One nice thing about winning lots of games after you've lost lots of games is that you can laugh at the way it used to be. Such as early last season, when Jack Kent Cooke came to RFK Stadium to watch his Redskins go 0-5 for an unknown assistant coach he'd hired to replace an old George Allen crony who had been coach of the year the season before Cooke fired him.
Not to get too mushy about this season's glories, because he knows the 49ers went south in a hurry, but Cooke says he's never had as much fun in 30 years of owning sports teams and he has an idea (whispering it almost, so not to offend the gods of chance) that the Redskins will be good for a long time.
"Is it possible--I don't know--that the San Francisco 49ers and Bill Walsh caught lightning in a bottle?" Cooke said this week. "Joe Gibbs and his incomparable coaching staff didn't have to catch lightning in a bottle. They're building a house on solid ground, whereas some teams may have built on sand, saying, 'To hell with tomorrow.'
"It's possible we're building for a good future. As example, we are accused of having no stars. We have stars. Many of our players are all-pro material. It's just that they are not yet recognized as such.
"This team is arriving, and I am glad it hasn't arrived fully yet, because when something arrives, it begins to leave. As long as we play as a coordinated, cohesive whole, we can compete with any team. Not only compete, but, in this season at least, win 90 percent of our games.
"I have never enjoyed the hobby of owning a sports team as much as I am enjoying these Redskins. In baseball, soccer, hockey and basketball, my teams have won many championships. But, truly, this team transcends all of them for satisfaction and enjoyment."
Return now to those dear, dim, departed days of long ago--like last October, when the Redskins were 0-5.
Folks around this town, well acquainted with incompetence in high places, thought Cooke had bollixed up their most precious institution. Here he was new in Washington, only freshly arrived from California, and he displaced the familiar Edward Bennett Williams as the visible ruler. First thing he did, practically, was fire Jack Pardee, who was hired by EBW (with the consent of Cooke, the 87 percent majority owner).
Second thing Cooke did (without asking EBW) was hire Joe Gibbs, whose anonymity was great and whose first five games were not so great.
So at 0-5, everybody put two and two together. Hey, Cooke's in charge. Hey, he fired Pardee and hired this dodo from San Diego. Hey, this Cooke, let's go stand in the parking lot and tell him what we think.
"Going to the stadium was all right," Cooke said this week, and he semi-laughed, the way you do remembering how funny the dentist's drill sounded last time, "because I went early when there wasn't anybody there except the fellow selling programs and he'd say hello.
"But then, if I judge it correctly, even that fellow began looking at me with a jaundiced eye.
"It was coming out, after we'd lose, that was a hardship. The things people called me. Not your ordinary curse words. These were words of the vilest stripe. Really. What was I to do? I simply put my head down and went to my car."
Dolly Parton said, "If you want to see the rainbow, you gotta sit through the thunderstorm." For Cooke, the thunderstorm that was 0-5 has moved on (to Philly, judging by the standings). Now he sees rising over RFK a rainbow so pretty it will help the customers forgive the offense of this half-season in which "they were disenchanted, either by the players or the owners."
Cooke won't say how many Redskin customers returned season-ticket seats this year (about 3,000, this newspaper has reported). "Under the circumstances, I'm not disturbed by those returns. Those people will be back because football is still the most satisfying, exciting game in America. The NFL resurgence next season will dwarf any year in history."
Anyway, nearly all the returned tickets were resold; Redskin attendance fell 160 a game.
"The Redskins are unique," Cooke said, trying to explain this season's success, "inasmuch as we operate much like hard-working, intelligent, in-company executives--with the board of directors being the assistant coaches, the executive vice president being Bobby Beathard, the president being Joe Gibbs and the chairman of the board being me.
"Most teams--most--in professional sport do not operate that way."
However good the Redskins are, or will be, depends on players and coaches brought in by Beathard, the general manager, who was Cooke's chosen survivor in a power struggle with Pardee.
"The most important thing I've done," Cooke said, "was keep Bobby. It was a great move."
Beathard, looking for a coach, tried John Madden and John Robinson. They said no, which didn't bother Beathard, because he liked Joe Gibbs, the San Diego offensive coordinator whom Dan Fouts called a genius.
The question then was, could Beathard sell Cooke on an unknown assistant?
By Cooke's estimate, it took 10 minutes in his New York suite on Jan. 12, 1981. His homework told Cooke what there was to know about Gibbs. But he didn't know the things he relied on when hiring people.
"Call it instinct, call it intuition," Cooke said. "The more I saw how well prepared Joe Gibbs was, how he knew what he wanted to do with the Redskins, I knew this was the man for the Redskins and for me--and, boy, has he ever proved it."
Cooke likes Gibbs' concept of "family." That's one reason Cooke passed over Bruce Clark, the defensive lineman who signed "a preposterous contract" with New Orleans, and why he dropped out of an auction for Renaldo Nehemiah.
"I wasn't going to hire Bruce Clark," Cooke said, "because it would have wrecked that club. Any happy family does not have anyone singled out for special favors, or you get a disintegration of that happiness. As for Nehemiah, we decided not to go beyond a certain point. The Redskins are a team, not a group of men among whom are a few highly paid superstars."
No Steinbrenner, Cooke does not strut upon his players' stage. While he often attends practices, he has never been in the Redskins' locker room.
One circumstance might change that.
"I would like to visit the locker room at the Super Bowl," Cooke said, smiling. "Win or lose."