Smolenski: Eagles have no plans to leave Lehigh
All over the NFL, teams are shutting down their training camps, shutting out their fans and moving summer operations behind the sealed doors of their year-round practice facility or into the cavernous confines of their regular-season stadium.
This year, the Bengals are the latest team to abandon their cozy college home. After 44 years practicing on a tiny college campus – 29 years at Wilmington College in Ohio, 15 years at Georgetown College in Kentucky – the Bengals this year are practicing at Paul Brown Stadium, where they play their regular-season games.
Although some practices will be open to the public – they haven’t announced which yet – the charm of big-time football on a small-town college campus, which the Bengals have had for nearly half a century, is gone.
The Bengals are the latest in a trend that has seen 17 NFL teams leave college campuses since 1991, seven just since 2007.
The Eagles are one of the last remaining holdouts, one of just 13 teams that will hold camp on a college campus this year. And team president Don Smolenski said fans have no need to worry about the Eagles leaving Lehigh, their summer home since 1996.
“Things can change, and you never say never, but our plans are to continue to hold training camp at Lehigh for the foreseeable future,” Smolenski said. “Going to Lehigh for training camp has become a big part of what we do. We haven’t even discussed [moving back to Philadelphia]. We really never have. It’s just never come up.”
The Eagles announced on Tuesday that they agreed to contract terms
with Lehigh University officials on next year’s training camp, which will be the Eagles’ 18th in Bethlehem. That will be the longest they’ve ever held training camp in the same place.
Only three NFL teams have been at their current training camp home longer than the Eagles have been at Lehigh. The Packers have been at St. Norbert College in DePere, Wisc., since 1958; the Steelers at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., since 1964; and the Vikings at Minnesota State in Mankato, Minn., since 1966.
The Eagles drew over 70,000 fans to 13 practice dates last summer and have drawn close to a million fans to Lehigh since 1996.
“It really works for us, both from a football standpoint and for our fans,” Smolenski said. “Andy [Reid] and the coaches like going up there and getting away and the camaraderie they get from having all the guys together, and for us, it allows us to really broaden our reach and give fans the opportunity to watch practice from just a few feet away.
“You go up to Lehigh and watch practice, you can literally hear the hitting and watch the coaches working with the players. It really is a unique experience.”
Once upon a time, Eagles training camp was a pretty low-key affair. At West Chester – and even in the early years at Lehigh – there was limited seating, no concessions or amenities, no kids activities and no organized opportunities for fans to get autographs.
The Eagles over the past decade have greatly enhanced the experience with a large Eagles gift shop, additional bleachers, food and beverage concessions, an organized system that gives all fans an equal chance to get autographs and several kids activities at Lehigh’s track, which is adjacent to the practice fields. Admission and parking at training camp are always free.
The Eagles are scheduled to open camp on July 22 this year, with the first open practice on July 23 and the first public full-team workouts scheduled for July 27.
“We all love going up to Lehigh,” said Smolenski, who joined the Eagles in 1998 as chief financial officer and was named team president last month. “We have no plans to stop.”E-mail Reuben Frank at email@example.com