In the NFL, success starts with the owner, and Jack Kent Cooke was one of the most successful in the game.
In the 31-year history of the Super Bowl, Cooke -- who died yesterday at 84 -- was one of five owners who won more than two Super Bowls.
Cooke's legacy in football is that his leadership made the Redskins one of the signature teams in football from 1981 through 1992, when coach Joe Gibbs took the team to four Super Bowls and won three.
Among his fellow owners, Cooke's reputation was more mixed. But he could show a gentle side.
Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown, dealing with a personal problem several years ago, was surprised to get a call from Cooke.
"He called me on the phone out of the blue just to counsel me," Brown said. "I've always been appreciative he'd do something like that. He cared about others more than you would have thought from what you read in the papers."
Cooke never made it easy for others to see a personal side of him. He had few close friends or associates in the NFL and rarely attended league meetings.
But Brown said: "You would have the impression that he was imperial, autocratic and maybe he was some of that, but that wasn't the whole picture."
When he was asked about how good Cooke's counsel was, Brown replied, "He was nobody's fool.
"He was in the background, but not in the background. I think everyone knew he was there. If the word boss would apply, I'm sure everyone thought of him in those terms."
Cooke backed former general manager Bobby Beathard when he wanted to fire coach Jack Pardee after the 1980 season and hire Gibbs, then an obscure San Diego Chargers assistant coach.
Beathard, now San Diego general manager, said: "He was a great owner. He was always great to me. He gave us everything we needed to win. If you didn't win for him, you could never use him for an excuse. He made a lot of great memories possible for me and for Redskins fans."
Cooke spared no expense in his quest for victory. Before the salary cap, the Redskins always had one of the highest payrolls in the league, even though they played in one of the smallest stadiums.
Brown, who doesn't have the wealth that Cooke had to subsidize the team, said: "They played by different rules than we do. But he earned it all himself. He wasn't using anybody else's money. And he prided himself on that."
Gibbs, who got off to an 0-5 start in his first season and often said he feared being the first coach fired without winning a game, has said over the years how much he appreciated Cooke's support during tough times. Gibbs repeated that thought yesterday in Fort Worth, Texas, where his auto racing team was competing.
"He was a guy who started out in life and earned everything himself. The thing I remember about him the most is that he was always at his best when things were at their worst," Gibbs said.
"You know, 0-5, he could have canned me in a minute. But he was always encouraging me."
Gibbs said he wrote Cooke a letter three months ago.
"I told him we had a lot of great conversations and I was looking forward to having more in heaven. He wrote me a letter back and said, 'You can count on it,' " he said.
Cooke usually gave Gibbs the green light when he wanted to make a costly personnel move, such as his decision in 1988 to sign free-agent linebacker Wilber Marshall to a five-year, $6 million contract that was richest defensive contract in NFL history at the time.
Gibbs, though, said he always felt he had to deliver a winner. Even after going to back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1982 and 1983 seasons, Gibbs said the next year, "If I stink up the joint two years in a row, I'm out of here."
Gibbs had one losing season in his 12 years as Redskins head coach, so he never tested Cooke's patience.
But Cooke recently gave a contract extension to coach Norv Turner, even though he has an 18-30 record and is the only NFL coach on the job three years or longer who's yet to make the playoffs.
Cooke also tended not to interfere with Gibbs.
Gibbs said: "He told me, 'I ruined my first coach by telling him what to do.' He told me, 'When you've got to do something, I'll leave it up to you.' "
Although Cooke would spend money to win, he'd also hold the line if he thought players set their sights too high.
In 1992, quarterback Mark Rypien held out at the start of training camp, and cornerback Darrell Green and top draft choice Desmond Howard missed all of camp in holdouts. In 1994, rookie Heath Shuler's 13-day holdout got his career off to a bad start in Washington.
Cooke also could be demanding with his employees and even with the news media.
When he died, he wasn't on speaking terms with reporters from the Washington Post because the newspaper, among other things, was covering the Ravens. He felt the Ravens were intruding on his market and hurting his luxury box sales.
One thing he failed to do was get a new stadium constructed before his death. He first announced he would build his own stadium in 1987. The stadium, being built in Prince George's County, will be completed this fall.
Quarterback Gus Frerotte said: "It's very sad. It's like he was so close to reaching his dream and he won't make it to the first game."
Frerotte added: "He would call me over during practice, introduce me to his friends. It's going to be hard on everyone in the organization. With John Kent Cooke and his grandson, we have stability. They know exactly what he wanted, what his goals and dreams were."
Wellington Mara, owner of the New York Giants, said: "I think it's really a shame, just a shame, that for all the time and effort and money he's put into building this new stadium, he's not living to see it through to fruition."
Although Mara said, "I can't say I knew him very well," he said he admired Cooke's accomplishments, notably financing the building of the new stadium with his own money.
"He's achieved something no one else has done on that scale, build a stadium through private enterprise. There's probably very few other people who could have done what he did," Mara said.
Brown said: "He's been a big figure in sports for so long. He had that modern entrepreneurial spirit and the means to do things that others could dream about, but he did them. Witness the new stadium in Washington and before that the Forum in Los Angeles. He was a very strong-willed, independent person."
"He was not the kind of guy who gave long speeches," Rooney said. "He said cable was coming and it was going to be a big thing for TV and it would help us." The NFL now has two cable packages as part of its television deal.
"He goes back a long time in the league. He was a great sportsman."
In a statement issued by the league, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said: "Jack Kent Cooke will be remembered as one of the premier owners in NFL history and one of the great sportsmen and entrepreneurs of American business. He combined promotional flair, management skill and financial strength to turn the Redskins into a Washington institution, a national attraction and one of the most successful franchises in professional sports history. A self-made man of wide-ranging talents, Jack Kent Cooke loved the game, loved to win and knew how to field a winner."
John Kent Cooke, Cooke's son, who will take control of the team, declined to comment yesterday. He also asked Turner and general manager Charley Casserly not to comment out of respect for the family.
Jack Kent Cooke ranks among the five owners who won more than two Super Bowls:
Owner, team .. .. .. .. .. .. ..No.
Ed DeBartolo Jr., 49ers .. .. ... 5
Dan Rooney, Steelers .. .. .. .. .4
Jack Kent Cooke, Redskins .. .. ..3
Jerry Jones, Cowboys .. .. .. .. .3
Al Davis, Raiders .. .. .. .. .. .3
Pub Date: 4/07/97