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  A Man of Riches Built His Team From a Trust Fund

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 1997; Page C1

When Norv Turner walked into Jack Kent Cooke's office for the first time more than three years ago, he was uncertain he wanted to be the next coach of the Washington Redskins. The Arizona Cardinals were offering a huge deal, and Turner knew that if he returned to the Dallas Cowboys as an assistant coach for one more season, he probably would have his choice of a half-dozen other jobs.

He had been warned by friends around the NFL that the Redskins were out of talent, a franchise that needed a major roster overhaul. Turner knew that a lot of good coaches had their reputations ruined by getting into the wrong situations.

Turner had those feelings before he met Cooke, before he heard Cooke speak of his commitment to winning, before he heard Cooke tell Turner that this was the job for him.

The two men met for about an hour, and when Cooke invited Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly to join the meeting, he said: "Meet the new head coach of the Washington Redskins."

In that brief meeting, Turner experienced the charm and persuasive powers that Cooke had used on dozens of players and coaches during a four-decade career in sports. He was the rarest of owners: a hands-on manager who nevertheless trusted the instincts and expertise of his experts, someone who was willing to spend millions and millions of dollars to make sure that his teams had the best players, coaches and facilities that money could buy.

As news of his death spread throughout the sports world yesterday, Cooke was remembered as a one-of-a-kind entrepreneur, someonewho could alternately charm and bully, someone loved by some and feared by some, but someone respected for the first-rate organizations he put together.

Current employees of the Redskins, beginning with Turner and Casserly, declined comment yesterday at the request of John Kent Cooke, who apparently will assume control of the team. But around the country, many others reflected on a colorful and successful life.

"I've always said he is the most brilliant man I've ever known," said Los Angeles Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn, who became close to Cooke during his ownership of the NBA team. "You might be in his office and he could be talking on one subject that might be concerning a million dollars here or a million there with a sporting event or team. The phone might ring and it's somebody else talking a totally different subject. He'd go into that, talking large numbers of dollars. His mind was like a trip hammer. It never missed a beat. I would sit with my mouth open."

During 23 seasons as majority owner of the Redskins, Cooke established the franchise as one of the best in sports, one that went to four Super Bowls and made 10 playoff appearances. As owner of the Lakers, his championship 1971-72 team won an NBA record 33 consecutive games and in 1979 drafted Magic Johnson, which laid the foundation for many more victories.

Yet in the nation's capital, it was his leadership of the Redskins that won him so many fans.

"We developed a real friendship," former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said yesterday. "He was a great sportsman for the sport. He always voted for what was best for the league. He fought blood and guts for the Redskins. He was a guy who started out in life and earned everything himself. The thing I remember about him the most is that he was always at his best when things were at their worst."

Gibbs remembered when his career began in 1981 with five straight losses. On the day after the fifth loss, he was summoned to Cooke's house and guessed he was about to be fired.

Instead, Cooke told him: "You're the right man for the job."

"He could have canned me in a minute," Gibbs said. "But he was always encouraging me when things were at their absolute worst. We are all really going to miss him, particularly the people in Washington. The thing I take real heart in is that I wrote him a personal letter three months ago — it was a real personal letter. I told him, 'We had a lot of great conversations and that I was looking forward to having more in heaven. He wrote me a letter back and said, 'You can count on it.' "

When Cooke recently rewarded Turner with a three-year extension, he referred to him as the best coach he'd been around in pro sports. When a reporter telephoned Gibbs to tell him he'd officially been forgotten, Gibbs disagreed.

"Let me tell you, that's the best thing about Mr. Cooke," Gibbs said. "He believes in his people and he has a great ability to focus on what's ahead. A lot of owners would want to let the coach hang on and twist in the wind. Mr. Cooke wanted Norv to know that he believed in him. That's a great thing."

It was former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard who hired Gibbs, and together Gibbs, Cooke and Beathard gave the Redskins one of the great runs any sports franchise has ever had. Cooke was asked to mediate countless Gibbs-Beathard disputes, and one of the things that pleased him about the relationship of Turner and Casserly is that they never asked him to settle a disagreement.

"He was a great owner," Beathard said. "He was always great to me. He gave us everything we needed to win. If you didn't win for him, you could never use him for an excuse. He made a lot of great memories possible for me — and for Redskin fans."

Former Redskins offensive lineman Mark May remember Cooke as someone who "made me laugh and also frightened me."

"He made me proud to be a man, proud to be a Redskin, just proud to be associated with that organization," May said. "There was a strength and character with Jack Kent Cooke. You could sit back in awe and watch him. I was a lowly kid from Upstate New York and he treated me like a man. You don't forget things like that."

Cooke had long since stopped attending NFL meetings except when he had a particular issue to lobby for. Still, he stayed in touch with several owners, and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was a frequent guest in Cooke's box at RFK Stadium.

Before his health began to fail last fall, Cooke occupied a spacious corner office at Redskin Park. He attended practices regularly and formed his own opinions about both coaches and players. When he died, he had led the Redskins through great days, and in recent years, not so great days.

But Cooke, the eternal optimist, was convinced that the bad times were over. Several times, he predicted 10 victories and a playoff appearance for next season. When he had left, he had given his team perhaps the best practice facility in sports and many believe his new stadium will be the same type of state-of-the-art arena.

"I admired his vision and he will always be remembered for his impact on professional sports," said Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, a friend of Cooke's. "My thoughts are with his family at this time."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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