Eagles to hold camp at NovaCare, leaving Lehigh after 17 years
A reporter asked Dave Rank, owner of three Starters' Pub locations in the Lehigh Valley, what he'll miss most, with the Eagles moving training camp to NovaCare in Philadelphia. Rank said it would not be the 20 to 30 percent uptick in lunch and dinner business for the team's 3-week stay at Lehigh, which brought several thousand fans to the area every day.
"One night years ago, on karaoke night, we had Jon Runyan and Hugh Douglas singing 'Ebony & Ivory,' " Rank recalled Friday. "That's what's going to be missed. It's not just the money, but relationships you developed with coaches, fans, media. People would tend to come back to the same places every summer, and you'd kinda remember them from before, catch up."
The Eagles' departure from their training camp home of 17 years is an economic blow to the Bethlehem area - though certainly not a lethal one; it was only 3 weeks in the summer, after all - and it represents the loss of cherished traditions and access for many fans who can't afford season tickets.
But having camp in Philadelphia also opens up new possibilities, and might make seeing the team work out easier for many fans who don't live near Bethlehem or can't take time off to drive up the Northeast Extension in the summer, team president Don Smolenski stressed Friday, when he talked about the change with reporters.
Smolenski sketched out preliminary plans for four or five free public workouts at Lincoln Financial Field, augmented by nine to 12 workouts at NovaCare in which 300 to 400 invited fans could attend. (If you're guessing a lot of sponsors and suiteholders would be invitees, you're probably guessing right.) Many details remain to be settled, including whether it will be possible to include all the bells and whistles of the NFL Fan Experience that has been part of the setup at Lehigh in recent years.
"We never would have done this without the ability to have . . . open practices for our fans that are free and open to all the public," Smolenski said. He said the lease agreement with the city and the agreement the Eagles made with their neighbors when the practice facility was built limit the scope of what can be done at NovaCare.
"With the open practices at the stadium, certainly we can accommodate more people [than at Lehigh]; it's at a location people can get to through the [local] highways and infrastructure, and we can schedule those well in advance, so people can mark 'em on the calendar, and it can be a destination date," Smolenski said. "It'll be a different experience."
The Eagles' news release announcing the move included a quote from Mayor Nutter, indicating his excitement at having the Eagles train in the city. Part of that excitement might be that the Birds' players and coaches now will pay city wage tax during training camp, which they did not pay when camp was at Lehigh.
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' news release said they will be among 21 teams to hold camp at the regular-season practice facility. 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 to Bethlehem has gotten more and more complicated.
Lehigh athletic director Joe Sterrett said Friday there are no hard feelings.
"It was trending that way," Sterrett said. He said that even as the Eagles made fall, winter and spring payments due the university as per their contract, they made it clear they were reassessing. He said Smolenski said there would be further compensation.
"They want to sort of do right by us in that regard," he said.
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 concluded they could best do that at NovaCare. When Smolenski was asked about Kelly's involvement, he stressed that it was "an organizational decision," but one supported by Kelly.
"I don't think they made the decision easily or quickly," Sterrett said.
Smolenski agreed that it was not easy. He recalled delivering the news to Mary Kay Baker, Lehigh's director of conference and special housing services.
"You want to talk about hard conversations, having that conversation with Mary Kay Baker, and watching her hold back tears as she understands sort of the realities of what you're talking about . . . that wasn't easy, but it was easier to do because of the strength of our relationship," Smolenski said. "It really is about what's in the best interests of the organization and the team, the facilities, the video and the computer, all of that."
The Eagles haven't held camp in Philadelphia since 1943, when it was as Saint Joseph's.
Smolenski said that having camp at NovaCare is "something we've been talking about at various degrees over time." He agreed that former coach Andy Reid was adamant about the value of the bonding experience achieved by having the players bunk down in dorms for weeks together, though Smolenski stopped short of agreeing that the Eagles would still be going to Lehigh if Reid hadn't been dismissed.
Sterrett said it is hard to put a hard dollar amount on the cost of the move to the university. 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 Andy Reid's eldest son, Garrett, from a drug overdose in a Lehigh dorm last Aug. 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.
Sterrett said Smolenski talked of how painful Garrett Reid's death was for everyone in the organization, but said it played no role in the decision. That was also what Smolenski told reporters Friday.
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."