PHILADELPHIA - Eagles fans who like to watch their favorite team in training camp will no longer have to make the trek to Bethlehem, Pa.
The Eagles' annual stay at Lehigh University ended Friday after 17 years when they announced this summer's camp will be held at their own facilities.
"I'm sure some fans are going to be angry and some are going to be thrilled," Eagles president Don Smolenski said. "We plan on having four or five practices at Lincoln Financial Field that will be open to the public, and we will have nine to 12 here (at the NovaCare Complex) that 300-400 fans will be invited to attend.
"This was a very difficult decision for us. Lehigh University gave us nothing but tremendous support and respect for 17 years, and we appreciated it very much. This is about doing what's in the the best interest of our football team."
Staying home for training camp is a growing trend in the NFL.
The Eagles will become the 21st team to stage their summer workouts at their own facilities, and Arizona is also contemplating leaving Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., in favor of their own complex in Tempe.
Staging practices at the NovaCare Complex gives the Eagles' players access to state-of-the-art training and medical equipment - the team has an MRI machine on site - as well as technological upgrades. Smolenski explained that every player is given an iPad that features playbooks, video and more.
Contrary to some speculation, the decision to move camp to Philadelphia had been a subject of discussions for the last several years and was not made exclusively by new coach Chip Kelly.
"This was an organizational decision," Smolenski said. "It's something we've been talking about at various degrees over time, but the talks really got serious toward the end of last season. You're talking about the players and coaches having access to the weight room, more meeting space, more teaching tools. Everything is right here."
The Eagles' Lehigh era began in 1996 under then-coach Ray Rhodes following a 16-year stay at West Chester University (1980-95). Training camp was held in previous years at Widener University (1973-79), Albright College (1968-72) and in Hershey, Pa. (1951-67). This year the Eagles will train in Philadelphia for the first time since 1943, when camp was at St. Joseph's University.
While it was always a popular stop for fans, training camp really took off as a must-see event a few years after the Eagles began at Lehigh. As the Eagles' success under coach Andy Reid took hold, crowds increased. In the summer of 2004, more than 5,000 fans would show up for each practice to watch new wide receiver Terrell Owens catch passes from Donovan McNabb.
Afterward, the fans would flock to local restaurants, bars and even the Sands Bethlehem Casino.
"The Eagles are sure going to be missed here in the Lehigh Valley," Dave Rank, who owns three Starter's sports bars in the Bethlehem area, said Friday in a phone interview. "But what is really going to be missed is the camaraderie and relationships we established with the players, coaches and fans over the years.
"Fans would always stop here as part of their routine when they came to training camp, but we became very close with some of the players and coaches. (Former Eagles tackle) Jon Runyan would have his son's birthday party here every year, and (former Eagles quarterback) Kevin Kolb would do the same thing. Donovan McNabb and Coach Reid would stop by and talk with everybody, and we wound up developing a real bond."
Rhodes and Reid were both big supporters of taking the team to Lehigh in an effort to establish chemistry within the team, but there were some controversies over the years.
In 1997, defensive end Mike Mamula was accused of exposing himself to a female bouncer at the Sterling Hotel in Allentown, Pa. (Charges were eventually dismissed). In 2005, Reid banished Owens from training camp after he got into a heated argument with then-offensive coordinator Brad Childress. In 2009, defensive end Juqua Parker was charged with marijuana possession - the case was dropped - after police pulled over a van driven by tackle Todd Herremans.
Much more serious incidents occurred the last two years. Defensive tackle Mike Patterson was taken off the field by ambulance after suffering a seizure in 2011. Last summer, Reid's eldest son, Garrett Reid, was found dead in his dorm room from an accidental heroin overdose.
"What happened to Garrett was a terrible, terrible tragedy," Smolenski said. "It had nothing to do with this decision. I can't say whether we would be going back to Lehigh if Andy was still our coach, but I do know that he liked going there."
Smolenski indicated that they will try to accomodate as many fans as possible during the practices at the Linc, but logistics will limit how many can watch the workouts at the NovaCare Complex.
Details have yet to be worked out, but the Eagles hope to spread out the invitations among sponsors, season-ticket holders and other fans.
Meanwhile, some businesses in the Lehigh Valley will be considerably less busy in late July and early August.
"We were very lucky to have the Eagles here for 17 years," Rank said. "I'll still have the memories. I still have a picture on the wall of the time Jon Runyan and (defensive end) Hugh Douglas did karaoke at one of my spots and sang, 'Ebony and Ivory.' It's priceless."
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