elmendorf Racing Stables to my brother's family.


Washington, D.C.: Mike, I just wanted to say that this story was beautifully written and a pleasure to read.

Mike Wise: Thanks much. I hate to be one of those guys that says, "I couldn't have done it without my offensive line," but the bottom line is it's true. And my offensive line was Stephen Ball, a part-time staffer at the Post and an assistant producer on my radio show. Stephen came up with the original idea of getting Mr. Cooke to talk about the current state of the franchise and what's he's doing these days (which was also chronicled in many ways over the years very well by Tom Heath and Lenny Shapiro at the Post). He found all the stories written by Tom, Lenny, Tony Kornheiser, Peter Pearl, Mark Maske, etc., and from there we came up with what I thought were some good questions. Of course, he didn't have to answer Stephen and I. Because he did, because Mr. Cooke gave us a real piece of himself over about three hours and two interviews, well, he made the story happen for us. We were just happy to tell it.


Mt. Pleasant Mills, Pa.: How do I go about finding a bottle of wine from your winery?

John Kent Cooke: Unfortunately, we are forbidden by Pennsylvania state law to ship wine directly to the consumer. Raise hell with them and visit our satellite Tasting Room in Reston Town Center, Virginia.

John Kent Cooke: Cheers!


Welcome back: Mr. Cooke, I'm wondering why you went for so many years without discussing publicly what happened in the aftermath of your father's death. Also curious as to why you decided to speak now. Was it the stunning fall of the franchise that prompted you to speak out?

Either way, it's nice for us faithful to hear from you. Goes without saying that we truly miss the old days - and the old owner.

John Kent Cooke: Thank you for your nice comment. I decided to speak now because the current organization has had 10 years to prove themselves and failed. The failure was compounded with the way they have treated the fans by suing them and taking advantage of them by overcommercializing everything in sight.


Arlington, Va.: First of all, Daniel Snyder is the worst thing that could have ever happened to the Redskins. Despite the way he is running the Redskins organization, I think the biggest travesty is the fact that he sold the naming rights to the stadium in Landover. This stadium was Mr. Cooke's legacy, built with his own money, and its name should have remained Jack Kent Cooke Stadium to memorialize his life and death. It was he who brought the team to glory, and Danny boy who is bringing it down. How do feel about this?

John Kent Cooke: AMEN!


Washington, DC: Did you ever have an opportunity to meet Vinny Cerrato? What was your impression of him?

Mike Wise: Yes. He is a great radio personality. (Okay, I couldn't help it. This question I believe is for you, Mr. Cooke.)


Washington D.C: After seeing Norv Turner struggle in D.C, Oakland, and now San Diego do you still believe he was the right head coach after Richie Petitbon? Also do you think the amount of time he had to coach the Redskins was justified given his results?

John Kent Cooke: I believe Norv deserved a chance. He began to prove his ability in the 1999 season. By the way, I think Richie Petitbon deserved more time to prove himself. That was our mistake.


Washington, DC: John, in his recently-concluded chat, Post columnist Tom Boswell had this to say about your father:

"JKC was one mean old bird. A good owner. But otherwise, wow, what a piece of work."

I think a lot of people have this same impression. Would you care to comment?

John Kent Cooke: Tom Boswell obviously did not know my father.


Woodbridge, Va.: Mr. Cooke and Mr. Wise

How are you all doing? Mr. Wise, I just wanted to say you have done a fantastic job with yet another very insightful article. This article, coupled with your articles on Donald Brashear, Joe Bugel after his daughter passed away, and the article on Joe Gibbs dealing with his grandsons leukemia are my favorites of yours.

Mr. Cooke. I just wanted to say I felt the most interesting piece of the article was your first and only meeting with Dan Snyder. What was it about his actions/demeanor that day that caused you to see he was the wrong person to go into business with?


Mike Wise: Thank you very much. It means a lot when someone remembers a number of articles written. If the chathost is incredibly skillful, I bet they could give people links to those articles on this very chat. Or give you a link to the radio show from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 106.7 FM. But I'm sorry, I just can't be part of such shameless self-promotion in a chat like this. Instead, I will just say, Have you tried Boxwood Winery's Bourdeaux? Splendid, just splendid. I think the other part of the question is for you, Mr. Cooke.


WDC: Thanks for doing this chat Mr. Cooke. Do you have a favorite Redskins moment?

John Kent Cooke: John Riggins' run in Super Bowl XVII.


Reston, Va.: Mike,

First, love the radio show. E from Silver Spring = best caller.

Second, great piece on the Cooke's. I recall there was a battle between Howard Milstein and the NFL over Milstein's deposit of around 10 million after Milstein's bid was rejected by NFL owners. Did he ever get his money back?

And finally, just how much inheritance tax would John Cooke have been liable for? Couldn't he have taken a loan out with the NFL to pay that off and keep the team in the Cooke family? Thank you.

Mike Wise: Reston, thanks for the kind words about the show. As for whether Howard Milstein got his money back, nope, he didn't get a red cent.

Which, I believe, was part of the reason he sued for it afterward. Milstein actually got a guy to go to Bermuda and record Mr. Cooke, in an attempt to get Mr. Cooke to slander Milstein for legal purposes, and, of course, that's not how John Kent Cooke operates. So the spy never got anything and, hence, Milstein lost his court battle.

The second part of that question is a tough one for me to answer. Mr. Cooke, can you help on that one?


Vienna, Va.: Mike Wise, do you think there is any chance that Snyder takes his ball and goes home ? I am sure he would turn a nice profit by selling the team.

Mike Wise: The billion-dollar question. I don't believe Daniel Snyder will sell simply because he continues to make money hand over fist with the Washington Redskins' property.

But, if he is nothing else, he is a businessman. And at some point if your risk outweighs your reward, it becomes time to think with your head instead of your heart.

Now, is that three years, five years, 10, I don't know. But the value of the franchise has not exactly plummeted yet, even in down economic times.


Washington D.C. in the 35332: John, You said in the article and interview on Wise's show (both were exceptional by the way). That you would like to get back involved in owning a sports team again in the DC area.

First question I have is if you have considered or been approached about minority ownership in any of the franchises outside the NoVA baseball bid?

Also there are always attempts at developing spring football/development football leagues, like the UFL, have you ever thought about that rout, even just toyed with the idea in your head?

I know personally I would rather root for a Cooke owned non-NFL team over a Snyder owned NFL team, and I am probably not alone.

John Kent Cooke: Many thanks, but I prefer the major leagues.


Arlington, VA: Very occasionally, during the first Gibbs era, a story would come out about Coach Gibbs and the GM having to meet with your father at the Charlottesville residence. The stories (some told by Coach Gibbs himself) were always funny, because the meetings were always when there were serious issues on the team (e.g., arguments over personnel and/or possible trades), and Coach Gibbs always said that the attendees were always scared to death. Your dad was invariably described as "angry," but he heard everyone out and invariably he determined what needed to be done and told everyone to go do it (in no uncertain terms). Coach Gibbs always laughed about how fast he got out of there. Contrast that style of strong but hands-off leadership to the current meddling that goes on with the Redskins, and I think the problem is clear.

Do you recall any of those meetings?

John Kent Cooke: Those stories are true. Both Joe and Bobby when asked a question by my father answered by looking at me, not at him. Dad and I often laughed about it.


Taxes: How much inheritance tax would John Cooke have been liable for? Couldn't he have taken a loan out with the NFL to pay that off and keep the team in the Cooke family? Thank you.

John Kent Cooke: 55% in 1999 - another thing that should be changed to keep family businesses.


Baltimore: Mike, I enjoyed your profile of John Kent Cooke. He seems very much a gentleman (unlike others in positions of power at Ashburn), and I very much enjoyed the nostalgic what-if... what if the Cookes kept the team.

Until I hit this show-stopper...

"And the mistake that Snyder made is that he got rid of Norv too soon."

Ummm. Did he forget that at the moment John Kent Cooke lost the team, Norv had been the Redskins coach for five years. His record at that point was 33-46 (.413)...

And now, in the midst of his fifth post-DC season, his hometown paper yesterday ran this headline: "Norv Turner's Chargers are stumbling around without a leader."

But I guess he's developing. His career winning percentage is now a frothy .448.

I'm the last person to defend Dan Snyder, but lets not romanticize the John Kent Cooke years. He ran the team for a couple undistinguished years before Snyder won the reins. I don't recall a sense among the fans that the Redskins were well on the road to restoring the Glory Days when he left (though, of course, they weren't anywhere near as despondent as today).

Mike Wise: Is that a question? I don't know. They probably should have done then what they're not doing now: admitting they were rebuilding. After some down times, they made the playoffs with Norv, who won exactly as many playoff games as Joe Gibbs II. Did Norv have enough time? Sure. But do you really want to axe a guy at 7-6? If what came after was 9 years of legendary football, yes. After what people have seen around here lately, I think a lot of people would take Norv at this minute.


Apathetic Fan: Mr. Cooke:

Do you still watch the Redskins games? Do you root for the team to win?

John Kent Cooke: I am still a Redskins fan. Ask Mike Wise.


Alexandria, Va.: Mike, you don't put any credence in the theory that Snyder's losses in other ventures (6 Flags and Johnny Rockets) have forced him into crassly commercializing every aspect of the Redskins?

Mike Wise: I'm sure any tycoon whose other businesses are suffering wants to maximize the profitability of a business that is making money.

But to suggest he wouldn't have gone crazy with the marketing of the Redskins if his other businesses were doing well might be a little much.

I mean, what got Dan rich -- really rich?

Snyder Communications, a marketing outfit. It's what he knows. It's what he does. It's like asking a scorpion not to bite someone. It's his nature. Can't help it.


Palisades, D.C.: Mr. Cooke - I just want to thank you for speaking out about this issue. I grew up here in DC in the team's glory years, and remember the positive, unifying effect the team had on the city. I am heartbroken that my children won't have the chance to experience the fun and companionship that we all shared, as long as this idiotic napoleon complex owns the team. Best of luck to you in the future.

John Kent Cooke: Thanks very much.


washingtonpost.com: For Capitals' Brashear, Fighting's a Way of Life (Post, May 2, 2009)

Surrounded by His Linemen, Bugel Finds the Strength to Go On (Post, Oct. 12, 2008)

Gibbs Draws Inspiration From Grandson's Fight (Post, Dec. 26, 2007)


Question for Mike: How difficult was it (or wasn't it) to convince Mr. Cooke to talk to you, after he'd been more or less in hiding for all these years?

Mike Wise: Well, he really didn't see any reason why anyone would want to hear from him at first -- which showed his humility.

Secondly, because of all the great work Thomas Heath and Lenny Shapiro had done chronicling Mr. Cooke's life and times, I wasn't sure how candid he would be with two people he really didn't know or come to trust yet.

And when Stephen Ball and I drove up to his estate, well, we were lucky he did.

We frankly did not expect Mr. Cooke to be that candid and open. It wasn't until we walked out of his estate and started driving that we looked at each other and said, "Holy $%#@! That was some pretty powerful stuff."

So, if I hadn't said it enough, thank you again, Mr. Cooke. You made our day.


washingtonpost.com: The Mike Wise Show: 106.7 The Fan


Washington, DC: This may well be the question foremost on Skins' fans minds these days: in a situation such as this, where an iconic and historic sports franchise is being ruinously managed, is there any possible recourse for a change at the very top? Could the NFL commissioner for instance come to a determination that Washington was being so poorly served by so wretched an owner that control of the club could be seized?

John Kent Cooke: This is almost impossible to do since the league is owned by each owner. The commissioner can penalize ownership if warranted.


Bethesda, Md.: Comment/ The story was great, I have been saying all along that it was the fact the team was allowed to even be taken out of the Cooke Family, although I respect John's admiration of his dad, senior Cooke did the long supporting fans no favor, but wish somehow someone would get Snyder to talk to fans, apologize and offer a plan for a REAL GM with a chance of 5 years. Snyder got 10. Thanks

Mike Wise: Thanks for the comment. If Jack Kent Cooke knew the franchise would be where it is today, I gotta think he would have found a way to give it to his son. That's just me. What say you, Mr. Cooke?

John Kent Cooke: Mike, there was a way as I described to you in our interview. The League changed the rules to allow a majority partner to have 20% of a club instead of 50% as previously. My father and I were discussing this and unfortunately he died before we could implement it. This is how Dan Rooney was able to purchase the Steelers.


washingtonpost.com: Read Mike Wise's profile of John Kent Cooke: Burgundy & old pain: Cooke recalls sting of fumbling away Redskins to Snyder (Post, Oct. 21)


Question for Mike: Is it difficult to write an objective story like this when you're used to giving your opinions in a column and on the radio and TV? Or do your opinions color your reporting, interviewing and writing on a piece like this?

Mike Wise: Great journalism question.

I think it would be wrong for me to say my columnizing on the team had no effect on my reporting and writing of the story. Same goes with my radio show on 106.7 FM. Certainly I gleaned things from my column reporting that helped me form ideas about the story.

Whether those biased me or not, I would say no.

This was a portrait about a person who has great affection and love for the team, a person who just happened to own the team and whose late father is an iconic Washington name.

So, in that vein, I would say I looked at what Mr. Cooke said and put it in that context. If I was truly all about turning it into a hit job, I would have taken the quotes about Dan Snyder and put them in the first few paragraphs. Shoot, it probably would have gotten more play in the media if I had.

But Mr. Cooke's resentment of Dan Snyder was a small part of his story, a piece of a much-larger story: that of a man who truly was heartbroken when he didn't get to oversee the franchise his father oversaw.

Thanks for the question. Very thoughtful.


John Kent Cooke: Enjoyed the chat. Hail to the greatest fans in the NFL!


Ashburn: WWJD? Given the current situation with the team what advice would you give the current owner, players & fans. What would Jack Do? What do you suggest?

Mike Wise: I believe Jack Kent Cooke would have brought back George Allen -- the senator. No, really, I'm wondering Mr. Cooke, would you or your father have brought back Joe Gibbs?

John Kent Cooke: I think Dad would look to the future not the past.


Charlotte, NC: Mr. Cooke, you wouldn't happen to have oh, say $1.6 Billion lying around anywhere, would you? (hint, hint)

Mike Wise: Okay, this is Mike. I'm wondering too, Mr. Cooke? And unlike most readers, I don't want you to buy back the team. I only ask that all donations be made to the Mike Wise Fund for Journalists Who Get Their Facts Wrong.

John Kent Cooke: Don't do it!


Olney, Md.: Can you explain the meeting between Snyder and Cooke? I thought Snyder was Milstein's minority investor. Did they meet before Snyder was Milstein's minority investor?

Mike Wise: Milstein was not involved when Mr. Cooke and Dan Snyder met in Fairfax in 1997. He became a minority investor later.


Rockville, Md.: Mike and Mr. Cooke - What do you tell fans of this once proud franchise who took those glory years for granted? Surely I was one of those individuals and now I am certain that the best of times are all in the past.

Mike Wise: I would tell fans this: remember those times, keep them in your heart always. But it's time to move on.

You can't let memories from two decades ago rule your feelings today. It's like hanging onto a relationship that was over years ago.

Judge this franchise on their last good moment -- 2007, when they made a great run to get to the postseason but couldn't beat Seattle and advance to the next round.

Judging it on anything else is unfair to the current players and people who shouldn't have to be walking in anyone's footsteps but their own.


Charlottesville Va.: If you were owner of the team would you ever consider moving away from the obviously offensive name "Redskins." If not, why?

Mike Wise: I'll take this one for Mr. Cooke. I think I would change the nickname. And it's not because I'm on my usual change-the-name-because-you-wouldn't-call-them-the-Blackskins kick. No, if you don't change the name the current state of the franchise will besmirch the name forever, causing John Riggins, Darrell Greene to be lumped in with those 2009 'Skins. Though I'm sure Mr. Cooke would disagree.


Mike Wise: Thank you for being on the chat today with Mr. Cooke. It means a lot that many of you not only took the time to read the story written by Stephen Ball and I but that you actually took the time to ask real thoughtful things during the chat. Have a good Friday.



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