Cooke: Man Of Accomplishment

December 12, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

Jack Kent Cooke always knew how to make the sale.

Whether it was encyclopedias, soap, plastics, newspapers or music, he always has possessed the knack of knowing how.

As an intrepid youth, he advertised his dance band in the high school annual.

As a prominent entrepreneur in 1960, he got his U.S. citizenship in one day -- through an act of Congress.

As an audacious sportsman in 1966, he took a dare and built The Fabulous Forum, with its Greek columns and circular design, in 15 months.

When he was finally about to be recognized as one of the world's "five greatest salesmen," Cooke offered a thoroughly predictable response. "Sir," he told his selector, "I am not one of five anything."

This is a man who has always been able to build monuments to himself. In his native Canada, he was a media mogul, resurrecting radio stations and newspapers. In Los Angeles, he not only built the Forum, but also laid the foundation for the Los Angeles Lakers' dynasty. In Washington, he turned Joe Gibbs loose on the NFL and hauled in three Super Bowl trophies.

Even Cooke can grow old and ineffective, though. Now, at the spritely age of 81, the owner of the Washington Redskins has at last hit a slump. For more than five years, he has been pitching a new football stadium for his team -- to be built with his own money -- and nobody's catching.

He was rejected in Alexandria, Va., put on hold in the District of Columbia. Now Cooke, the man who knows how to make a deal, wants to bring his privately funded stadium to Laurel.

He's a deal-maker, and a risk-taker, who won't give up the fight.

"I'm more than frustrated," he said of his inability to make the stadium sale. "I'm completely thwarted."

But is he serious about Laurel? Or is this simply a wedge in negotiations for a stadium in downtown D.C.?

"I think he's serious, dead serious," said Dave Kindred, columnist for The Sporting News and a friend of Cooke's. "He's always serious. I think anybody who thinks he isn't serious should study the history of how The Forum came to be built."

Cooke owned the Lakers, and was about to launch the NHL Kings, when he became embroiled in a dispute with the Coliseum Commission about playing in the Sports Arena. He wanted arena exclusivity for 365 days of the year. The commission said no dice. He said he'd build his own arena. The commission laughed. He built his own arena.

"Everyone he was opposing said it was just a threat," said Pete Newell, who was general manager of Cooke's Lakers for four years. "He ended up building one of the nicest buildings in the country."

Why Cooke -- at 81 -- wants to construct an East Coast bookend to his Forum creation is a subject of some debate. Says Cooke: "I've always admired the New York Giants' stadium. It's almost a matter of envy. I would dearly love to have Redskins fans, who are so fanatical in their support of the club, have something equally as good. My son and grandson are interested in working for the club here. It's going to be passed down the line."

And so, apparently, is the anguish he has suffered while %J attempting to put together his stadium deal. Count Joe Theismann, the former quarterback who won a Super Bowl for Cooke, among those who see a strategy evolving here.

"Mr. Cooke has said he wants to build a stadium in Washington," Theismann said. "Mr. Cooke has looked at property in Virginia. Now Mr. Cooke wants to move to Maryland.

No love for D.C. mayor

"It's painfully obvious Mr. Cooke does not like the mayor of D.C. [Sharon Pratt Kelly], and is trying to make her life miserable."

Paybacks aside, there are more pragmatic reasons for Cooke's insistence on a stadium. They have to do with economics. Analysts say a new, 78,600-seat stadium that replaces antiquated 54,000-seat RFK Stadium will add some $50 million to the Redskins' franchise value -- wherever it is located. And that's what registers most with the man who has always had a Midas touch, according to Kindred.

"I think it's good business for him," Kindred said. "He's a great businessman. It'd be nice to leave a stadium named Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, too. Ego and business meet in Cooke's mind. That's why he'd want to get it done."

Cooke's knack for closing a deal has translated into overwhelming wealth. He was a self-made millionaire by 32. As recently as 1989, Fortune magazine estimated his net worth at $1.6 billion. In this year's issue of "The Forbes Four Hundred: The Richest People in America," his holdings were estimated at $800 million.

Sometimes, Cooke's deal-making collides with business associates. Jack Tobin, a former marketing vice president with the L.A. Coliseum Commission, is not one of his fans.

"He's a very shrewd businessman," Tobin said. "He's a guy who made fortunes and fortunes. Nothing stands in his way. He doesn't care who's in front of him. . . . He's going to use anybody he can use to benefit Jack Kent Cooke."

Describing Cooke as "ruthless" and "devious," Tobin added, "I wouldn't work for him for a jillion dollars."

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