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Cooke, Gibbs Forge Friendship, Winning Ways

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
Oct. 25, 1991

One is a self-made billionaire who owns real estate, newspapers, television properties and race horses. He's a voracious reader, antique collector, wine connoisseur and owner of a stable of Tennessee Walking horses. He's tough and demanding, both of himself and those around him.

The other is a football coach who admits to not reading much besides the Bible and the sports page, isn't much for movies or the theatre and might not know Oliver North from Oliver Stone. He has written a book that details his failures in business and fulfilled a dream this year by putting together a NASCAR auto racing team.

Theirs is a friendship that no one could have predicted. Joe Gibbs still remembers the jitters he had more than a decade ago when former Washington Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard ushered him into a hotel room to meet team owner Jack Kent Cooke. He remembers Cooke asking his new coach something about reading habits and Gibbs stammering a reply about not having good ones.

Gibbs was so intimidated that when Cooke visited Redskin Park during that 0-5 start in 1981, he assumed he was about to be fired.

Ten years later, their relationship, having withstood both the joys of three Super Bowls and the tests of several tough losses, is the foundation on which the Redskins are built. Gibbs said it began as a business relationship that has grown into a friendship. Cooke said it began as mutual respect and has never wavered.

"To have a good relationship with anybody you've got to go through the good and bad, and we have," Gibbs said. "Going through the tough losses, the losing season, that sort of thing. . . . It builds a relationship. How do you know if you have a good friend if you haven't been through something tough? How would you know? The friendship hasn't been tested until you have some adversity, and I've told Mr. Cooke this. This one has been tested and it has withstood the rough times. It has been a growing relationship."Best of Times, Worst of Times

In this season when the Redskins (7-0) are off to their best start in 51 years, Gibbs said he'll never forget how Cooke reacted during the worst of times, especially that 0-5 start in 1981 and a crushing loss to the winless Dallas Cowboys in 1989.

"The day after that Dallas game was the strongest I've ever seen him, and it came at a low point for me," Gibbs said. "He came out the next day, and he has a favorite saying: 'I'll bleed for a while, and then I'll get up and fight again.' I'm thinking to myself that that's probably the last thing you expect an owner to say.

"I've told him that how he reacts in times like that is what I appreciate the most. He's been there. He's lost a few. He knows what life's all about."

Their relationship these days is cut and dried. Cooke visits Redskin Park about twice a week, and during practice, Gibbs joins him at midfield and updates him on what's right and wrong with the team. He consults him before any roster move and before hiring someone.

If there's a trade or a signing or a move Gibbs and General Manager Charley Casserly want to make, they explain it to Cooke. If Gibbs and Casserly disagree, they each make their cases to Cooke, who serves as arbitrator.

Cooke may disagree with both of them, but Gibbs said: "If we go back to him two or three times, he'll weigh that. There's also times when he has just said, 'No, we're not going to do that.' His instincts are usually right."

Cooke asks questions. Why is this guy playing? Why isn't that guy playing? Has this guy lost a step? Are you sure you want to keep this guy? The amazing part -- the part that makes him unique in an era when owners often act as both coaches and general managers -- is that Cooke listens. He has opinions, but he almost never overrules his football people.

"Occasionally, I will offer advice that may be contrary to what they intend to do," Cooke said. "I constantly allow them to change my mind. They know better. I'm not on the firing line. Joe knows better about certain things. I can ask because we have a rapport, an understanding, a genuine affection for each other. It enables me to ask him leading questions. Joe accepts that as coming from not just an interested inquirer, but from a fellow who has been in professional sports since 1951."

Gibbs: "I've found he has great insight. He has said things to me that dumbfounded me. They were so off the wall. Something would be going so good and he'd say, 'I'm telling you, that's a problem over there.' Almost every time, he has been right."Giving Credit Where It's Due

Cooke said he's hesitant to be interviewed on the subject because it might look as if he's taking too much credit for the success of the organization. But almost every conversation with the people who run the Redskins goes back to Cooke, his management style and his hunger to do whatever is necessary to win. He's not the protoype sports owner in 1991. He does not negotiate contracts. He does not stand on the sidelines and pal around with his players. He does not hug his coach at midfield.

Yet there may not be a more opinionated owner in sports. The people who've sat across a negotiating table from him say he can be extremely difficult and stubborn. But the people operating the Redskins -- and various agents and officials with other pro teams -- say he probably is the best owner in sports.

It's Cooke who allowed Casserly and Gibbs to spend about $3 million on Plan B free agents even while knowing most of the signees would end up on the waiver wire. Indeed, the Redskins probably spent some money badly, but they also found five players who'll start Sunday against the New York Giants.

It's Cooke who okayed the $6 million signing of free agent Wilber Marshall even though he was skeptical about the deal, especially because it meant surrendering a pair of first-round draft picks.

Likewise, when the Redskins debated whether to keep veteran running back Gerald Riggs this summer, the arguments were over how many carries he'd get and if his presence would rob youngsters John Settle and Ricky Ervins of playing time. Gibbs said that Riggs could be a valuable part of the Redskins, so Riggs stayed. His $1 million salary for a reduced role apparently was never a factor.

"Never," said a team source. "Mr. Cooke wants to know, 'Can he help us?' "

Similarly, the Redskins kept running back Kelvin Bryant and his $750,000 salary last season even though he was going to be only a third-down specialist. Cooke may have thought it cost too much to bring Doug Williams in as a backup quarterback in 1986, but when Gibbs and Beathard persisted, Williams was signed.

"One of the main ingredients of the relationship is that I do not dogmatically interfere with the proposals they advance to me," Cooke said. "I generally say, 'If that's how you feel, go ahead.' Occasionally, I'll say, 'Go ahead with it. I don't agree with it, but go ahead. Do it your way. You're responsible.' " A Hands-On Approach

Ask Cooke about the role of an owner and he says he operates the Redskins about the same way he operates the Chrysler Building, the Los Angeles Daily News or any of his other enterprises.

"I hire the best people I can afford and the best people I can find to run the various divisions," he said. "I ask that they keep me informed of what they're doing, and they must do that. Nowadays, it's called hands-on operation. I simply want to know what's going on. But I rely on their judgment to do what they think is best."

He speaks fondly of both Gibbs and Casserly.

"I think the respect, the mutual respect, began almost that first night at the Waldorf Towers," Cooke said of Gibbs. "I liked him within 30-40 minutes of conversation. I respect the man, his intelligence, his talent as a coach and his integrity. I would like to think that is reciprocated."

And Casserly "is one of the most persevering, hard-working men I have in the entire company," Cooke continued. "He just won't give up. He's a bulldog. He doesn't understand quitting hours. He just works until the job is done. He's been a marvelous learner in the art of negotiation, which I think I have some abilities at. He's learned quickly and he's very intelligent."

Rumors surface about once a season that Gibbs is considering retirement. Cooke laughs. "I don't know how much longer I'm going to live, but if I knew, I'd say he'd coach the Redskins at least that length of time, plus another 10 or 15 years. You hear this stuff about burnout. That's the most asinine thing I've ever heard of. He would burn out if he weren't faced with this intensity. He thrives on this. It's fodder for him. Same as I do and most of the successful men I've ever met in my life. Casserly is the same way."

Gibbs said he has never forgotten how lucky he is to work for an owner who has made winning the first priority no matter the cost and an owner who allows football people to make football decisions.

"I'm one of the most fortunate guys in coaching," Gibbs said. "I think anybody could have come here and been successful because of him. Some of my friends got jobs other places and they didn't have the same kind of support. You're not going to win in those cases. I happened to come to a place with someone special. He understands the role of an owner better than anyone I've been around."

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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