Two years ago the Philadelphia Eagles were among the shining jewels of the NFL. They were coming off a Super Bowl season. They had a bright, young coach and enthusiastic crowds to fill a modern, roomy stadium; they were blessed with a generous owner and a warmhearted general manager who had closely wired them to a city known for its toughness. They had everything. "The best place to work in the world," said the coach, Dick Vermeil.
Now the glitter has gone out of the jewel. The Eagles' ownership is teetering on the brink of financial collapse. The courts have involved themselves in the selling of the team, the only thing that can get it out of the hole. Vermeil is gone, a victim of burnout. So is Jim Murray, the friendly general manager. Six months ago he was fired; the reasons given range from "personal differences" to "streamlining." Three other high- and midlevel executives were also sent packing. Locks were changed on office doors. A time clock was installed in the Eagles' offices in Veterans Stadium. A secretary reported to work and found someone else sitting at her desk. The nice-guy image of the club was replaced by something much chillier. And nowadays, Leonard Tose, 68, the owner, smiles sadly and says, "It's all my fault, all of it."
The first public indication that the Eagles had big money troubles came last Jan. 3, when the sports director of Philadelphia's KYW-TV, Howard Eskin, reported on the air that Tose, whose millions are derived from a family trucking business, had lost so much money in Atlantic City casinos that he might be forced to sell the club. Eskin said Tose had blown approximately $1 million on one night alone, Nov. 16, 1982.
"Right church, wrong pew," says a source familiar with Tose's gambling habits. "That night he happened to be home. But he's lost a lot more than $1 million—a lot more."
Tose threatened a lawsuit against KYW. He denied all charges. He also never filed a suit.
"Is the team for sale?" an interviewer from the Philadelphia Daily News asked him the night of Eskin's broadcast.
"No," Tose said, "the team's not for sale. I'm not selling it."
"Or a piece of it?"
"Are you in financial trouble?"
"No. I don't have any financial trouble. Not from gambling. Not from the [NFL players] strike. Honest to God."
Six months later, on July 12, onlookers in a packed courthouse in the Philadelphia suburb of Media, Pa. were jolted to learn that the Eagles in fact had $33 million in liabilities and that Tose was personally in hock for another $9.1 million. He had been trying to sell the club for some time and on June 17 had finally signed an agreement to do so. The July 12 hearing was necessitated by the fact that on July 1 the prospective buyers had gone to court, claiming that Tose and his daughter, Susan Fletcher, 42, the Eagles' vice-president and legal counsel, had reneged on the deal and were using the buyers' offer to get a higher price elsewhere. The court had slapped a restraining order on Tose and Fletcher, prohibiting them from making any financial deals affecting the Eagles. As a result of the revelations of the 12th, an injunction was handed down the next day that in effect forced Tose and Fletcher to negotiate with the parties to the sale agreement and no one else until Sept. 15. The next court hearing is Sept. 19.
The day of the injunction Tose said he hadn't known what he was signing on June 17. He said that he couldn't read the agreement, that it was illegibly written on a yellow legal pad. He had already filed a countersuit, claiming the prospective buyers had a silent partner who was a convicted felon. Tose eventually dropped that suit. The felon, Jacques Zinman, turned out to be a friend of Fletcher's and his involvement in the prospective purchase of the Eagles was limited. "A finder," Fletcher called him, "a person who helped set up the deal."
In early August Tose was hauled into court and cited for contempt for trying to use the Eagles as collateral on a loan, a violation of the injunction. He said he hadn't read the loan agreement he'd signed. After a midsummer hearing at NFL headquarters in New York, Commissioner Pete Rozelle told Tose he had to make good on the salary of one of the fired executives, Assistant Ticket Manager Bob Ellis. The club had claimed that Ellis had quit. The Eagles, until recently one of the classiest teams in the league, now were caught up in a steady stream of lies and double-dealing.
Back in mid-March it had also become apparent that the Eagles had more than financial difficulties. At that point Murray had not been seen around the club offices for a while. Soon Business Manager Jim Borden and Director of Sales and Marketing Sam Procopio began to be missed also. The locks had been changed on their doors. The staff was in a jumpy mood. Ellis had been let go on March 7. When Gertrude Kelly, an Eagles secretary and a former longtime employee of Tose Trucking, found a new woman at her desk one morning, she went to a back office and collapsed in tears. Any questions about Murray and the other two missing executives were referred to Fletcher.
"Jimmy will always be a big part of the team," Tose had told the Philadelphia Inquirer in January. But where was he? On March 14 Fletcher went on TV to answer the Murray question. "I think he will be back as general manager," she said. "I think Jimmy Murray is very happy with the situation here. I think it's been a very tough couple of years for Jimmy. We told him to take some well-deserved time off and relax and get himself physically in much better shape, because he's had a very trying year."
The only trouble was that Murray had been fired on March 1, 13 days before Fletcher's TV interview. Her statement served to get the press off her back for a while, and the story of his firing didn't surface until the end of May. The media were stunned. You would have to go back to Ben Franklin to find a more popular Philadelphian than Murray, who had come to the Eagles when Tose bought the club in 1969.
"For 14 years, Jim Murray was the link between the Eagles and the neighborhoods," Ray Didinger wrote in the Daily News. "He knew Philly; he felt its pulse. As GM, he set the tone for the classiest, most civic-minded front office in this or any other city."
Even when the Eagles had been lousy on the field, as they had in Tose's first nine years of ownership, no one could stay mad at them for very long. If they weren't busy raising $2 million for the Fly for Leukemia campaign, they were donating $79,000 to keep the city's high school sports programs alive or promoting the Ronald McDonald houses, which provide homes near hospitals for families with children undergoing treatment.
"Leonard Tose got most of the applause for that, but Jim Murray was the man who did the legwork," Didinger wrote. "Murray gave a heart to a tin woodsman of a franchise and he proved, even in the worst of times, there were other ways to win."
The stunning part, though, was that Murray had been Tose's closest friend. When Tose woke up in a Houston hospital in 1978 after open heart surgery, the first person he saw was Murray, saying the rosary. "...he had two things that count" was Tose's quote in the 1982 Eagles' press guide, "brains, and a sincere concern for people. And what a friend!" Tose had given Murray a 1% interest in the Eagles, and privately he was fond of calling Murray "my adopted son."
And now Murray was gone. But why? Tose cited excess spending as the reason for Murray's demise. Tose said that when Murray had signed Quarterback Ron Jaworski to a $400,000 contract in 1981 Tose wasn't told of the deal. "I almost fell through the floor when I saw it," he said.
"Of course Tose knew about it," Jaworski says. "It took a week to finalize, because. Jim had to run it by Leonard."
Murray will not comment on any aspect of the situation. With Rozelle acting as arbitrator, he's trying to reach a settlement on the remaining eight years of his contract. Borden and Procopio are trying to settle their contracts, too.
Tose stuck by his excess-spending statement, even though he admitted, "The fault lies with me. Do you expect me to fire myself?" A source close to both Murray and the Eagles says the fault lies with the 10-year contracts, signed by Tose, that Murray drew up for himself, Borden and Procopio two years ago.
"No NFL employees outside of coaches have long-term contracts like that," the source says. "Susan got upset at the idea of so many people in the organization locked into multiyear deals. Leonard accepted it, but Susan felt that people aren't as productive when they're on long-term contracts like that. She doesn't like cronyism."
Fletcher is vivacious. She smiles a lot and answers all questions, sometimes with a question of her own. "What would you do?" is a favorite expression. When she was 21 and fresh out of Boston University, she married Ira Schneider, a public relations man, and went to work as a history teacher on Long Island, at Meadowbrook Junior High in East Meadow. In 1971 the marriage broke up, and she packed up her 3½-year-old daughter, Marnie, and headed south, to Lighthouse Point, Fla. A year later she was running a business out of her garage, designing and manufacturing tennis dresses under the brand name Papillon. "There were moments of great despair," she says. "I had to do the selling, too, and it was tough, taking my dresses into a pro shop and hearing the guy tell me, 'No. They're ugly.' "
After four years, the business was growing quickly. She had a partner, Dennis Kalodish, and a new husband, Harold Fletcher, a sporting-goods rep. Both relationships broke up. The business partnership nearly ended in the courts. "He wanted to sell goods quicker than we could produce them," Fletcher says. The marriage ended in a divorce that will become final, she says, "any day now."
"My father is very frank about my marital choices," Fletcher says. "He feels I'm 0 for 2." Tose himself is currently on his fourth marriage.
In 1978, at the age of 37, Fletcher entered Villanova Law School. Friends of the Toses say that Murray, a Villanova alumnus and the school's former sports information director, helped her get in. She passed the bar exam on her first try, became the Eagles' legal counsel in 1980 and was made vice-president by her father last fall.
The books she inspected when she took over as vice-president showed that the Eagles had lost money in five of the previous six years—$1.2 million in 1977, $335,591 in '79, $309,291 in their Super Bowl year of 1980, $1,426,000 in '81 and close to $5 million in the strike year of '82. Only in 1978 had they been in the black, earning $849,422. She went to work. She had all expenses pulled from the computer and itemized in two big ledger books, annotating the figures on little yellow square paste-on sheets. For example, under CAR RENTALS she queried: "Why are some people using D and E [special request] classifications?" She consolidated, cut back, economized.
Fletcher had all the executives write job descriptions for themselves, and when she studied them carefully, heads started to roll. One of the first to go was Ellis, the ticket man. A key witness at his arbitration hearing before Rozelle was Chick McElrone, the club's assistant publicity man and an Eagle employee for 12 years. He testified that he had been told by Ellis' superior that Ellis hadn't quit, as the Eagles maintained, but had been fired.
"Leonard Tose said after that, 'Where's your loyalty?' " says McElrone, who later left the Eagles when they brought in a new man, Ed Wisneski, over him. "I said, 'It's not a question of loyalty, it's a question of fairness.' The thing that sticks with me, though, is the last thing Susan told me. She said, 'Your problem, Chick, is that you've got too much integrity.' "
"What I tried to convey to Chick," Fletcher says, "is that friendship is a wonderful thing, but there were some confidential conversations we had here, and you don't discuss them at an arbitration hearing."
Fletcher and her father had been looking for buyers since January. One name that surfaced was Philadelphia Flyers Board Chairman Ed Snider. Other names were mentioned, but on June 17 an eight-page handwritten memorandum of agreement was signed by Tose, Fletcher and Louis Guida of Yardley, Pa., the leader of a five-person syndicate that was to buy the Eagles. In addition to Guida, a Merrill Lynch vice-president and syndicator of the horse Niatross, the group included Ira Lampert, a Dix Hills, N.Y. accountant; and Fletcher's close friends, the Newmans of Narberth, Pa. Dr. Julius Newman is a plastic surgeon known as Dr. Nose—"He gave me the nose I have now," Fletcher says—and his wife, Sandy, had worked in the same law firm as Fletcher. The fifth member of the group was Fletcher herself. The man who had gotten the purchasers together, Zinman, was not mentioned in the document. He had recently pleaded guilty to income tax evasion and been fined and sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
The buyers, accompanied by lawyers, had met with Tose and Fletcher at Tose's summer home in Longport, N.J., near Atlantic City. What actually happened there has been widely disputed. Guida said Tose was in a hurry to sign so he could break out the Dom Perignon champagne and "get on with the celebration," but his daughter insisted that he read the agreement. Suggestions were made, numbers were changed. The upfront money was set at $400,000. Tose was to receive $1 million in consulting fees from the new ownership the first year, $500,000 a year for the next three years and $250,000 a year thereafter until his death. Guida says Tose told him he "couldn't live" on that, so the amount was raised to $400,000. Fletcher was to get 20% of the club, the purchase money to come from a loan from the other syndicate members to be repaid primarily out of her share of the club's yearly profits. Before this deal was signed, Tose had indicated to the press that he would retain 51% of the club, but the agreement called for him to get just 1%. Fletcher would run the team, and the syndicate would pick up the Eagles' $33 million debt, which included such future items as deferred contract payments, plus Tose's personal debt of $9.1 million. The whole package amounted to a $42.1 million price tag for the franchise.
A phrase saying the memorandum had "no binding effect" was crossed out and initialed by Tose, Fletcher and Guida. "Mr. Tose said, if I was in your shoes I'd want it the same way,' " Guida testified in court. " 'Frankly, I've been trying to sell this team for six months...and I want it binding as much as you do.' "
The agreement was signed and the refreshments were broken out, hoagie sandwiches and Dom Perignon, the gamblers' champagne—"Donny P" they call it in Vegas. Eleven days later Sandy Newman went to visit her friend, Susan, and she says she was told the deal was off and that Tose was negotiating with Snider for a better deal. It was then that the Guida group went to court.
And that's where the matter rests. Fletcher contends that the memorandum was not a final document but merely a starting point and that she and her father could end up owning 51% of the club. But she adds, "There are settlement negotiations going on right now. Remember that 94 percent of all cases are settled before they reach trial."
Tose's gambling losses were never officially tabulated, but in April he promised Rozelle he was through with the tables. "I could never give my dad advice on something like gambling," Fletcher says. "He's his own man. In areas where he doesn't ask for advice, I don't give it."
On the field the Eagles don't seem to be affected by the front office turmoil. They lost to Washington 23-13 last Sunday to even their record at 1-1, and for the second week in a row a fluke played a big part in the outcome. In Philly's opening 22-17 win over the 49ers, a holding penalty nullified a last-second touchdown that would have won the game for San Francisco. Last Sunday the Eagles, trailing by seven in the fourth quarter, had the Redskins backed up to their 32-yard line in a second-and-19 situation, but Washington escaped on a 20-yard screen pass to an uncovered Nick Giaquinto. Giaquinto was uncovered because the Eagles had only 10 men on the field. The ensuing Skins' drive ended in the field goal that put the game away.
"Defensively we're back—you'll see," Cornerback Herman Edwards said afterward, and, indeed, the Eagles held the Redskins to 74 yards in the first half. But on offense, well, as Jaworski says, "I hope I make it through the season." He threw well Sunday, completing 24 of 37 passes for 326 yards, but his receivers dropped four balls and he was sacked six times. In the Eagles' last three outings, counting the final exhibition, their quarterbacks have been sacked 17 times. A problem, to be sure, but nobody can blame this one on the front office.
"Very little of what goes on upstairs reaches us down here in the locker room," says Stan Walters, the veteran tackle. Fletcher says she won't meddle in the running of the football operation. It seems she already has enough other projects to keep herself busy.