Jack Kent Cooke has built a financial empire from scratch. He numbers among his friends some of the most influential people in the world. He has vast holdings in real estate and the arts, a magnificent home, a life that most people can only dream about.

Yet he says he now is experiencing the "most stimulating and satisfying time I've ever had in my life" as the activist owner of the Washington Redskins.

In the two years since he severed his California ties and moved to an Upperville, Va., estate to assume control of the Redskins from Edward Bennett Williams, Cooke has immersed himself in his football team.

In the process, he has almost completely made over the Redskins, from changing head coaches to altering business policies and bringing his concept of financial order to the franchise. b

Although he would never say so, the Redskins have filled a need for Cooke. At age 68, fabulously wealthy but coming off a messy divorce that led to his decision to sell the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings and move to Virginia, Cooke was ready for new pursuits.

When the Redskins stumbled last season, his first as chairman of the board, chief executive officer and chief operating officer of the team. Cooke was more than anxious to tackle what he perceived as a quickly deteriorating situation that was destroying the future of the franchise.

And now, this clearly is Cooke's team.

He must be consulted on everything from major purchases to draft choices to trades. He has almost daily contact with General Manager Bobby Beathard, who must clear, among other things, all contract negotiations with him. He is concerned about matters big and small, be it the number of programs being sold at training camp or the condition of Joe Thiesmann's throwing arm.

Other than the Kings, who never fulfilled his dream of winning a Stanley Cup, Cooke's previous franchises were all either already successful or dramatically improved within short order under his guidance.

The Redskins, however, represent an apportunity for him to try to build a 6-10 club with aging players and chaotic front office into a winner.

"Few men get this magnificent opportunity," he said the other day, smiling broadly. "And I'm grateful. Very grateful."

How does a man who admits he is no football expert qualify as some sort of super general manager?

"My methods have worked rather well in my other businesses," he said, "and I find it very difficult to change the havits of a lifetime that have served me rather admirably.

"I believe that there is no mystery to any business known to man if that man is willing to exercise his utmost judgment and apply himself diligently to learn everything he can. Sports is just a general business practice with this (football) being a specific part."

Cooke has a favorite saying, taken from something John F. Kennedy once attributed to his father, Joseph: "Always beware of experts."

To Cooke, the expert always says, "This is the way it is done, because it's always been done this way." But he is convinced a wise man is one who knows how little he really understands about his specialty.

He says he doesn't find it at all absurd for him to decide the worth of a player about to be traded or how much an athlete should be paid or how high a prospect should be drafted. Weren't the Lakers champions under his ownership? Didn't the Kings improve with him at the helm? Didn't his soccer team win a title using his business philosophies? tDidn't his minor-league baseball team win?

To him, the Redskins present one more test, one more opportunity to solve a sports jigsaw puzzle, while also realizing a decent financial return.

That financial return is important. Cooke isn't in the sports business to lose money. He can pinch a penny with the best, although he is just as willing to pay fabulous salaries to those athletes he believes can bring him a championship.

The Redskins will make money, probably more than they ever have, this season, and not just because of a lucrative chunk from the NFL television package. The team salary level, for one, has dropped now that most of the highpriced older players are gone. And Cooke's new financial policies are geared toward less waste and more profit.

For the first time, the franchise is operating on a strict budget. The freespending days of George Allen are over. Cooke watches the books and cuts costs where he feels the club has gone overboard. Now, for example, scouts must fly in coach, not first class. And pocket-sized schedule cards were paid for by selling advertising instead of being printed at team expense.

Under Edward Bennett Williams, there was a much more relaxed approach, an informal atmosphere. And it was successful, at least for a while, as Allen took the Redskins to the Super Bowl during a string of playoff appearances. For most of those years, Allen was given virtually a free hand. As coach and general manager, he was in complete charge of affairs both on and off the field. Williams was in touch, but not closely until near the end of Allen's regime.

Williams didn't have the time or the inclination to be that involved. His law practice consumed most of his hours and, besides, his methods did not include such strict management. The Redskins won, made money and he was able to stay in the background.

Cooke, however, has neither the personality nor the desire to remain as detached. He doesn't critize Williams' methods, which turned the Redskins into one of this city's dominant institutions. But he is convinced his way, in the long run, will prove just as successful, if not more so.

Some of the changes Cooke has made in the organization can be seen daily at training camp, where Cooke makes frequent appearances. Williams confined most of his up-close looks at the Redskins to Sunday afternoons at RFK Stadium.

Gone in Coach Jack Pardee, hired by Williams but incapable of communicating successfully with Cooke. Pardee produced what Cooke thought was dull, unimaginative football. Cooke wanted excitement; last year, he got a losing team that bored him. So he sided with Beathard in a front-office power struggle and fired the popular Pardee, much to the dismay of Williams, who was not consulted about either that dismissal or the ensuing hiring of Joe Gibbs.

Only recently have Cooke and Williams resumed a somewhat more relaxed relationship. Williams' law firm handles the bulk of Cooke's tax matters, which bring them into contact. But Williams, who still is listed as team president, no longer has any real influence on club affairs.

The reorganized Redskin front office is built around Beathard, who had been sharing authority with Pardee. But a chunk of Beathard's business duties has been funneled to Gerard Gabrys, who has been promoted from comptroller to senior vice president and is emerging as a major figure in club affairs.

Gabrys, a tall, lanky, highly likable man who was formerly an accountant with one of the big five national accounting firms, has become involved in player negotiations for the first time. He also is the main business like between Cooke and Redskin Park. The club owner has a fondness fo CPAs, admiring their logical minds and orlganizational habits. a

Gabrys was brought to the Redskins by Williams, who named him to the Orioles' board of directors after buying that team. Gabrys is walking a tight rope betwen two powerful personalities, but he could have the proper temperament and skills to maintain his balance.

Although Beathard, who currently ranks as the leading wheeler-dealer in the NFL, got his way in the Pardee affair, his freedom has been acutely reduced now that Cooke, not Williams, is his boss.

"He's a more involved owner in the everyday operations of the club," Beathard said of Cooke. "I talked to Mr. Williams a lot but I talk to Mr. Cooke more. Mr. Cooke is around more, at Redskin Park, on the phone, at training camp.

"He's been with different sports teams for years and he has a lot of experience. He's someone you can call on when you need to talk about contract negotiations and other things that come up in sports. He'll listen to your ideas, but he also has ideas of his own."

Both Beathard and Cooke claim the new arrangement has worked well, pointing to all the deals and signings that have occurred since the coaching change. But others within the organization wonder if one day the Redskins might blow a trade because Beathard won't be able to give his approval until he talks with Cooke and the owner might not be available in time to save the transaction.

"Overall, he's given us what we want," said Beathard, whose free-spirited personality is a sharp contrast to Cooke's more organized ways. "We've got a heck of a coaching staff, freedom to make decisions, a lot of new players, a better team. He just wants to know before you do something why you want to do it. Don Shula (Beathard's former boss in Miami) was like that, too.

"They want to see if you have enough background information and enough convictions to justify your actions. They want to make sure it was a well-thought-out action, not something you'll later say, 'Why did I do that?'"

Since the hiring of Gibbs, who got the job in part becasue of his agressive offensive philosophies, Cooke has moved quickly to cut all links with the past and carve his influence on the team.

Beathard and Cooke wanted to rework the Redskins around younger players, and that is what Gibbs is doing. Most of the oldest veterans -- Ken Houston, Diron Talbert, Pete Wysocki, Terry Hermeling, Paul Smith -- are gone and new talent has been brought in to replace them. Beathard and Cooke wanted a staff of teching assistants, and that is waht Gibbs hired, thanks in part to a generous salary budget provided by Cooke. Beathard and Cooke also wanted to add speed in the backfield and shore up the defensive line, so trades were made for high-salaried players in both areas.

But how much patience will Cooke have while Gibbs molds this club?

Cooke says he is patient by nature, despite a public image of ruthlessness and impatience, an image seemingly reinforced by the Pardee firing. But friends of Cooke insist a losing season will not end the Gibbs' regime prematurely, that Cooke is willing to let this new Redskin era take shape before making any judgments.

"What Jack won't tolerate," said one man who knows Cooke well, "is incompetence. Then he is ruthless. He'll fire you on the spot. But when he thinks things are being done right, he can be cautious and patient."

There is no question that people in the organization remain frightened of Cooke/ Still, he has allowed the relaxed atmosphere at Redskin Park to continue while also declining to conduct a full-scale housecleaning of the front-office staff, even of those who openly sided with Pardee. He is demanding, inquisitive and overpowering, and his frequent appearances can be exhausting to those around him.

But the people who work for him also realize Cooke is willing to do what is necessary to turn the club into a winner again. Many players were afraid that budget controls would mean Washington would no longer be competitive in salaries. That hasn't proven true.

Cooke has told friends that he is convinced a foundation of intelligence and organization is being developed within the club.

"Let's just say," he replied when asked about that statement, "that I have a quiet confidence in the coaching staff and entire Redskin organization."