After 20 years, Lurie still driven to take Eagles to top

Jeffrey Lurie (left) listens to former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski during a reception at City Hall inMay 1994, when Lurie became the new owner of the team.
Jeffrey Lurie (left) listens to former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski during a reception at City Hall inMay 1994, when Lurie became the new owner of the team. (Inquirer file photograph)
Posted: May 19, 2014

The City Hall courtyard filled with 1,000 people on May 17, 1994, to celebrate Jeffrey Lurie's introduction as owner of the Eagles. Mayor Ed Rendell and Eagles players, Mummers, cheerleaders, season-ticket-holders, and the Keystone jazz band all welcomed him. They snacked on cheesesteaks, hoagies, and soft pretzels.

Lurie spent a then-record $185 million to buy the Eagles, fulfilling a dream of owning a professional sports franchise. The Boston native was an outsider prepared to make Philadelphia home. Lurie knew of the Eagles' passionate fans, and he came committed to delivering them their first Super Bowl - and more thereafter.

"If I were to describe myself as any particular type of owner," Lurie said that day at a Convention Center news conference, "it would be a fans' owner, because you really get great satisfaction when you can go out on the streets and scream you're No. 1 and you're world champions."

Exactly 20 years have passed. Lurie has never taken a parade down Broad Street making such an exclamation. The Eagles came close during his two decades - they reached the playoffs 12 times, the NFC championship game five times, and one Super Bowl.

"Nobody feels the sting of not winning the Super Bowl more than me or any of the people that work here," Lurie said last week during a wide-ranging interview with The Inquirer.

He discussed 20 years of ownership, from the hiring of coaches to the team's most polarizing decisions to the future of the franchise.

Lurie's belief in second chances led him to support then-coach Andy Reid's desire to sign Michael Vick. One of his great regrets was letting safety Brian Dawkins leave in free agency - "I wasn't directly involved in that process," he said. He was convinced that releasing star receiver DeSean Jackson was the right move because "the head coach is the chemist," and he trusted Chip Kelly's judgment.

The 62-year-old Lurie still believes he has many years left in his role, although he would like to eventually pass the franchise to his college-age children.

For now, however, he is obsessed with chasing the title that eludes the franchise. Eight NFL owners have been in the league longer than Lurie, and four of them also have not won a Super Bowl.

"I anticipated it being difficult, but I thought if you can get to four, five, six championship games, or get to the playoffs the majority of the years, as we have, then you'd have the luck that would transcend whatever strengths or weaknesses you have," Lurie said. "Other teams have had that. We haven't. If you keep the same values and the same passion to do the best you can, that'll right itself over time."

Those values serve as the blueprint of Lurie's ownership. He once kept a checklist next to his bed of ingredients he thought winning franchises required: "great" facilities at which to practice and play; a "dynamic" head coach; a "very good" general manager and personnel staff, with resources for scouting and procuring ascending players; and a franchise quarterback.

After Lurie became owner, the Eagles opened a $512 million football-only stadium in South Philadelphia funded in a three-way partnership with the city and state, with $125 million more in renovations from private funding to be completed this summer. They moved into a $37 million practice facility at the site of the old Naval Hospital that upgraded the work environment for players and other employees.

The team is a popular free-agent destination, and the 2013 hiring of Kelly proved it could lure top coaches. The Eagles are regarded around the NFL as a stable, well-run organization. Lurie's investment has increased nearly tenfold: The franchise is valued at $1.314 billion, according to Forbes' August 2013 valuation.

"Jeffrey Lurie . . . is a great owner," Rendell said, praising Lurie's commitment to the community, the team, and building Lincoln Financial Field. ". . . The Eagles fans owe him a lot."

His coaches

Lurie's chief decision-making responsibility has been hiring the front office, and specifically head coaches. When he picked Ray Rhodes in February 1995, the Eagles still played in antiquated facilities, and the organization's reputation had not yet been rebuilt. Lurie struck out on his top candidates.

The team reached the playoffs in Rhodes' first two seasons before a quick descent. In hindsight, Lurie understood why.

"We didn't have a franchise quarterback," Lurie said, "so it was not sustainable."

He was attracted to Andy Reid in 1999 because of the Green Bay Packers assistant's experience with quarterbacks and a long-term organizational plan. Reid, who had final say on personnel throughout his tenure with the Eagles, landed Donovan McNabb - the only bona fide franchise quarterback of Lurie's tenure - and became the winningest coach in Eagles history. The perception of the organization changed during Reid's 14 years.

"He gave me an opportunity to be a head football coach in the National Football League," Reid, now the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, said in a telephone interview. "At that time, not too many people who had not been a coordinator had the opportunity to be a head football coach. I thought he took a big risk by doing that, and so I'll always be grateful for him for that."

The new perception of the team was apparent in the Eagles' pursuit of Kelly. The organization had become a popular destination. Lurie was a respected employer.

"The beauty of it now, and it's so different than 1994 or 1999, is I think we can proudly say that coaches want to come work for this organization," Lurie said.

He also has the reputation of being an owner who does not interfere with personnel decisions. In a draft meeting a few weeks ago, Lurie was asked his opinion on a player. He refused to answer.

"I really demand from [general manager Howie Roseman], Chip, the scouts, the people [who] do the work, have to be accountable, and they've got to make those decisions," Lurie said. "Because they'll be better than my decision."

Said Reid: "He puts the ultimate trust in the people he hires and expects them to do their jobs to the best of their ability. If it's not done right, then he's going to come down on you and talk to you about it. But he gives you that opportunity to do your job."

Lurie called the 1999 selection of McNabb with the No. 2 overall pick a "no-brainer" once Reid identified McNabb as the potential franchise quarterback, even if the move was not initially popular among some fans.

Lurie said he regrets the drafting of Danny Watkins in 2011 and learned lessons from signing certain free agents. Those were obvious miscues, but Lurie's two decades at the helm have also included polarizing decisions that remain a source of intrigue.

He watched Dawkins leave Philadelphia after the 2008 season. Lurie called Dawkins his "favorite player of all time." He did not want to discuss the details of Dawkins' exit, but he insisted that he was not directly involved in the free-agent negotiations.

"What frustrated me after was I was not explicitly aware of where the negotiations were before it was too late," Lurie said. "I fully expected we would be re-signing him."

Former team president Joe Banner, a childhood friend of Lurie's, was the team's top negotiator at the time. "We all wanted to keep Brian Dawkins," Banner said last week.

Banner left to be CEO of the Cleveland Browns in 2012, a job he no longer holds. He admitted there was some "roughness" to the departure, but he said "we accomplished a lot of great things together."

Lurie devoted considerable thought to the 2009 signing of Vick, a move he later called "counterintuitive." He spent a full day with Vick and ultimately determined Vick "deserved a second chance" after serving 18 months in federal prison for dogfighting. Lurie maintained that the decision was about more than football.

"I think the principle we stood for was the right principle in America at that point in time," he said. "And I still believe in it, giving someone a second chance."

He also gave a second chance to wide receiver Riley Cooper last summer after a video showing Cooper shouting a racial slur at a concert appeared online. Lurie said the team's previous experience with Cooper helped in the decision, although Lurie said Kelly "led the way" in determining Cooper's future.

"If [Cooper] couldn't reintegrate his way into the team in a way that's healthy and positive, then he didn't deserve to be on the team," Lurie said. "And if he could, then should Chip really be the arbiter of what potentially could be ending his career, when his teammates had a lot of understanding and respect for Riley leading up to it? The decision was to let that play out."

Lurie trusted Kelly with the team's most recent polarizing decision: releasing DeSean Jackson in the prime of the star receiver's career. Kelly had said parting with Jackson was "purely a football decision," although part of that football decision appeared to be the way Jackson fit within the culture Kelly created.

"The head coach is the chemist," Lurie said. "And if he felt the chemistry, what Chip demanded out of that position, wasn't necessarily there, then he had to make other moves.

"DeSean had a great career here. . . . But I think you have to [trust] a coach who's putting together what he hopes is a very successful team and chemistry."

Still excited

Lurie was the league's youngest owner when he purchased the team at age 42. He appeared solemn at the owners meetings in March, after Bills owner Ralph Wilson's death, when acknowledging the changes in NFL ownership in recent years. Yet at 62, Lurie said he is "as excited now as I've ever been." He remarried last summer and his children are growing into adults.

He and his former wife, Christina Weiss Lurie, intentionally keep their two children out of the spotlight. But Lurie said last week that he anticipates one day passing the franchise on to his children and involving them in team operations, if they're interested.

"But it's way too early, and I'm way too young, to contemplate," Lurie said.

Twenty years go quickly, though. The 20th anniversary of his buying the team did not even occur to him, Lurie said. He called the last two decades the best of his life.

"Other than my family and my close friends, there's nothing I love more than owning the team and doing everything I can to make it a success," Lurie said. "That's how I live. That is me."


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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