Eagles to hold training camp in Philadelphia, not Lehigh
The end of Andy Reid has led to the end of another era.
After 17 years, hundreds of practices, and thousands of fans trekking up the Northeast Extension, the Eagles will no longer be holding training camp at Lehigh University.
The three weeks of preseason practices will instead be held at the team's headquarters at the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia and at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Eagles had been leaning in that direction for some time, according to Eagles president Don Smolenski. But the transition from Reid to new head coach Chip Kelly this year, along with the logistics of having to move the entire football operation to Bethlehem, Pa., for three weeks each summer, spurred the decision.
"It's something we had been talking about at various degrees over time," Smolenski said Friday. "And we started talking about it more seriously towards the end of the season."
Smolenski called it "an organizational decision," but if Kelly wanted to continue having camps at Lehigh, the team likely would have gone along. Kelly was unavailable for comment.
Reid, who thought the getaway eliminated distractions, might have been the one figure within the organization that enjoyed the camp that was an hour's drive north of Philadelphia.
"I know Andy liked going to Lehigh. That I do know," Smolenski said.
As NFL facilities have become more advanced, more teams have opted to stay home. Twenty-one of the league's 32 teams now hold training camp at their practice facilities, according to the Eagles.
"The access to the weight room, the medical facilities, the meeting rooms, the meeting space, the video, and the teaching tools, it's all right here," Smolenski said. "You're not driving back and forth over the mountain. You're not isolated. You're not split up in dorm rooms."
Smolenski said no decision has been made as to whether the players would be housed together or permitted to stay at their own homes.
The Eagles intend to hold practices that will be open and free to the public. Those will take place at the stadium. Smolenski estimated that there will be four or five "full scale" practices at Lincoln Financial Field.
"We never would have done this without the ability to have . . . open practices for our fans that are free to all the public," Smolenski said. "That was the driving force."
The majority of the practices, however, will be at the NovaCare Complex. Because of the team's lease with the city and an agreement with the Packer Park Civic Association - their neighbors to the north - the number of fans that can attend those practices is restricted.
"I'm indifferent, but it seems like it's better for the fans," said Rich DiLiberto, 23, of Bensalem. His family has held season tickets since 1978. "It's better than driving an hour and a half to watch practice. Plus doing it at the Linc probably allows [the Eagles] to do more stuff for the fans. It'll make it more of an event."
Smolenski said that 300 to 400 "invited" fans will be permitted to attend approximately nine to 12 sessions at the complex at the corner of Broad and Pattison.
"We view it as an opportunity for our partners, our season-tickets holders, fans," Smolenski said. "We have the ability to invite them and have them be a part of it."
The Eagles drew anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 fans a day at Lehigh, Smolenski estimated. As many as 20,000 made the trek to Bethlehem after the Eagles acquired wide receiver Terrell Owens in 2004. The crowds were smaller in recent years after the NFL cut down on contact periods in practice.
Lehigh and the Eagles had what Smolenski called an "informal contractual arrangement" that had a renewal provision every year. The Eagles renewed it last year, but will make a financial settlement with the university, Smolenski said.
Lehigh director of athletics Joe Sterrett said that he was disappointed but that he understood why the Eagles chose to end their relationship.
"I don't think it will be the complete end of our relationship," Sterrett said, "but I don't know what that means going forward."
The Eagles brought something Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan worries can't be replaced.
"Coolness. There was a coolness factor that now is lost," Callahan said. "It's a blow, not just because of the economic impact, but for the sense of pride of having them here. As a father, I'll miss taking my sons. It's something we looked forward to every year."
Dave Rank, owner of Starters Pub, knows just how Callahan feels. The walls of Rank's sports bar on Route 378 in Lower Saucon Township are covered with photos that were taken when players like Donovan McNabb, Jon Runyan, and Hugh Douglas visited.
"I'll miss the relationships with the players and coaches and the way kids would light up to see a real Eagle at the restaurant," Rank said. "It just made you feel good to be part of it. I understand why they're leaving, but it's still a shame."
The Eagles moved their camp to Lehigh in 1996 after 16 years at West Chester University. Reid, who became coach in 1999, enjoyed the camp atmosphere, even though the indoor practice facilities were limiting, and the fields did not drain well when it rained.
Last summer, Reid's son, Garrett, died in a Lehigh dorm room of a drug overdose. Garrett Reid was assisting the Eagles' strength and conditioning staff, and his death occurred in the middle of camp.
Reid missed only two days before returning and finishing camp. It wound end up being the Eagles' last stay in Lehigh. This will be the first time the Eagles will hold their camp in Philadelphia since 1943, when practices were held at St. Joseph's University.
"I'm excited that Eagles training camp is returning to Philadelphia," Mayor Nutter said in a statement. "I'm looking forward to visiting Lincoln Financial Field with other Eagles fans to give Coach Kelly and the team a warm welcome to the city."