The House of Cooke
The Washington Post
For nearly two decades, John Kent Cooke remained a well-kept secret outside Redskin Park. His father got all the headlines and pictures in the newspapers and staged the elaborate weekly demonstrations of his stature at the celebrity-filled owner's box at RFK. Behind the scenes, John, as executive vice president since 1981, was running the team on a daily basis, while deferring to his father on the major financial and personnel decisions.
John's chief skill was that he knew, better than anyone, how to handle his father.
"John was responsible for my longevity there, and for other peoples'," says Bobby Beathard, the former general manager who built the Redskins championship teams of the 1980s. Beathard and Charley Casserly, his successor, both said that while the father was clearly the boss, the son had the superior grasp of all the changing details of the football business, particularly in the unsettling new era of free agency and salary caps.
More important, "John was so key because nobody knew his dad like him," Beathard says. "Every day I was in the office, I met with John. We prepared the budgets together. He would know what is acceptable and not acceptable to his dad. He made the job much, much easier." On issues that could have been difficult, Casserly says, "you always sensed that Jack and John had talked about things before."
John knew how to finesse problems and, usually, how to avoid confrontations. "I have seen Jack's temper," Beathard says. "But I have never seen John blow up."
Joe Gibbs recalls that when he became Redskins coach in 1981, he quickly learned that Jack Kent Cooke's legendary tirades were actually his calculated way of seeing what you were made of. "He was very strong. He knew most people were afraid of him, and if you stayed there, it was his way of testing you," Gibbs says. "And unless you stood up to him and said: 'Mister Cooke, we can't do that,' he would go off" in a tantrum.
His son knew that testing process quite well. John Cooke saw that people were fearful or disdainful of his father's volatile personality, but the key to understanding his father, he says, is that Jack was, above all else, a salesman who relied on his persuasive powers. "And when that didn't work," John says, "he tried bluster." When that bullish behavior earned his father the reputation of "curmudgeon," John says, "he relished it" and played the role even further.
"He had a great ego, God love him, and, to a great extent, he deserved having it," John says.
"Not many people knew my father. Sometimes, you had to be patient and let him spend his obstinacy, and come back the next day. Some people just took 'no' and left" instead of persisting.
If you worked for Jack Kent Cooke, John says, "you sat on the edge of your chair; you'd better. You didn't relax with my father, unless you were his son." In tense meetings, John says, he alone had the luxury of occasionally just standing up and announcing, "I'm leaving." He was the only one who could argue with the old man without worrying about his job. Privately, they needled each other. Father: "I can't afford to spend like you can. You inherited money." Son: "Inherited, my ass. I earned my money." Or,father: "I'm going to live to be 95." Son: "Stop threatening me."
Even John had his limits, though. On Jack's visits to Redskin Park, John often would manage to steer clear of him because some days it was best to take his father in limited doses. John rarely attended his father's team functions, such as his annual training camp barbecues, particularly in the years after his father took up with Marlene.
On personal matters, John, who went through a difficult separation and divorce of his own in 1988, knew it was futile to offer his father advice. "He was actually a very careful, patient man-except with women," he says. In his later years, Jack had nobody around who could convince him that he might be making dreadful mistakes in his personal life. He "listened to two people in his life: his mother and his first wife," John says. Often Jack would tell friends and family members that divorcing Jeannie was the worst mistake he'd ever made, and that he was a lonely man.
Within the family, it was clear that marriages number 2, 3, 4 and 5 were futile attempts to recapture whatever happiness Jack had enjoyed in his 42 years in his first marriage. But if anyone dared discuss it, the old man would cut it short by declaring, "My business!"
And John Kent Cooke knew better than anyone that there was no point in pursuing the matter further.
Outside, the Redskins offense in white jerseys is clashing with the burgundy-clad defense in passing drills. Inside Redskin Park, John Cooke, as usual, is casual and relaxed behind his father's desk. He wears an old-looking red cardigan sweater and an open-necked sport shirt. His gray hair is curling over his ears, he needs a shave and his leathery face is a shade darker after another weekend out sailing in his 42-foot sloop on the Chesapeake Bay with his second wife, Rita, his former secretary of nine years.
He commutes in a silver Mercedes two-seater convertible from his elegant four-story Georgetown town house to Loudoun County by 9 a.m., skips lunch and usually heads home by 4 p.m.-earlier during sailing season. His daily routine is similar to that of many busy executives: piles of paper, contracts, bid documents, expense forms, personnel decisions and correspondence to juggle between nonstop phone calls.
For a man worth more than $50 million and running a huge enterprise, he is a micromanager, a pincher of pennies, and proud of it. "This is a nice envelope," he declares to his secretary, Margie Locke, contemplating an unmarked parcel he has received. "Don't waste it."
Saving paper clips and recycling envelopes are only part of the lessons learned from Jack. "Any damn fool can spend money," the father often reminded him. "Watch every detail. The small things mount up, and the small things take care of the big things . . . If you don't watch everything that is happening, you are in trouble."
And so John watches everything. This day, he is cross-examining a slightly nervous Barry Asimos, the 26-year-old traveling secretary in his second season. John is scrutinizing expenses connected with the July training camp at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and Asimos is sitting toward the edge of his seat.
Asimos answers most of the questions satisfactorily. But he must double-check several matters and returns later to hand John an updated memo. "Excellent, Barry. Good job," Cooke says. Then he reminds Asimos that he must date every memo and place his initials on the upper right corner for the Redskins filing system.
"Yes, sir," Asimos says.
Despite John's easygoing manner, his father's demand for total respect and subservience still hangs in the air at Redskin Park. Many employees used to refer to the Cookes as "Mister Jack" and "Mister John," and some still use the terms. In John's office, "sir" is still heard almost as often as on a military base. Later that day, on Cooke's speakerphone, a Redskins manager's end of the conversation consists entirely of this: "Yes, Mister Cooke . . . Yes, sir . . . Yessir . . . Yes, sir . . . Yes, sir . . . Yessir . . . I agree, sir. Yes, sir."
John says he does not encourage yes men and welcomes disagreement and challenges, and even bad news. He again quotes his father's advice: "Tell me the bad news. A mistake is not really an error unless you don't correct it. You can fix things . . . You can send flowers, candy and a smile."
Later, John shows off the family salesmanship when an executive calls from Rupert Murdoch's Fox Television. The Sept. 14 opening game is scheduled for regional, rather than national, broadcast. "The league experts say, by God, that we are gonna be in contention!" John declares, his voice rising. It's another of those moments when he sounds just like his father. "And what we are going to do for the opening, it's going to be spectacular!" He reminds the Fox exec that ABC will broadcast nationally from the new stadium on Oct. 13. "Now I would love to have the opening of the stadium on national television if I were Mister Murdoch! I would want to have it first. I really would."
Still later, the target for salesmanship is the Rolling Stones. John is telling Jeff Klein, the new stadium manager, that he must use some hype to help extract a higher fee from a rock promoter planning an October concert at the new stadium. "Tell him how it will be the first rock concert ever at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium! In the nation's capital!" he says " . . . How it's 21,000 seats more than RFK . . . How much good publicity we can provide on national TV, local radio and TV, and the Jumbotron! We can promote all this."
John is asked whether a rock promoter is likely to be impressed with this pitch. He smiles and shrugs. "I don't know," he says, "It's bargaining. It's like buying a car."
Another day, the Redskins director of marketing enters John's office, waving a bottle of Coca-Cola. John Kent Cooke Jr., a boyish 29-year-old with a Harley, has come to present his father with his recommendation for the Coke-vs.-Pepsi decision for the new stadium.
"What do you think, dear?" John asks his son, using the same term of affection his father often used with him. John Jr. says Coke is the clear choice because its bid is higher and because Coke is already an official National Football League sponsor.
"This looks very good to me, dear," the father tells the son, signing the document. Then he reminds John Jr. that he must attach contingencies to the contract to ensure Coke's compliance with stadium rules. The son has to know such things because someday, his father hopes, he, too, will be running the Redskins, perhaps with his brother, Tommy, 27, a freelance photographer who plans to work for the team this season, and perhaps longer. If it stays in the family.
(continued on Page Four)