- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

Even in its heyday, it wasn’t an opulent venue. It was open to the elements. The food and drink were fine but forgettable.

And yet, the owner’s box for a Redskins game at RFK Stadium was the place to be seen in Washington from 1979 to ‘96.

The man responsible for that atmosphere, Jack Kent Cooke, died 10 years ago today at 84. But in his time, the Redskins’ owner presided over a box full of high-ranking government officials, corporate chieftains, magnates and renowned authors like a lord of the manor.

“He was kind of like P.T. Barnum,” said longtime Maryland State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. “People came to RFK to see the Redskins, but they would also look up to his box.”

Mr. Cooke wasn’t a run-of-the-mill NFL owner. He built the Forum in Los Angeles, Redskins Park and the stadium now called FedEx Field. He owned New York’s Chrysler Building, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Lakers and the Kings in Los Angeles and a Kentucky horse farm. He won championships in football, basketball and baseball, gave Hall of Fame leaders Sparky Anderson and Joe Gibbs their first commands, and traded for superstars Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Mr. Cooke, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, would tell his rich pals that they should “buy a ballclub” because it was so much fun.

“Jack lived a good life,” said Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, who got to know Mr. Cooke while serving as Virginia’s governor from 1990 to ‘94.

“He liked entertainment and being with friends. He loved being the owner of the Redskins. Jack didn’t hide his personality at all. He was outgoing and outspoken. He would talk to people in a commanding voice. He would say, ‘Listen to me carefully. This is what you’re going to do.’ ”

Mr. Cooke even brought that approach to the dinner table, where he would confound diners and servers alike as he tried to order food for friends at restaurants, according to author Larry L. King.

“Cooke was quite a character,” said the author of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” a man who knows a thing or two about characters. “After I had been to two games, Cooke said, ‘You pass the test. If you’re here two games and I still like you, you become a regular in the box.’ I was there the next 14 years.”

Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard, coach Joe Gibbs and a team business executive were in Mr. Cooke’s office once when he asked whether they knew who Ring Lardner was. When the other two college graduates couldn’t place the legendary sportswriter, Mr. Beathard guessed that Mr. Lardner had founded the Ringling Bros. circus. Mr. Cooke sputtered: “My God. Look what I’ve surrounded myself with.”

Mr. Cooke would call writers after interviews to tweak his quotes because he had thought of better adjectives.

“My dad was fun to be with,” said John Kent Cooke, the Redskins’ executive vice president during his father’s tenure, in a rare interview with The Washington Times. “He had a fabulous sense of humor. He would say something totally outrageous, I would look at him, and he would squint those blue eyes of his and a big grin would go from ear to ear. He would put you on the spot, no question about that, but that was also part of his attraction. He would test you, but then he would embrace you with open arms.”

Equally adept with a hockey stick and a saxophone as young man, Mr. Cooke found his true calling in business.

From a humble start selling encyclopedias, Mr. Cooke became a partner at 26 in what would become a media empire of publications, radio and television stations. He was named Minor League Executive of The Year by Sporting News soon after buying the Toronto Maple Leafs of baseball’s Class AAA International League in 1951.

That was a mere prelude for Mr. Cooke’s high-octane life in the U.S.

He bought a 25 percent share of the Redskins soon after becoming an American citizen in 1960. In 1974, he became the team’s majority owner and took full control in 1979, when partner Edward Bennett Williams bought the Baltimore Orioles.

Mr. Cooke brought hockey to Hollywood, made Lakers games into events, promoted the first title fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and paid a then-record $42 million to end the first of his five marriages. His third marriage, to a woman 43 years his junior, lasted 73 days. His fourth and fifth were to Marlena Ramallo, a Bolivian young enough to be his daughter with a penchant for scrapes with the law.

“Jack was bigger than life,” recalled James A. Baker III, an RFK box regular while he was White House chief of staff, Treasury secretary and secretary of state. “The box, like everything else in Washington, was arranged in pretty strict protocol. For me, it was a way to relax when I held some difficult, high-pressure jobs. Jack put together a really eclectic group of people. For that day, people weren’t Republicans or Democrats. They were Washington Redskins fans.”

And the biggest, undoubtedly, was the white-haired man with the dazzling grin and the wraparound sunglasses.

Mr. Beathard, who had to work hard to persuade Mr. Cooke to hire the untested Gibbs in 1981, will never forget the owner’s barbed criticism when the new coach started 0-5. But no one was fired, and at the end of the next season, the Redskins won the first of three Super Bowls in a 10-year period.

Charley Casserly, who succeeded Mr. Beathard in 1989, thought so much of Mr. Cooke that he watched the final game at RFK with the ailing owner in his Northwest Washington mansion rather than in person.

“Mr. Cooke would chew you out, but he was always right,” Mr. Casserly said. “I appreciated that he wasn’t influenced by outsiders. It was you, the coach and him making all the decisions. It wasn’t easy working for Mr. Cooke, but it wasn’t dull. He kept you on your toes. He fired me several times, but in the next breath, he would say, ‘What do you think we should do next?’ ”

Mr. Casserly and Mr. Cooke hired another neophyte coach, Norv Turner, in 1994. Turner, who also has worked for legendary owners Al Davis and Jerry Jones, said he has never known anyone with Mr. Cooke’s presence.

“I talked to Mr. Cooke the day before he died,” Turner recalled. “He had gone to the stadium at 5:30 that morning and spent a couple of hours checking on the construction. He was excited about Cris Dishman, the cornerback we had just signed, and about the stadium. It’s a shame that he never got to see the stadium finished. That’s why that first game at the stadium was so important. We had to win it for Mr. Cooke.”

And they did, in overtime, topping Arizona 19-13.

Getting the stadium built was an odyssey Mr. Cooke began with hopes of having it next to RFK (which would be torn down for parking) before District and federal politics and environmental headaches nixed that notion. Next, Mr. Cooke looked to Alexandria, where traffic concerns killed the project. After a flirtation with a site near Laurel Racecourse, Mr. Cooke settled for Landover in 1995. However, Mr. Cooke never got to see a game in the stadium that was, initially, named for him. He died of a heart attack on April 6, 1997.

“Jack was a tough but fair negotiator,” Mr. Wilder recalled. “He was going to spend his own money, build a stadium and give it back to Virginia after 20 years. … Jack wanted the stadium at Potomac Yard with all the monuments [in the background]. He wanted the stadium to be another of Washington’s monuments.”

And Mr. Cooke’s plan that his descendants would maintain control of the Redskins collapsed in 1999. His son John, the team’s executive vice president, lost to the Milstein brothers and Dan Snyder in an unprecedented bidding war decided by the executors of Mr. Cooke’s estate.

Mr. Cooke thought he had left his son enough money to be able to purchase the Redskins from the executors of the estate.

“We thought the club and the stadium maybe would go for between $300 million and $500 million,” John Cooke said. “The Minnesota club had gone for a hell of a lot less the year beforehand. But after Dad died, I finished building the stadium, and it became obvious to everybody how valuable that was and so many people were interested in owning the Redskins.”

After the NFL looked askance at the Milsteins, who had ruined tahe NHL’s New York Islanders, Mr. Snyder put together his own group and was awarded the franchise in May 1999.

“There wasn’t one owner in the NFL who didn’t want me to have the Redskins,” said John Cooke, who splits his time between running his winery in Middleburg, Va., and his home in Bermuda. “They allowed me to make an offer under the new system where you have substantially less, like 25 to 30 percent and tremendous debt. They knew that I would be able to pay it off with that wonderful stadium and all the premium seats. I told my father about the new NFL plan that allowed a family to pass the club on to have continuity of ownership with smaller [investment]. He said he was going to look into it, but then fate stepped in and took him away.”

The bulk of Jack Kent Cooke’s fortune went to the foundation that bears his name and has awarded 800 college scholarships — now worth about $30 million annually — to needy students. The stadium deal also paid for part of the Sports and Learning Complex next to FedEx Field that serves 535,000 Prince George’s County residents a year.

“He 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,” Mr. Wilder said. “Jack knew that money did talk and he had the power of persuasion. But there was nothing he liked more than to reach out over the railing of that box and wave to the crowd. When they would respond by waving back, he just loved it. He was the king in his own realm. Washington misses him.”

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