The Redskins and Washington sports changed dramatically 15 years ago today when Jack Kent Cooke died of a heart attack at age 84.
During Cooke’s final 13 seasons in command of the Redskins, they won two Super Bowls and three NFC titles, won 12 postseason contests, made the playoffs seven times, posted nine winning records and were 25 games over .500.
During current owner Dan Snyder’s 13-year reign (Cooke’s son John ran the Redskins in 1997 and 1998 while the estate was being settled), the scorecard reads no Super Bowls or NFC titles, three playoff appearances, two postseason triumphs, three winning seasons and are 26 games under .500.
How’s that for a total contrast?
Cooke employed just three coaches, offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators. Snyder has employed seven coaches, seven offensive coordinators and eight defensive coordinators.
The late owner always skipped NFL meetings but was thoroughly respected (and feared). The current owner faithfully attends league get-togethers but his go-my-own-way style has so antagonized his brethren that they have stripped the Redskins of $36 million of needed salary cap space over this year and next.
Cooke loved hanging out with famous politicians and authors and being noticed from the owner’s box at RFK Stadium. The very private Snyder, who almost immediately took Cooke’s name off the stadium (now FedEx Field) that the old man had built with his own millions, doesn’t like attention. His only notable pal is former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw.
Former Secretary of State James Baker said, “Jack was bigger than life,” a description that doesn’t fit Snyder.
The irascible Cooke was the most interesting person whom I’ve covered on a regular basis. He dropped out of high school to sell encyclopedias (remember them?) door-to-door in his native Ontario, but was so self-educated that our interviews would invariably end with him requesting that he be allowed to substitute one very descriptive adjective for another.
Cooke could freeze you with a death stare not long after calling you, “My dear boy.” Cooke lived large – four wives, a record divorce settlement, ownership of NFL, NBA and NHL franchises as well as the Chrysler Building, numerous media properties and a horse racing farm – but was down-to-earth enough that he answered his own phone without some assistant intervening. I’ve never been privileged with Snyder’s phone numbers.
Whether it was ordering food or wine for his dining partners, using just the right word, or making decisions involving the Redskins, Cooke always knew that he knew what was best.
“Mr. Cooke would chew you out, but he was always right,” said Charley Casserly, the Redskins’ general manager during Cooke’s last seven seasons. “It wasn’t easy working for Mr. Cooke, but it wasn’t dull. He fired me several times, but in the next breath, he would say, ‘What do you think we should do next?’ “
For all his bluster, Cooke engendered strong loyalty.
“Mr. Cooke was the best owner I ever worked for,” said Casserly’s predecessor, Bobby Beathard, who also spent time in the front offices of Kansas City, Miami and San Diego. “Unlike so many owners, he understood sports … but he didn’t interfere in player personnel decisions.”
It’s impossible to imagine Cooke attending college players’ pro days or being a constant presence in the draft war room like the very much hands-on Snyder.
As former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder said during a 2007 interview, Cooke was “one of a vanishing breed of owners who weren’t out to see how much they could take the public for. They were there for the pride of the sport and to give the public the enjoyment. He was the king in his own realm. Washington misses him.”
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.