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  Tell Him It Couldn't Be Done, Cooke Did It

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 1997; Page E3

I knew Jack Kent Cooke, my friend for 40 years. Jack Kent Cooke was the three-word metaphor for the driven man — self-driven by his ambition to be a man of distinction who would make a weighty fortune, inspire respect and revel in the hum of murmurs that would be saying, "There goes Jack Kent Cooke."

He had this colossal ambition, with ego to match, and was an authentic genius in the art of the deal who parlayed fortunes in a variety of ventures. Yet the same man who was the hard-fisted negotiator was a pussycat in sentimental situations. Among children, he could be their fun-loving, adoring playmate, this man of many characters.

Jack Kent Cooke defied the image of the pragmatic pro football club owner. What to do about his coach, Norv Turner, who presided over a woeful collapse of the Redskins last season when they started 7-1 but finished 2-6 to miss the playoffs, exploding Super Bowl and playoff hopes? Did Turner get the thumb? Cooke extended his contract through the year 2000. And General Manager Charley Casserly, whose undistinguished draft choices put him at risk, also got an extension. Cooke liked to do these things sometimes. It pleased him to be different, the imp.

There were moments when he could be rude and arrogant but later he would show a kinder side. During a recent feud with The Washington Post over its coverage of the Baltimore Ravens, he denied Post reporters access to coaches and management personnel other than in news conferences..

When pressed for his reason for this act, Cooke said, "That's my business." It was Cooke at his brusque best. But later he was the charming host when visited by George Solomon, The Post's sports editor, for a discussion of the matter.

I knew Cooke in the 1950s, when, as the owner of the Toronto minor league baseball team, his name popped up frequently in the bidding for a major league franchise. Usually this involved the Cleveland and Pittsburgh franchises, with Cooke always seeming to finish second.

Cooke didn't have sufficient resources for a winning bid in that period. It led Frank Lane, general manager of the Chicago White Sox, to comment, "Jack Kent Cooke is the unwealthiest millionaire I know."

In due course, Cooke would cause Lane to eat those words as he turned one business venture after another — radio and cable communications, big league basketball and hockey franchises and real estate — into vast wealth in the hundreds of millions of dollars. When Cooke invested in New York real estate it was in character for him to make it no ordinary deal — he bought the rights to lease space in the famous skyscraper, the Chrysler Building, with which the name of Jack Kent Cooke would always be identified. When he opted to underwrite the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, he picked the fight of the century and then sold closed-circuit viewing rights all over the world.

In his promise to deliver a 78,600-seat stadium for Redskins fans this coming September, against the belief that it could be done in such a brief time frame, Cooke prided himself on a previous triumph. In Los Angeles, where he owned the basketball and hockey franchises, he simply solved a quarrel with officials of the city-owned L.A. Sports Arena and threw up the palatial Forum in nearby Inglewood in about a year. You didn't tell Jack Kent Cooke it couldn't be done.

Cooke had his New York lawyer, Bill Shea, handle the final details of buying control of the Redskins from George Preston Marshall. Cooke knew who to hire. It was Shea who shepherded a special bill through Congress to confer U.S. citizenship on the Canadian-born Cooke. Later, Cooke loaned Shea the money to buy 10 percent of the Redskins stock. He bought Shea out the next year at a profit — Shea's.

Randy Rouse, our mutual friend, and long-time pal of Cooke in the Virginia horse country, relates how Marshall once described to him his first meeting with Cooke on the sale of the Redskins.

Marshall: "You're interested in buying the Redskins from me for $350,000. Let me tell you what you're buying: The Redskins make $100,000 a year. That's my salary."

Cooke: "No problem."

Marshall: "You'll buy the Redskins and you'll be getting your name in the paper."

Cooke: "No problem."

Marshall: "You're also buying my house in Georgetown."

Cooke: "No problem."

Marshall: "And my apartment in town."

Cooke: "No problem."

Marshall: "My chauffeur and car are on the Redskins payroll and go with the deal."

Cooke: "No problem."

Marshall: "Welcome, partner."

With Jack Kent Cooke, there were no problems, no obstacles.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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