Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Daily News on July 12, 2005.
IT WILL BE remembered as one of the great lies in Philadelphia sports history, uttered by a man whose only concern at the time was appeasing his creditors and getting back to the blackjack table so he could lose what was left of his fortune.
In 1984, a forgettable 6-9-1 Eagles season was interrupted by the unsettling news that financially strapped club owner Leonard Tose was considering selling a chunk of his team to Phoenix-based real-estate developer James Monaghan and - gulp - moving it to the Valley of the Sun.
The Eagles in . . . Phoenix? That's not just losing a team, not to a community that bleeds green and silver. It would have been losing an institution, a franchise now estimated to be worth more than $1 billion that dominates the news year-round and casts a king-sized shadow over this city's other franchises. Its rowdy fans are legendary, a passion passed down and shared by several generations. No team in the league sells more merchandise; go anywhere in the region - from the Lehigh Valley to Wilmington to the shore - and you will find the team's colors and logo emblazoned on someone's back or window. Even back in 1984, with a fading team and just 2 years removed from a players' strike, the Eagles drew more than 55,000 fans a game to the Vet.
As panicked Philadelphians pondered the unfathomable possibility of losing their beloved football team, Tose assured them they had nothing to worry about.
"The Eagles aren't going anywhere," he promised. "In the first place, I'm not going to sell the club. In the second place, even if I ever did, the only way they'd get them out of Philadelphia is over my dead body."
Turned out that Tose, who died broke in 2003 at age 88, was lying through his capped teeth. Even as he spoke those words, he already had a handshake agreement with Monaghan to sell 25 percent of the club and move it to Phoenix. Even as he spoke those words, his daughter, club vice president Susan Fletcher, who once put a time clock in the club's Veterans Stadium executive offices to make sure everyone was giving a full-day's work for a full-day's pay, was out in Phoenix looking at private schools for her daughter.
Ultimately, a couple of things ended up happening that convinced Tose to abort his plan to take the Eagles to Arizona. One was a lawsuit filed by the NFL that sought to prevent him from moving without a green light from the league's other owners. The other was some impressive 11th-hour negotiating by then-mayor Wilson Goode to keep the Eagles in Philadelphia by restructuring the club's stadium lease and building luxury boxes to increase the team's revenue. Maybe, just maybe, Tose also might have had a small attack of conscience.
"I'm not very happy about the contemplated move," Tose said at the time. "I feel very close ties to the city. They're all saying all I want is big bucks, [but] I'm just trying to survive. I said to the mayor, 'Let me live.' "
While the restructured stadium lease helped keep the Eagles in Philadelphia, it turned out to be too little too late to help Tose hang on to the team. Nearly $42 million in debt, he sold the team to Miami car dealer Norman Braman a few months later for $65 million, all of which went to his creditors or, eventually, the Atlantic City casinos.
Phoenix finally ended up getting an NFL team 3 years later when St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill lugged his hapless franchise to the desert, where they had just one winning season (9-7 in 1998) in 17 years.
But what if things had turned out differently in 1984? What if Tose hadn't backed down and the NFL, which seemed to lose court cases every other week back then, hadn't been able to stop him from moving?
What would have happened here? Would another team, unhappy with its stadium situation and apathetic fan base, have quickly replaced the Eagles? Would the boys in the 700 level ever have been able to spell C-A-R-D-I-N-A-L-S? Would they ever have wanted to? Would the league have awarded Philadelphia an expansion team? Either way, how long would the NFL have kept the lights out on professional football in Philadelphia?
Considering that Philadelphia was the nation's fourth-largest television market at the time, and considering that the NFL's network TV deal was almost up, the thinking was that the league would act quickly to replace the Eagles if they had left.
But the people of Los Angeles thought the same thing in 1995 when they lost not one, but two football teams (the Rams moved to St. Louis and the Raiders moved back to Oakland). Ten years later, they still are NFL orphans, though no one out there seems to mind much as long as there is plenty of wine and brie.
Baltimore waited 12 excruciating years for a team after Bob Irsay moved the Colts to Indianapolis in the middle of the night in 1984. St. Louis waited 8 years for a replacement for Bidwill's Cardinals. Houston was without an NFL team for 5 years following the Oilers' 1997 departure for Tennessee. Cleveland spent three seasons on the NFL shelf after Art Modell moved to Baltimore in '96.
"I have to believe they would have gotten another team fairly quickly," Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said. "Philadelphia is an important market for this league. But I don't think it would have been the same there . The passion of the fans there for the Eagles is unique. It's based on the history of the franchise. You can't re-create that kind of thing."
During his long tenure as owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dan Rooney has seen a lot of things he thought he'd never see. Like the Colts leaving Baltimore. Like the Browns leaving Cleveland. But Philadelphia without the Eagles?
"At the time, it seemed unthinkable to consider the NFL without the Eagles in Philadelphia,'' Rooney said. "I remember standing up at the emergency meeting we had after we learned Leonard was thinking of taking his team to Phoenix and saying, 'We can't let them move. Philadelphia is too important to us. It's where the country started.' I said, 'The Eagles are an institution there. We cannot let him go [to Arizona].' Whether we really could have stopped him, though, I don't know. Fortunately, he backed down and we never had to find out." *