Stable Future for Redskins Is Cooke's Legacy
By Bill Brubaker
"I talked to him three times," said Gerard Evans, the lawyer and lobbyist who has been assisting Cooke with his 78,000-seat stadium project in Prince George's County. "There was a final bill in the [Maryland] general assembly [that passed Saturday] to allow a liquor license for seven days a week. He was very happy."
Cooke's death yesterday signals the end of an era in the Washington sports world. But it should have little immediate impact on the Redskins because Cooke's son, John Kent Cooke, has been running the club's day-to-day operations since 1981 and, in recent weeks, Jack Kent Cooke took decisive steps to stabilize the club's future.
On March 4, Jack Kent Cooke gave his coach, Norv Turner, a vote of confidence by extending his contract for three years, through the 2001 season. "I think Mr. Cooke has sent a message that we're going to have continuity," Turner said at the time. Cooke said he had never met "a more talented coach and motivator of men than Norv."
A week later, Cooke extended the contract of Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly through the 2000 season. "With the tandem of Charles and the finest head football coach in the league, I am convinced that the Redskins are ready to embark on an era of unsurpassed victories and championships," Cooke said.
Though the structure of Pro Football, Inc. the Redskins' corporate name should not change significantly, John Cooke will likely take on broader responsibilities, overseeing the franchise as sole owner of Jack Kent Cooke, Inc., which controls Pro Football, Inc. For 16 years, John Cooke has been the Redskins' executive vice president.
As for the new stadium in Landover, scheduled to open this fall, "There is no question that this will get built no matter what," Evans said yesterday. "Once the final approvals were made, I think the thing was on its way. ... It will get built on time and on budget. I think over 70 percent [of the construction] is finished."
John Kent Cooke, 55, has spent most of his adult life working for his father's sports and cable TV companies. In recent months, John Cooke has told associates he intends to keep the team in the family and maintain control of the day-to-day operations.
The seemingly smooth transition from father to son should come as no surprise. In a 1995 interview with the TNT cable network, Jack Kent Cooke said he expected to still be running the Redskins in 10 or 15 years, but that in 20 years, "I imagine my son, John, will be running them and, subsequently, my grandson, John Jr., will be running them." Today, John Jr. is the Redskins' director of stadium operations/club promotions.
Contacted at his father's home, John Cooke Jr. said yesterday he and his father would not be available for an interview.
John Kent Cooke was groomed as a sports team executive in the 1960s, working as ticket sales director of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, which his father owned.
When Jack Kent Cooke headed to Washington in 1979, John Cooke and his family followed, purchasing an estate at Byrnley Farms, a short drive from his father's spread in Middleburg, in the heart of Virginia's hunt country.
At Redskin Park, John Cooke's job has been to make a multitude of non-football decisions some big, some minuscule. An avid sailor who now lives in Georgetown, John Cooke keeps track of budgets and contract talks, for example, as well as negotiating radio network rights fees. He also has represented his father at NFL owners' meetings for more than a decade.
"I'm a very lucky fellow. . . . I don't think there is anybody alive who is more knowledgeable of professional sports in the country ... than my father," John Cooke said in a 1984 interview. "To be his son and to be as close to him as I am ... is very much like the painter learning under the master. ... [Someday] I want my father to see that these years that I have spent with him have not been wasted, that I have paid attention and that I've learned my lessons well."
Even as his health deteriorated over the past year (he had trouble walking and even grasping a pen) Jack Kent Cooke had the final word on major Redskins decisions. But in recent years, as Cooke devoted more time to the stadium project and maintaining his own health, John Cooke has assumed wider authority over the club's day-to-day operations. Jack Kent Cooke hasn't been to Redskin Park in several months and didn't attend the team's final two home games at RFK Stadium last season.
With the Redskins poised to move into their new stadium, the franchise should get a flow of revenue it never had in the past. Evans, the lawyer/lobbyist, said John Cooke has been "very much involved" in the stadium project's details. "He was out there [at the construction site] all the time," Evans said.
Still, people close to the Redskins and throughout the sports industry agree that no one can replace Jack Kent Cooke.
"His personal imprint was everywhere on the stadium," Evans said. "He picked the kind of trees [to be planted outside the stadium]. He loved evergreen trees" because "he said there should be green around the stadium all the time and he wouldn't have to clean up" fallen leaves.
On Saturday, Evans said, Cooke jokingly warned him of the consequences he would face if the Maryland general assembly did not grant the Redskins that seven-days-a-week liquor license.
"He told me that if we didn't get a license, I'd be hawking peanuts at his new stadium," Evans said, several hours after Cooke's death.
Staff writers Thomas Heath, Richard Justice and Dave Sell contributed to this report.