In the early years of Dan Snyder’s ownership of the Washington Redskins, he was more talkative than he is now—at least with the media. The comments here are from September 2004, about six years after he bought the team from the heirs of Jack Kent Cooke, who died in 1997. Snyder called his ownership a dream come true. The interview took place just after the NFL season had begun and the Skins’ “new” head coach was returning legend and local hero Joe Gibbs. Snyder wooed the Hall of Famer out of football retirement, hoping the magic would still be there from the era when he guided the team to three Super Bowl titles. In a surprise move, Gibbs retired from the team in January of 2008, citing family reasons, returning to his successful ownership of a NASCAR team.
There’s been only one other coach between Gibbs and current head coach Mike Shanahan: Jim Zorn, who lasted only two seasons. In all there have been 27 Redskins coaches, seven of them under Snyder.
The half-hour interview was for a television interview program I host, The Q&A Cafe, and was taped at Nathans restaurant in Georgetown at lunchtime in front of an audience. All that remains is an audio recording. It’s an interesting glimpse at Snyder at that point in time—talkative and filled with optimism about Gibbs. The interview also reflects his passion for his team and touches on the question of the team name, still an issue today. Here are some highlights:
On his love of the Redskins:
I have been a Redskins fan since I was 6 years old. My dad took me to my first game, and we walked into the stadium and it was spectacular. I just said, “Wow, this is great,” and fell in love with the Redskins. I never really intended to buy the team, but … when I saw it was for sale … I said, “I’ll do that. That sounds good.” And that’s what I did. I wasn’t looking to own a sports team. I wasn’t looking to own a stadium. I was just looking to, wow, live my childhood dream.
The Redskins are my greatest passion.
On his first time in the owners’ box:
After I bought the team. I was on the wait list [for seats]. My wife framed my wait list. It’s in my office. It’s really expensive.
On Joe Gibbs:
I tried to get him when I first bought the club. No one knows we had a meeting at my house. I tried feverishly to get him to join and come back. He said, “It’s June. How can I do anything? What would I do?” I said, “No, no, I need you.” We became good friends and stayed in touch. Many a time I went down and visited and watched some NASCAR. He’s done such a wonderful job there. Everything he touches turns to gold. He’s a very special person to me and to my family. I think to all of us in Washington he is more popular than the President, and deservedly so.
Joe works harder than anybody I know. I’m always trying to keep up, to figure out how many hours a day I can put in to match him as best as I can. Frankly, I can’t do it. He has more energy than anyone I’ve ever met.
On what it felt like to rehire Gibbs:
Far out. We were in Carolina and we had an 11-hour meeting, because I wanted him to know every detail of . . . how the team is run, how operations run, how the stadium is run, how everything is run, so he could feel comfortable and want to do it and feel like he could point out what he’d want to do in certain areas. It was a working session.
At the end I said, “Well, Joe?” And he said, “I guess I’m the head coach.” He gave me a big hug, and that was really cool. Then we came up here and went out to dinner to tell the minority owners [because it was a secret]. We went to a restaurant in Tysons Corner. We had a little private room. The phone kept ringing. It was the Washington Post [saying], “We think it’s Joe Gibbs. Can you confirm it?” I said to tell them I’m at the movies. But we ended up with a crazy night where they stopped the presses and put it on the cover of the paper. Finally, for the sake of the kid who called back [saying], “I just want to let you know I’ll be fired at 6 AM unless you guys tell me”—that’s when we said, “Okay, Mark Maske, we’ll give it to you. It is true.”
On how many times a day he talks with Gibbs:
Several. Especially now when he’s in what they call the “submarine.” They are in there for like ten hours at a time, and they’re just doing coaching stuff. I think they are enjoying themselves. But in the offseason, with free agency and the draft, we spent so much time together. That free-agency night, which started at midnight—I don’t know why they started at midnight—but at midnight Joe called every single player we had on our list to call, and I called every single agent. We’re in there all night long, we’re doing deals, we sign up Shawn Springs and Cornelius Griffin . . . and we just keep going, going, going. At 6:30 we said, “All right, we all gotta sleep.”
On whether he speaks to the coach during games:
No, never. I’ve never actually watched film with a coach in six years. And all that media crap that says I’m sitting there meddling and stuff—I’ve never watched film with a coach. That would be embarrassing. I do the deals. I work with the agents. I work out the best terms of a contract that make it salary-cap-friendly and all that stuff. But all that stuff about, “Do I do this with coaches?” That’s all horse stuff.
On the coaching staff in general:
They are seriously focused. We have all the coaches we wanted. On offense they are primarily coaches from [Gibbs’s] previous Redskins tour of duty, when he was here for 12 years: Joe Bugel, Jack Burns, Rennie Simmons. These are his coaches, and they are in phenomenal shape, by the way. You know, The Washington Post goes [on about] their ages and all that stuff—they ought to really look in the mirror a little bit—but one of the things that’s interesting is they are in better shape now. They are his old group, and they are quality, great people.
On the defensive side, Joe spent a lot of time and a lot of focus on a list of guys and came up with just wanting Greg Williams, and that was his number-one guy. So we went out and said, “What is it going to take?” to him, and Joe flew up in the middle of the night, met with Greg and his family, and convinced him to join us. Joe called me up and said, “He wants a little of this and . . .” I said, “Hurry. We want him,” ’cause everyone wanted him, including the Dallas Cowboys, which would have been a real problem for us. He’s very, very talented, as you can see from our defensive formations. We’re, we call it, “less vanilla.” It’s total creativity.
On his most important lessons learned since buying the team:
Don’t listen to the media. I listened to the media and I hired Marty Shottenheimer. I hired Marty Shottenheimer because the media was beating me up to hire a real tough guy. Well, in today’s football I don’t think you can be as tough as he is. So it didn’t work out. And then I went in my own direction, and I made the mistake of hiring Steve Spurrier. I actually wanted Steve Spurrier to stay, and I thought he was going to stay; I didn’t think he’d just give up, and I was surprised when he did. We went, “Okay, what do we do now?” That’s how things came about. Things have a way of working out in life.
On stepping into ownership with an existing structure in place:
I inherited some coaches and staff and craziness at the beginning, and I still get letters today that say, “Why did you hire Norv Turner?” I write back, “I didn’t.” It’s been a long tough journey, and I’m just grateful to have Joe back.
On why he is controversial:
I make a pretty good target. All my mistakes are public. That’s what happens when your mistakes are public and things you do cause people to stir it up a little bit. It is controversial. I am the youngest owner in the NFL. I’ve got the most valuable team in the NFL. We work hard to deliver the best product on the field we can deliver, from the coaching staff to the players. We’re going to be controversial until we win.
It would be nice for folks to somehow see what we’re doing, in terms of the effort that’s put in. But I understand really when it all comes down to it—I think it was some folks at the League office who said, “Look, when you’re losing, you’re losing. When you’re winning, you’re winning.” And that’s what it all comes down to, and why we keep score in football.
On sports media he likes—and doesn’t like:
[Tony] Kornheiser, He’s funny. I like all his jabs; I think they are cute. Michael Wilbon is brilliant. There are some real smart people at ESPN. I always enjoy spending time with [announcers in] the booth. There are some people that cover us, our beat reporters—one in particular—who are constantly looking for something bad. They are out to try to get us. It’s the strangest thing. Instead of just rooting for us, because they are part of the team, part of the community.
On whether he would ever change the team name:
No. And we’re not changing our logo. Our fans love the name Redskin. Sports Illustrated did a survey and 88 percent of our fans loved the name Redskin, and 88 percent sounds like a big number to me.
The name Redskin means war. That’s why the name is Redskin—it stands for painting your face for war. And that’s why if you listen to the song [“Hail to the Redskins”], which is the oldest song, [it says] “braves on the warpath.” I get a little pissy about the name thing because people don’t do any homework.
On game-day rituals:
I don’t sleep the night before. I wake up, and I go visit my dad in the morning at the cemetery. [He passed away in 2003.] I go to the stadium, early enough for coffee. The grounds crew and the TV people are usually there. I will spend some time with whoever is on the TV stop, hang out, wait for the game. Then you hope to sleep the night after. [Eat] after the game. Everybody says, “You’ve got Greenspan and Colin Powell and all these incredibly famous people [in his box].” My wife says, “You are the worst host at the game. They talk to you, and you just look at them.” I’m so focused on the game I can’t function that well.
On whether he would own another sports franchise, such as a baseball team:
I’m not a big baseball person. And I’m not sure it works here in Washington. It’s tough. It hasn’t worked before. Everybody seems to go away in August. Even our preseason games don’t really fill up because the people are all going to the beach, and the beach traffic causes traffic jams at our games in August. So you all have to stop going to the beach.
On whether he would wear a Skins T-shirt and hog nose around the house:
Only if we win the Super Bowl.