Leonard Tose, the 69-year-old owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, is a free-spending man who likes to gamble in casinos and yearns to be liked, according to both friend and foe. Last week, he became the most hated man in Philadelphia when it was disclosed he was contemplating the move of his franchise to Phoenix.
Only last month, a newspaper reporter in Philadelphia tracked down Tose at a hotel in Phoenix. When the reporter asked if Tose's being there had anything to do with moving his National Football League franchise to Phoenix, Tose vehemently denied it. A month later, it was revealed that Tose had been negotiating the sale for almost a year, and the Eagles' owner had been caught in his own deception.
For many, the public perception of Tose, who inherited his father's trucking company, is that of a ruthless businessman who cares only for himself, who gambled excessively and poorly at the blackjack tables and is now $40 million in debt. And now, in what he describes as an effort to survive, he has infuriated a community that has backed the Eagles for 51 years.
According to those who know Tose and have worked for him, there is another side to the man. In his early years of owning the franchise, he gave $67,000 to keep the athletic program going in Philadelphia public schools when budget cuts threatened to wipe out high school sports. In another instance, he paid more than $70,000 for the bone-marrow operation of a little girl in New York City.
He comes across as a charming man, the life of the party, outside his business environment.
"He's the nicest man in the world, the most generous man I've known," said one business associate. "He's the epitome of always doing it first class . . . He's the last of the Damon Runyon-type characters."
But others who have observed Tose say he is generous only to feed his own ego. Said another business associate, "The whole world has to revolve around him. He only cares about himself. Coaches, wives (he's had four), general managers. When he turns on them, he's ruthless . . . He likes people to like him. He wines and dines people with generosity. Is he doing it to impress them? Or is he being a nice guy?"
Unlike most other NFL owners, whose lives and finances generally do not become public, Tose has come under scrutiny because of lawsuits involving his business and his marriage.
From the day he bought the Eagles in 1970, for a then-record $16.15 million for a professional sports team, controversy has surrounded Tose and the franchise. Tose paid that sum to Jerry Wolman, a Washington, D.C., developer who owned a majority interest in the team but whose real estate empire had gone bankrupt. Wolman supposedly had an agreement with Tose to be able to repurchase the team, but Tose thwarted that in court because a deadline given to Wolman by a federal bankruptcy referee had been extended 30 days.
Tose bought the Eagles with borrowed funds, including $10 million from a consortium of banks headed by First Pennsylvania Bank of Philadelphia and $6.5 million from private investors. In 1978, First Pennsylvania took Tose to court, seeking to place someone else in control of the team, because he was drawing too much money from the club. That move failed when other NFL owners, like William Clay Ford of the Detroit Lions and Charles W. Sullivan of the New England Patriots, came to his aid and arranged other financing.
Early on in his team ownership tenure, the casinos opened in Atlantic City. Tose, who owned a home on the Jersey shore, was a frequent visitor. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported New Jersey gaming officials as saying Tose once lost $500,000 playing blackjack in a single weekend.
His gambling became a matter of public record when his second wife unsuccessfully sought to have him declared incompetent in court, claiming that he was a compulsive gambler. By 1983, his debts had reached $31 million, according to a source with close ties to the Eagles, and he was seeking to sell a minority interest in the team.
What he did was agree to sell the team to a group headed by Louis Guida, a Yardley, Pa., investment broker. One of Guida's partners in the deal was Susan Fletcher, Tose's daughter. Tose reneged and hired Fletcher as the team's vice president. In the process, he fired Jim Murray, the Eagles' general manager whom he had treated as a son. He said at the time that Murray had a personality conflict with Fletcher. Guida sued Tose and they settled out of court for $1.75 million.
By this time, Tose had sold out his interest in the trucking business, which still bears the family name, and the Eagles were his sole business. With media pressure on NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to explain why the league would suspend Colts player Art Schlichter for gambling and let Tose alone, an apparent double standard in favor of team owners, Tose promised Rozelle he no longer would gamble in casinos.
Tose also needed another loan or refinancing to keep the team, and until developments this past week, found lenders and investors in Philadelphia unwilling to let him spend their money.
On "ABC Nightline" Wednesday night, Dick Vermeil, a former coach of the Eagles, said, "Knowing Leonard like I did while I worked for him for seven years, he really loves Philadelphia and he loves the people here, and I really don't think he wants to leave. I believe he's in a situation financially where the only way the financial needs of the organization could be met were out of state, because the people here that had the money to back him and buy a minority percentage of the team would not do it."
In an interview with Frank Dolson of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Tose said, "He (Vermeil) said more of the truth than anybody . . . They are saying all I want is big bucks. Like I told you, I'm not interested in matching Phoenix's offer. I want to survive. I said to the mayor, 'Let me live.' "