The Egghead in the Eagles' Owner's Box

Philly's Jeff Lurie failed at films, but he's pretty good at pigskin

When NFL owners meet, the armchairs quickly fill with tycoons of businesses ranging from consumer credit to used cars. It may be a gathering of big heads--but not eggheads. In fact, Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is the only PhD in the room.

Any doubts about whether the resident brainiac can win football games, though, have been put to rest. Leaning on Andy Reid, last year's NFL coach of the year, and quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Eagles have a shot at the Super Bowl. After logging their second straight 11-5 season, they thumped Tampa Bay on Jan. 12 by 31-9 to move to the second round of postseason play. Two more victories and the team heads for New Orleans--its first championship appearance in 21 years.

Lurie and his aides have been no slouches on the sidelines, either. Last March, the Eagles moved into the NovaCare Complex, a $37 million training complex. Two months later, ground was broken for a $500 million stadium set to open in South Philly in 2003--with nearly $200 million of the tab picked by the city and state. Says former Philly Mayor Ed Rendell: "When the Eagles are in the could raise the wage tax and nobody'd notice."

The slight, contemplative Lurie, who bought the Eagles in 1994 for about $195 million, then a record for a sports franchise, sometimes behaves more like a Peace Corps volunteer than a football owner. In the NovaCare Complex lobby, he has installed a hall of heroes photo display honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and Jonas Salk. "Jeffrey is different and distinct," says NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "But he also comes from a family with a very deep business tradition."

Lurie grew up in Boston, the grandson of Philip Smith, a movie-theater operator whose General Cinema made a fortune. The family parlayed that into even more lucrative stakes in such companies as Neiman Marcus Group and Harcourt General, sold last year to Anglo-Dutch publisher Reed Elsevier for $4.5 billion.

For a kid, the movie business had its perks--like free passes for his friends. But Lurie's most vivid childhood memories revolve around sports--often big games he attended with his father, Morris, who died of kidney cancer in 1961 when young Jeff was 9.

After getting a PhD in social policy, Lurie opened Chestnut Hill Productions and went to Hollywood to champion films with a social wallop. But mostly, Chestnut Hill turned out turkeys that got walloped. As setbacks mounted, Lurie began looking for a new career. "It's like somebody from a family of doctors who goes into medicine and discovers he should have been a painter," says John Bard Manulis, who worked with Lurie on several films.

After a losing bid to Robert Kraft for the New England Patriots, Lurie contacted Norman Braman, then-owner of the Eagles. He startled Braman with a request--rare for a prospective owner--to send him game films from the previous year. "That's Jeffrey. He's very knowledgeable about the game," says New York Giants co-owner Robert Tisch, a friend of Lurie's family.

While Lurie insists he's no football expert, his office in the NovaCare Complex overlooks the manicured practice fields, allowing him to watch daily workouts. And after each game, he quizzes Reid. Former Eagles staffers groan when asked about the boss's butting-in, though Lurie gives the impression he's always hands-off. "When an owner starts to evaluate talent," he says, "you reach some irrational decisions at times." There is, however, one decision Lurie would love to be making in February: how to find room next to Mother Teresa for a Super Bowl trophy.

By Mark Hyman in Philadelphia

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.