As Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder was laying down a sharp "win now" mandate for his new team last week, Mort Zuckerman sat nearby at the press briefing, silent and smiling at his protege's performance.
Snyder, joined by Zuckerman, the globe-traveling publisher and real estate magnate, and Fred Drasner, a former Washington lawyer who oversees Zuckerman's publishing interests, is the new Redskins high command.
A multimillionaire marketing entrepreneur from Bethesda, Snyder, 34, is the Redskins' new managing partner. But at every pivotal moment, Zuckerman and Drasner will be his sounding board, his advisers and alter egos, he says.
It has been that way for the past dozen years, since Snyder first knocked on Zuckerman's door at U.S. News and World Report, a 23-year-old college dropout seeking funding for a campus magazine.
Remarkably, Zuckerman and Drasner staked Snyder to a $2.7 million loan, stayed with him after the magazine's failure wiped out their investment and have been repaid a hundred-fold since Snyder's direct marketing business took off.
"What's not to like?" said a pleased Zuckerman.
Snyder's ability to enlist Zuckerman, 61, and Drasner, 55, in his own dream is at the heart of his improbable jump into the owners' box at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.
"Mort is my mentor," Snyder said last week during a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors. "He's one of my first calls that I make when I need some advice and counsel."
Still, it may sound far-fetched to some Washingtonians to see Snyder in the driver's seat and Zuckerman in back.
Zuckerman's list of contacts and associates starts with presidents and prime ministers. His real estate development firm, Boston Properties Inc., owns trophy buildings in New York, Boston and Washington, earning him a place on Forbes magazine's list of U.S. billionaires.
But those who question Snyder's role misunderstand how the Redskins new triumvirate works, said Drasner, a top lawyer with the Washington firm Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge before joining Zuckerman in 1984, when Boston-based Zuckerman acquired U.S. News and World Report.
While Zuckerman and Drasner sit on the board of Snyder Communications Inc., "at the end of the day, Dan is the chief executive of the company," said Drasner, co-publisher and chief executive of Zuckerman's New York Daily News and co-chairman of his U.S. News and World Report and Atlantic Monthly magazines.
"We give him advice and counsel. Sometimes he makes the decision our way, sometimes another way. Either way, he lives with the decision and I get to say `I told you so,' " Drasner said.
Zuckerman added, "There are very limited areas where I'd see myself as a mentor. Basically, the guy has built his own company."
The marketing company that generated $815 million in revenue last year is the offspring of an experience that Drasner recalls "wasn't all that pleasant." Drasner, an ex-Marine, regularly chewed out Snyder over the phone as the money funding a slick magazine targeted at college students drained away. But, "through the darkest hours, my bet was that Dan would deliver," Drasner said.
Deliver he did. Snyder reinvented his small company by offering specialized marketing firms to Fortune 500 companies. By 1996, Snyder Communications was publicly traded, and Zuckerman and Drasner were seeing huge returns on their investment. Snyder, his sister, Michele, 36, Zuckerman and Drasner still own nearly 20 million shares -- about 27 percent of the company -- worth $500 million based on its closing price Friday on the New York Stock Exchange. The $2.7 million that Zuckerman and Drasner put into Snyder's company a decade ago has been repaid many times over, Zuckerman says. "I'm happy to say I went along for the ride," he added.
That ride is likely to continue with the Redskins, Snyder said last week. "What you're going to see is more of the same from us. We've been together for a long, long time."
"Mort and I essentially are investors," Drasner said. "Dan is the designated voting owner. We'll appoint a chief executive to run the business and sit in the owners box and hopefully watch the team get to the Super Bowl."
Snyder will control about one-third of the franchise, according to sources familiar with his bid. Together, Snyder, his sister and their father, Gerald, will own more than half of the Redskins, a Snyder spokesman said.
Zuckerman and Drasner have the remaining 40 percent stake in the team, according to sources, a figure that the new Redskins owners would not confirm. The two offer Snyder different but complementary skills, according to associates.
"Mort is a big-picture, global thinker," said Mark Jennings, a venture capitalist at Generation Partners in New York who serves on Snyder's board.
Drasner is a "hands-on guy" whom Snyder consults on all sorts of issues, Jennings added. Part of Snyder's success is that "he knows how to listen to these people. They have a highly functional relationship," Jennings said.
"Dan has a gauge that tells him when he feels uncomfortable about something, and when he does, he normally checks in," Drasner said. "He calls me. He calls Mort."
Their relationship includes some close, mutually beneficial interconnections. Zuckerman's Boston Properties owns the Bethesda office building where Snyder's company is headquartered. And two years ago, Zuckerman's U.S. News published a 39-page advertising insert containing Snyder Communications' annual report in a special edition delivered to Wall Street and major national businesses, charging the company a discounted price.
They also share a close friendship.
Snyder and Zuckerman ski together in Aspen, Colo., where Zuckerman has a lodge. Zuckerman, an experienced skier, takes the tough trails while Snyder, a beginner, has stayed on the bunny slopes.
They and their wives have vacationed in the Bahamas, or at Drasner's retreat in Upstate New York, or on Snyder's yacht, aides say. Sometimes they travel in Snyder's personal Challenger executive jet, with Drasner at the controls.
And it was Zuckerman who helped set up the first meeting between Snyder and New York real estate developer Howard Milstein, who was also pursuing the Redskins. Last year, when Snyder was trying to decide whether he could assemble enough of his own and others' money to buy the Redskins, he turned to Zuckerman for counsel, as usual. Zuckerman arranged a meeting between Snyder and Milstein through a mutual friend.
The result was a decision by Snyder and Milstein in November to join forces, with Milstein as the lead partner and Snyder holding a one-third minority interest.
But for all the counsel, clout and cash that Zuckerman and Drasner have offered, it was Snyder's business instincts that sealed the deal with the National Football League owners. This winter, as the owners' opposition to Milstein hardened, Snyder's stock rose in their eyes. While some owners felt threatened by Milstein's combative business ways, they didn't have that reaction to Snyder, who has a steely edge of his own.
The reason may be that tackling the NFL owners was just a new version of a challenge Snyder had figured out early on.
Snyder has personally sold his company's services to scores of Fortune 500 consumer products marketing executives, some of them twice his age. Since 1996, he has arranged a dozen mergers with marketing firms, most controlled by founders and insiders whom he persuaded to throw in with him. And before that, he had turned Zuckerman and Drasner -- two of the most demanding executives in the business world -- into allies and friends.
In his approach to the NFL owners, Snyder took a low-key, deferential tack. He didn't enlist politicians to press his candidacy, nor did he speak publicly about how he planned to run the Redskins. Milstein did both and lost favor for his perceived presumptuousness.
If there was a moment that distilled Snyder's suitability to own an NFL team in the eyes of his would-be peers, it came in March, when he addressed the owners in a closed-door session at their annual meeting in Phoenix as the minority party in Milstein's bid, league sources said.
Snyder offered some background about himself and his lifelong love of the Redskins and concluded by saying, "I just want to be like you." The comment sent a strong message that he shared the same interests and motivations as the men already in the elite club of NFL owners.
"He was very passionate about the Redskins," said one of those who attended the meeting. "He spoke about being a lifelong fan and this being a dream come true. He was very effective."
CAPTION: Dan Snyder in Atlanta, where NFL owners last week approved his bid to buy the Washington Redskins. At right is Fred Drasner, who with Mort Zuckerman owns a minority interest in the team.
CAPTION: "Mort is my mentor," Dan Snyder tells Washington Post editors and reporters at a meeting last week.