The Eagles finally made official Friday what seemed increasingly likely, as the weeks went by and team officials refused to commit to another year of training camp at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, where the Birds and many thousands of fans have journeyed each summer since 1996.
As expected, training camp this year will take place at NovaCare, where the ability to host fans is extrememly limited. The team said there will be public practices at Lincoln Financial Field, and some invitation-only public practices at NovaCare.
As teams across the NFL have developed state-of-the-art practice facilities, more and more have opted to stop trekking to college campuses. The Eagles' press release notes that they are the 21st team to make the switch. NovaCare has been open more than a decade, and observers have puzzled over why the Eagles would limit themselves to walk-throughs on a gym floor whenever it rained during camp at Lehigh. NovaCare has a full indoor practice field, not to mention elaborate medical and training equipment. As the years have gone by, moving everything up the Northeast Extension to Bethlehem has gotten more and more complicated.
Lehigh athletic director Joe Sterrett said Friday there are no hard feelings, though Lehigh and the Lehigh Valley certainly will feel an economic impact from not having thousands of Eagles fans descend on the area every day for three weeks in July and August.
"It was trending that way," Sterrett said. He said even as the Eagles made fall, winter and spring payments due the university as per their contract, they made it clear they were reassessing. Sterrett said he didn't think new coach Chip Kelly mandated the move, but in trying to deliver what Kelly said he needed for his first camp, Eagles officials came to the conclusion they could best do that at NovaCare.
"I don't think they made the decision easily or quickly," Sterrett said. He said Smolenski, scheduled to talk to reporters at NovaCare at 2:30 Friday, is "properly sensitive to the positive impact of having training camp available to fans."
In the statement announcing the move, Smolenski thanked Sterrrett and said: "The city of Bethlehem has been part of our lives every summer for the past 17 years."
The Eagles haven't held camp in Philadelphia since 1943, when it was as St. Joseph's.
Sterrett said it is hard to put a hard dollar amount on the cost to the university of the move. He said there were many considerations, such as the fact that the food service Lehigh contracts with was able to hire workers for the full year; now it might not employ them over the summer.
"This was never about money for us," he said. "It was really more about visibility of this region of the country, and this area to the Philadelphia marketplace, because we are kind of a bedroom community to the Philadelphia area. Over 17 years, that's really been enhanced ... That's what we lose, more than anything tangible."
Sterrett said the death of then-Eagles coach Andy Reid's eldest son, Garrett, in a Lehigh dorm last August 5 made him wonder all along whether the Eagles would return, especially if Reid remained the coach. "That was a scarring episode for everybody," he said.
He said Smolenski told him there was "emotion tied to" the fact that Reid and players would be reminded of Reid's loss at Lehigh, but "that's not part of this decision."
Sterrett said Lehigh will find something else to fill that gap in the schedule -- a youth camp or soccer tournament or conference -- but "it won't be as interesting and exciting as having the Eagles here."