Cooke leaves legacy full of NFL success Gibbs era yielded three Super Bowl titles in four tries

Owner spared no expense

Beathard: 'He gave us everything we needed'

April 07, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

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.

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