Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb gets ready to take a snap during practice on Goodman Campus. Kolb backed up Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick from 2007-2010. (Courtesy of Chuck Burton)

Football flashback: Philadelphia Eagles spend 17 summers training at Lehigh

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Riding high off three straight NFC Championship game appearances and big offseason signings, the Philadelphia Eagles entered their 2004 training camp amid Super Bowl predictions and much fanfare.

By the time the calendar flipped to August of that year, the Eagles’ preseason training camp at Lehigh’s Goodman Campus had become a fixture of summer in the Lehigh Valley. The Birds’ annual trip up to Bethlehem for the first few weeks of August — alongside fan-favorite head coach Andy Reid — could be placed up there with Musikfest and the Allentown Fair as must-dos. 

Still, nobody could have predicted what happened on Aug. 7, 2004.

With the high-profile signings of wide receiver Terrell Owens and pass rusher “The Freak” Jevon Kearse, energized fans aching for glimpses of their favorite Eagles — maybe even an autograph — came out in droves.

Roads clogged, 25,000 fans showed up to Goodman Campus that day to watch their Eagles practice. Neighbors were complaining as they watched their quaint Lower Saucon roads turn into standstill traffic. Fans were leaving their cars on the side of the road in favor of walking the last mile to get to the sports complex. 

Nick Fierro, who was covering the Eagles for the Express-Times and now does so for The Morning Call, said the number of fans in attendance that day was more than double the usual 10,000 to 12,000 fans watching the Eagles’ preseason practice on a given day.

“It was crazy,” Fierro said.

For Lehigh athletic director Joe Sterrett and his staff, the day was one of high stress. He remembers getting calls from local municipalities complaining about the traffic.

“Terrell Owens was coming to camp, (Donovan) McNabb was quarterback, there were high hopes for the Eagles,” Sterrett said. “And they announced that those two guys were going to do autographs on the same day, which I think everybody in retrospect felt was not wise. Two high-profile, premium people were going to be signing autographs after practice. We had more people than we could handle.”

From left: Correll Buckhalter, Kevin Curtis, Donovan McNabb and DeSean Jackson during a practice at Goodman Campus in summer 2008. For 17 summers, the Philadelphia Eagles called Lehigh home for their preseason training camp. (Courtesy of Chuck Burton)

While that day was hard to manage, most others were rather tame in comparison. Even still, from 1996 to 2012, the Eagles brought thousands of fans to Bethlehem as they called Lehigh’s campus home for training camp for 17 straight summers. With many coaches, players, and even media members residing in Lehigh’s dorms and eating in its dining halls, campus was dominated by Eagles in late July and early August across three different decades.

Despite lasting for 17 years, the relationship between Lehigh and the Eagles at one point looked like it may never happen.

Four or five years before the Eagles began training camp at Goodman Campus in 1996, Sterrett reached out to the late Harry Gamble, who was the Eagles president and general manager at the time, about potentially hosting training camp at Lehigh. A former coach at Lafayette and the University of Pennsylvania, Gamble was familiar with both Lehigh’s campus and Sterrett from playing days.

Sterrett said the Eagles, which held their training camp at West Chester University at the time, were cramped for space and thought they might be interested in the Goodman facilities.

Gamble was intrigued by the proposition, and went up with a couple staff members to meet with Sterrett and tour the campus. After the visit, Gamble told Sterrett they were interested and would go back and talk about it.

But a decision was never made by Gamble. Before the Eagles could really get into the logistics, the team was sold to current owner Jeff Lurie. The potential relationship soon became a series of notes tucked away in a file.

For two or three years, Sterrett heard nothing. And with the Eagles new staff settling into their roles in 1994, he didn’t want to press it.

Then, in 1995, he got a call. It was from new team president Joe Banner.

“He said, ‘We found in our files a bunch of notes and information about training camp at Lehigh. Would you be interested in talking about that?’ I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Sterrett said.

After Banner came up to visit and Sterrett explained the initial connection with Gamble, a deal was struck.

For the next 17 summers, Lehigh University and the city of Bethlehem would be thrust into the spotlight each day as thousands flooded the Lehigh Valley. With practices, family activities and extensive media coverage, the campus became the epicenter of Eagles summers.

Quarterback Donovan McNabb talks to running back Brian Westbrook during a practice on Goodman Campus. The pair anchored a dangerous Eagles offense for eight seasons. (Courtesy of Chuck Burton)

“It was a big moneymaker for the community and big publicity for Lehigh,” said longtime Morning Call columnist and Lehigh Valley resident Bill White, ‘74. “Lehigh was on the news every night on TV, and they did a really good job of hosting. The fields were beautiful for (the Eagles), and (Lehigh) took a lot in pride in that.”

Chuck Burton, who founded the Lehigh football Nation blog and attended training camp with his family, said the relationship between Lehigh and the Eagles was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Fierro added that the fans were “right on top” of the players as they split up across the multiple fields in the complex.

And if a fan wanted a player to hear them, they had that power.

“You felt the connection to it, that’s what I remember as a fan,” Burton said. “My wife is a big Eagles fan, I felt like she was much more in tune and engaged with the team after we would go up there. It’s useful. I think it was a good thing for the Eagles, it was a really good way to engage with the fans, and make them feel like more part of the game than they would ordinarily.”

Burton said, aside from bringing attention to the university, the Eagles’ training camp brought many people, particularly alumni, to the South Bethlehem community and provided a boost to local businesses — a boost that was certainly missed when the Eagles moved to the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia for their 2013 training camp.

“This was part of that whole thing we came to expect in the Lehigh Valley as part of our summer.”

 

-Bill White, longtime Morning Call columnist and Lehigh Valley resident

Current Lehigh offensive coordinator Scott Brisson has a different view of the relationship. While he said the overall experience was a positive one, it served as a logistical challenge for the Mountain Hawks in the week or two the two teams were at Lehigh together.

Relegated to the locker rooms at Goodman Stadium with the Eagles taking the ones at Cundy Varsity House and forced to use Ulrich Sports Complex as their main practice ground, Brisson said the presence of the Eagles added challenges for Lehigh and got them out of their routine.

Not able to do weight training until the Eagles went to dinner at 6 p.m., having to deal with the added time of transporting equipment or just dealing with traffic on the way to Goodman, Brisson said there were some frustrations that came with the Eagles’ stay.

Even still, Brisson, who was Lehigh’s running backs coach in 2008 and wide receivers coach in 2009, has positive memories of the Eagles training camp and said he was devastated to learn the Eagles would be moving training camp away when Chip Kelly was hired as head coach in 2013.

Brisson said the Eagles presence helped with recruiting, whether it be with recognition of the campus or discussing how an NFL team uses their facilities.

“We’ve recruited semi-local kids that had been on Lehigh’s campus before because they or their dad or whoever went to training camp here,” Brisson said. “That has been kind of neat, too. It kind of helped with some added exposure. The first time they heard of Lehigh in the recruiting process, they already had a pretty positive feeling about it because of those two things.”

In 2008, just two years out of college, Brisson was hired to coach Lehigh’s running backs and said he really only had familiarity with quarterbacks and wide receivers at that point. 

Nervous about his new role, Brisson said he paid special attention to how then-Eagles running backs coach Ted Williams led his players.

“It was really cool seeing these really great coaches up close and personal, and having some pretty good access to them,” Brisson said. “I always look back on a fondness standpoint from that.”

And there were great coaches. 

During Andy Reid’s Eagles coaching tenure, which lasted from 1999 to 2012, 10 of his assistant coaches went on to become head coaches in the NFL. Of that list, five are still active head coaches, including Super Bowl winners John Harbaugh and Doug Pederson. In the later years of the relationship, a few Lehigh coaches were able to intern with the Eagles and learn from their coaching staff.

Eagles head coach Andy Reid roams the field during a training camp session on Goodman Campus. Reid was the Eagles head coach from 1999-2012. (Courtesy of Chuck Burton)

It was Reid, Brisson and Burton said, who was the main proponent for keeping training camp at Lehigh all those years. While the relationship started under former Eagles head coach Ray Rhodes, Reid kept it going. Brisson said Reid is an old school coach who is a believer in taking the summer operation to a small college to build camaraderie.

So when Reid was fired after a disappointing 2012 season, it was a bitter end to the Eagles training camp run at Lehigh — tragically capped off by Andy Reid son Garrett’s death in Sayre Park due to a fatal drug overdose.

“Andy Reid was universally loved throughout his tenure with the Eagles, which I think is highly unusual for a coach,” Burton said.

Chip Kelly was hired, and his contract was contingent on many changes. His players were to be put on regimented meal plans, where every morsel of food that entered their bodies was calculated, and every player had specialized shakes after each workout. Practices were to be rhythmic, and meticulous habits and routines needed to be developed to enhance consistency, Sterrett said.

When the Eagles asked to move their training camp away from Lehigh to their NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, with a year left on their contract with Lehigh, Sterrett obliged and said he understood their decision. Sterrett said the desire for teams to have training camp at their own facilities has become a recent trend in the NFL.

While White and Burton suspect the training camp was important to Reid, not everyone on the Eagles was in love with the annual weeks-long stay in Bethlehem. Teams have begun to prefer having control at their own facilities, and players like going to and from practice from their homes — not shacked up in the tight Sayre Park dorms.

“I’m not sure the players really enjoyed it all that much,” Fierro said. “They had to sleep in these dorm rooms, and if they didn’t bring their own bedding — and a lot of them didn’t — these are big guys that are sleeping in these beds. Not very comfortable. Their feet are dangling off the bed.”

But for many in the Lehigh Valley, the move was a disappointment.

“I recall being mad about not the Eagles not valuing I was more like the Eagles are going to miss the fact that they are able to go up here and be such a positive focus of the community,” Burton said.

With no ongoing talks to move Eagles training camp back to Lehigh, White said there was a sense among fans in the Lehigh Valley that the organization “suddenly didn’t care” about the fans in the region.

But that doesn’t take away from the memories formed by the almost two-decade relationship between Lehigh and the Eagles.

“It definitely was a big deal,” White said. “The training camp took place the same time as Musikfest, and this was part of that whole thing we came to expect in the Lehigh Valley as part of our summer. It was definitely a big loss when the Eagles left.” 

 

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