Friday, March 15, 2013

Eagles Training Camp Bites the Dust at Lehigh

I've often said privately that I thought that the departure of Andy Reid would probably be the end of Eagles Training Camp at Lehigh.

With the hiring of new head coach Chip Kelly, this sad day for the Lehigh Valley and Lehigh University has finally come.

In a noon press release, the Philadelphia Eagles organization announced their intentions of holding preseason training at the NovaCare complex and having some free practices at Lincoln Financial Field.

I can understand why the Eagles did it, but it's a decision that makes me no less sad.

Over the years, we have continually ramped up the way we use cutting-edge technology and training equipment to make sure our players are in peak physical and mental condition. Today, the demands of practice and technology have reached a point where we can no longer replicate offsite what we have at the NovaCare Complex for our athletes.

Thank you to Lehigh University for going above and beyond to accommodate our players, coaches and staff. Year in and year out, you have been incredible partners and your efforts behind the scenes allowed our operation to run as smoothly as possible. From the cafeteria staff to the administration to the security guards and the grounds crew, we appreciate all of your hard work and we have enjoyed working with each and every one of you.

Thank you to the city of Bethlehem and all of the businesses and residents who welcomed us each year with open arms. You truly were gracious hosts. Thousands of people flocked to training camp every summer and there is no doubt that a major reason for that was your hospitality. Without fail, every rookie or free agent who came to the Eagles would make a comment after his first practice about the overwhelming energy the people of Lehigh brought to the day.

Our relationship with this community is not ending; it’s changing. We will always have a special place in our hearts for Lehigh University, for the city of Bethlehem, and for all the fans, workers and businesses that made Eagles training camp a special place.
A breakup isn't supposed to make you feel super - and this letter reads a lot like a Dear John letter - yet the realist in me sees plenty of other of reasons why the Eagles would do this, especially now.


While the public discussions of having training camp at Lehigh were all about goodwill and putting summer money into Lehigh Valley businesses - which undoubtedly was a benefit - it seems one reason overrode all others.

The biggest overall reason training camp was at Lehigh was that Reid wanted it. 

When you're a head coach at the same team for seventeen seasons, you've won a lot of battles, and  training camp at Lehigh was one of the battles Reid won with Eagles management.  He prepares the team his way, and his way involved weeks at Lehigh.

And when Reid left, Kelly came in with his own vision of preseason training for what was now his team.  The time to change up the training methods happens when a new head coach comes in, and Kelly's vision didn't involve trucking equipment, players and staff to the Lehigh Valley.  His vision involves using the sophisticated training tools at the NovaCare complex year round. 

And it really appears to be that simple.

From all indications it seems like it's an amicable breakup.  It cost Lehigh money to bring the Eagles up every year, not to mention the logistics and planning it took to house hundreds of athletes and staff for several weeks.

And yet, for me, it's still a sad day.


Dan Graziano of ESPN talks a bit about what is lost.
I totally get the convenience aspect of having training camp at home, and I never bought much into the whole idea of training camp as some sort of male bonding experience out in the wilderness somewhere away from family and distractions. And I understand that the Eagles' last training camp at Lehigh was marred by the death of then-coach Andy Reid's son of a drug overdose in his campus dorm room. But I do think it's a shame to see this go away.

I always enjoyed the vibe at Eagles training camp. It was relaxed and easy and the fans would pack the bleachers to watch morning and afternoon practices. It just won't be the same at the big stadium in Philadelphia. It's a real shame, of course, for the school and for the people and local businesses of Bethlehem, Pa., but I'll miss the quiet, pretty setting and the calm atmosphere of the place when I make my annual training camp visits. 
Me too, Dan.

Going to Eagles Training Camp was an annual rite for my wife, son and I in the days of August.  We always tried to time it so we could watch Eagles training in the morning and then hit Musikfest, which happened at around the same time, in the afternoon.

I never hung out with the media at Eagles Training.  The three of us would climb the bleachers among the other fans in the Ullman Sports Complex and get a close, intimate look at the Eagles we'd only be able to see the rest of the season from the TV screen. 

Fans would cheer individual plays and big hits, just as if it were a real game, and the bleachers put you so close to the action and the sidelines that fans could almost hear the players speaking to each other.  Fans, mostly respectful, would also sometimes give a piece of their mind about the depth chart.

The NFL Fan Zone offered stuff to do with kids, including autographs, Eagles stuff to buy, freebies and goodies.  It was relaxed, informal, and largely unstructured for fans, and a great family thing to do that gave a little something to everybody.

Having free practices in cavernous Lincoln Financial Field will not in any way be the same.  They may still have the Fan Zone, and they may still have the goodies, but it will lack the organic, laid-back quality that seemed to be omnipresent on Lehigh's grass practice fields.

Growing up I was never an Eagles fan - my wife is the big Eagles fan in the family, followed closely by my son - but I think I can fairly say that the experience of coming up to Lehigh to watch the Eagles in person made me more likely to follow them, watch them on TV, and wish them success.  They never made me forget the Saints, but they made me care about the Eagles, and that has to count for something.

At some point you need to balance the needs of the team and the needs of the fans, and I understand that.  The Eagles' top priority is to get back to being relevant in the NFC East. 

But in leaving Lehigh, the Eagles are leaving something behind with the fans that they will find difficult, if impossible, to recreate.

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