Ex-Eagles owner Leonard Tose dies The "man of great excesses" was 88. He lost a fortune, but his team made the Super Bowl.

Posted: April 16, 2003

Leonard Tose, 88, the dapper hedonist who owned the Philadelphia Eagles through some of their greatest triumphs and most pronounced financial difficulties, died yesterday.

Mr. Tose, whose hard-living and soft heart helped him squander millions, passed away yesterday at 4:30 p.m. at St. Agnes Hospital in Philadelphia. He had been in failing health since Jan. 1.

His finances, tapped by too many losing nights in too many casinos, ran out long ago. It was only with the willing assistance of friends such as Dick Vermeil and Jim Murray, two men Mr. Tose had hired as the Eagles' coach and general manager, that he was able to spend his final years in Center City's Radisson Plaza-Warwick Hotel.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED APRIL 17, 2003, FOLLOWS: The obituary of former Eagles owner Leonard Tose in yesterday's Inquirer had incomplete information about his survivors. They include three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

"He was a man of great excesses," said Murray, who was one of Tose's closest friends and who was with him when he died, "but especially in his generosity of spirit."

Mr. Tose was a natty-dressing, chain-smoking, hard-drinking gambler whose extravagant lifestyle caused him to lose five wives, an elaborate Main Line mansion and ultimately, after 16 years at its helm, the football team he loved.

"I made every mistake you could make," Mr. Tose told The Inquirer last year in one of his last interviews. "You'd need a big book to put them all in."

His time running the Eagles, from 1969 to 1985, was a colorful and tumultuous era, marked by his wildly successful hiring of an unproven college coach and his failing finances, by big limousines and bigger loans, by a glorious trip to the Super Bowl and a disastrous near-relocation to Phoenix.

"On behalf of the entire Eagles organization, I sincerely regret the passing of Leonard Tose today," Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie said. "I respect what he did for this organization during his 16 years as owner. The city of Philadelphia and the National Football League lost a valuable contributor to their communities today."

Born in the gritty Montgomery County town of Bridgeport, he was a passionate Eagles fan who loved to rub elbows with celebrities and spent lavishly - even when he could not afford it - on his team.

The week before the 1981 Super Bowl, for example, Mr. Tose chartered several airplanes and flew 762 people to New Orleans, where he treated players, acquaintances and employees to gourmet dinners in the finest restaurants. That same week, proud as a peacock, he sent an Eagles jacket to Frank Sinatra, whom he had come to know during his many gambling excursions to Las Vegas.

Those Vermeil years brought the owner his greatest prominence and joy. After hiring the untested young coach out of UCLA on a hunch in 1976, the flamboyant Mr. Tose greatly enjoyed the long-suffering team's rise.

"I've lost a very close friend," said Vermeil, now head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. "I think the National Football League has lost one of its most unique characters in a position of ownership that ever existed. He was not ordinary. He lived life to its fullest. He tested it and, for the most part, got the most out of it."

Mr. Tose would frequently show up for games at Veterans Stadium in a leased helicopter, a drink in one hand and a cigarette between his lips as he emerged in a cashmere overcoat and swaggered to his private box. There he often entertained prominent fellow Notre Dame alums and celebrity buddies such as Don Rickles and Bob Newhart, two comedians with whom he once shared a yachting vacation.

A lifelong fan who had first invested in the Eagles in 1949, Tose once said that his highlight as an owner was Jan. 11, 1981, the frigid afternoon when Vermeil's team thrashed the despised Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship and earned the franchise's lone Super Bowl berth.

Afterward, the emotional Vermeil and Mr. Tose, who bought the Eagles for $16.1 million in 1969 and sold them for $65 million in 1985, embraced tearfully in a locker-room scene that was captured famously by NFL Films.

Mr. Tose loved Vermeil for his naked emotionalism - saying he once bought a raincoat just for Vermeil's tears - and also for his intensity.

"We open training camp July 4, 1976," Mr. Tose once told the Philadelphia Daily News. "Vermeil comes to me and barks, 'What's all the noise?' There's a few million people celebrating the 200th anniversary of our country, and Dick is so intense he's not aware of that."

Mr. Tose supported countless charities, and it was through his support that the Eagles Fly for Leukemia charity and the Ronald McDonald House program got their starts.

His tipping was legendary among Philadelphia waiters. And several years ago, when financial troubles threatened football at Public League schools, Mr. Tose kept them afloat. Friends said that if he read of people having difficulties, his first reaction often was to write a check, even as it became harder for him to cover them.

"His generosity touched so many people," Murray said. "Today, there are people, big and small, that he helped all throughout this city who are shedding a tear over Mr. Tose's passing."

Eventually, enmeshed in lawsuits and haggling endlessly with banks, Mr. Tose was forced to sell the team to Norman Braman. The ink on his books was by then so red that he had threatened the unthinkable, telling the city in 1984 that he would move the five-decade-old franchise to Phoenix unless he could get some luxury suites built at the Vet.

The city capitulated, but soon Mr. Tose, who had by then ceded much of the team's control to his daughter, Susan Fletcher, sold.

"He loved the Eagles," said Jim Gallagher, the team's now-retired publicist. "He spent money. And all the players and all the coaches, even those he reluctantly had to fire, loved him."

Things spiraled downhill from there. In 1996, on his 81st birthday, Tose was evicted from his seven-bedroom Villanova mansion after losing the house in a U.S. marshal's sale.

He later told a congressional hearing that he lost $40 million to $50 million gambling.

Tose lost a much-publicized lawsuit against Atlantic City's Sands Hotel & Casino that contended the casino helped him lose $10 million by supplying him with free liquor.

Born in 1914, Mr. Tose was the son of a Russian Jewish emigre who had built a successful trucking company. Mr. Tose apprenticed in his father's business, working in a variety of positions from grease boy to executive.

Mike Tose's growing fortune permitted his son to attend Notre Dame, one of the many institutions that later benefited from Mr. Tose's charitable inclinations over the years. It was at Notre Dame, where, before and after his graduation in 1937, he developed a friendship with legendary coach Frank Leahy, that Mr. Tose's love of football bloomed.

In 1949, when a group of 100 local investors - dubbed the Happy Hundred - purchased the Eagles for $300,000 from Alexis Thompson, one of those $3,000 shares belonged to Mr. Tose, then 35.

In 1956, Mr. Tose was part of a group that unsuccessfully attempted to buy the Eagles from principal owners Frank McNamee and James Clark.

When Jerry Wolman bought the club in 1963, Mr. Tose got more than $60,000 for his investment. Six years later, when Wolman's construction empire collapsed, Mr. Tose put together a group of investors to buy the franchise. Mr. Tose put up $1.5 million of his own, borrowed more money, and took on partners to finance the purchase.

From the beginning, he established an extremely close relationship with the team, selling his interest in the trucking company so he could devote himself entirely to it.

"He really wanted to get involved with the team," said Eagles executive Ron Howard, who began working for Mr. Tose in 1984. "One year at training camp, Mr. Tose said he wanted to get to know the players better. So he had [an Eagles employee] stand beside him outside their cafeteria and whisper their names in his ear so that he could greet each one personally."

The deal was completed May 1, 1969, and one of Mr. Tose's first acts made him immensely popular with Eagles fans, who had seen their team tumble after winning their last NFL title in 1960.

Not long after planes carrying "Joe Must Go" banners had flown above downtown Philadelphia at lunch hour, he fired coach Joe Kuharich, buying out the final 10 years of the unprecedented contract Wolman had given him.

Mr. Tose then hired relatively unknown Jerry Williams and stuck with him for two-plus seasons despite withering public and media criticism. Williams' teams went 7-22-2 before, three games into their initial Veterans Stadium season, Mr. Tose fired him.

An angry Williams told a post-firing news conference that Mr. Tose was a man "without courage and character."

Williams' replacement, Ed Khayat, lasted through the 1972 season, during which the Eagles went 2-11-1. Then came Mike McCormack, who was fired after three seasons (16-25-1).

Watching UCLA's Rose Bowl victory on New Year's Day 1976, Mr. Tose was struck by the buoyant personality and jaw-jutting confidence of Bruins coach Vermeil. He immediately offered him the job as the Eagles' next coach.

The next eight seasons, during which Vermeil's club improved from a 4-10 first season to a Super Bowl berth and two more playoff appearances, were happy ones for Mr. Tose, even though the coach managed to keep his owner's hands-on tendencies in check.

While he was losing millions, on the surface he continued with his lavish habits. In his first seasons as team owner, when the Eagles still played at Franklin Field, Mr. Tose often fed sportswriters, used to hot dogs and soda, filet mignon and shrimp.

"Some people collect stamps for a hobby. Others buy antiques," former Inquirer columnist Frank Dolson once wrote. "Tose's hobby is spending money."

But when a strike shortened the 1982 season and cost him a considerable amount of money, Mr. Tose, though first denying the speculation, determined to sell his 99 percent interest in the team. Lawsuits, from lenders and others, were becoming both a regular nuisance and a defense against his creditors.

A financial analysis prepared at the time by a potential buyer showed that the team's bank debt had increased dramatically between 1972 and 1982 even as Tose drew $5.2 million in salary and $10.1 million in loans from the team.

Mr. Tose said the sale to Braman netted him only about $10 million.

"I'm doing all right for a man of my age, 87," he said a year ago. "I'm alive." Tose is survived by two daughters, Susan Spencer and Nan, a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren.

This article includes material from the Associated Press.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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