Will the Real Joe Banner Please Stand Up?

When he first came to town to run the Eagles, Joe Banner was known as a smart guy and a generous, sensitive soul. Then Eagles Nation got ahold of him — and made him the most hated man in Philadelphia

Joe Banner is deep into talking about what it’s like, to run a pro football team in Philadelphia, when there’s a knock on his office door.

“Yeah,” he calls out.

The door opens.

“Oh my God!” Banner says. “Are you kiddin’ me?”

At the door is a young blonde with her newborn baby. “I didn’t want to interrupt,” she says. It’s Tina, team owner Jeff Lurie’s assistant, who’s been out on maternity leave.

“It’s one of the rules of the office,” Joe says as she hands over her daughter. “You have to bring your baby in, and I have to get to hold it.”

Sitting behind his desk, Joe cradles the newborn — her name is Olivia — up high on his shoulder, and starts cooing to her: “Pretty good grip. You have a very good grip. A good grip. You do. How you doin’?”

Before Olivia’s arrival, Banner had been talking about how, a few years ago, his son Jon woke up one Monday morning refusing to get out of bed: “Dad, you don’t know how horrible it is for me to go to school the day after we lose a game.” Jon was hearing stuff like The Eagles suck. Your dad doesn’t know what he’s doing. He was in third grade at Penn Charter.

Not knowing what he’s doing — that would be one of the kinder critiques of Joe Banner in Philadelphia. Generally, opinions, on sports-talk radio especially, get a little personal: that he’s a smug, cold bottom-line guy quite willing to jettison popular players once they approach the ripe old age of 30. Troy Vincent. Hugh Douglas. Duce Staley. Brian Dawkins — that one, Dawkins, really hurt.

The perception is he’s a guy who doesn’t really care about winning. Not enough, anyway. Not like we do. Though he’s very good at lining Jeff Lurie’s pockets with ever-increasing amounts of our cash. (Forbes says Lurie’s team is now worth a cool billion.)

“What’s going on?” Joe whispers to Olivia. She starts to fuss. “Don’t be doin’ that. Don’t be doin’ that. … This is the best lap in the whole building.”
“I probably gave you a cranky baby,” Tina apologizes.

“You’ve got the best lap in the whole building and you’re going to give me a hard time, huh?” Joe coos.

“Babies are his thing,” Tina explains.

Joe Banner gets up from his desk with Olivia. He’s a small man — tiny, really — with a springy, athletic bounce. Perfect for calming babies. Though Tina reminds him of another visit, when a two-year-old vomited across his desk from the relative safety of its mother’s lap.

“It was quite unpleasant,” Joe remembers pleasantly, bobbing around his desk with Olivia.

“Now she’s fine with you, Joe,” Tina observes, “so just take her for the afternoon.”

“How’s that thumb?” Banner asks Olivia. “You’re chumpin’ on that thing pretty good.”

Then, softly, he thanks his new friend for coming by, and Joe Banner returns to talking about what it’s like to be him in this city. First of all, he and Lurie want to win, desperately want to win, the Super Bowl. The idea that they’re not obsessed with winning it drives him crazy. And:

“When they talk about the organization being greedy — I couldn’t be more clear how false that is, and how unfair that feels, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that bothers me.” In fact, he points out, pretty much every team ends up spending the same amount of money, as limited by the league’s salary cap.
The problem is, with Joey from Roxborough calling up WIP and railing that that freakin’ Banner is a cheapskate, the little guy who thinks he’s so smart but didn’t re-sign my favorite player, an image has spread into the general consciousness like poison dumped into a well.

Never mind that the Eagles have been very good for a decade, and keep knocking on the door of a championship. There’s only one question to supply a necessary tension, to keep the drama going year-round: What’s keeping them from busting through?

Every drama requires a villain. Banner — he’s from Boston, for chrissake. He’s cheap, he’s cold, he’s controlling, he’s arrogant, he doesn’t care — not the way we care. Keep saying it, over and over, and it becomes the truth.

But who is this guy, really? Only one thing’s certain: Joe Banner, spontaneously cooing sweet nothings to a baby — who could possibly believe that?

He was always small — he’s five-foot-five now, his mother Micki alleges — and when Joe was young and growing up outside Boston, he was teased. Micki, 83 years old, tells a story of early fierceness, of six-year-old Joseph allowing a much bigger friend to take a toy of his, waiting a half-hour, and then pushing him down the stairs as a warning. But she also remembers a more wrenching problem: how Joe was too small to play sports in public school, where he was known as Shorty.
His parents moved him to a small private school, where on the first day a classmate wondered how he could possibly be old enough for seventh grade, and where, at 14, he took part in a school fund-raising car wash and managed to drive one car into a pond because … he couldn’t reach the pedals. The story’s still infamous school lore.

But Banner found an escape: camp. He says that if we want to understand who he is, what he became, we need to understand his camp experience at Skylemar in southern Maine. It’s where Banner’s sons, Jason and Jon, 15 and 13, now spend seven weeks of their summers playing sports.

At camp, the playing field was level, and Banner started to learn how to channel his competitiveness, to begin gaining control of himself. What he learned from the two men who owned Skylemar, he says, might have made camp more important, even, than his own family. Though Joe has trouble defining why.

One evening this summer, Banner and his wife Helaine — relaxed in their living room in Haverford, where the back windows look down into a peanut-shaped pool and where Joe spends many sleepless nights mulling some Eagles crisis as he stares into his gargantuan aquarium of exotic freshwater fish — try to uncork the essence of Joe’s youth.

“There’s never going to be any criticism of Joe at camp,” Helaine explains, as if it’s a place still present in his life. “It has to do with Herb Blumenfeld, the owner who’s still alive, especially. He’s such a warm, sensitive person. Yet he’s a fierce competitor.”

Helaine’s a very small woman with dark hair and a smile so preternaturally large that it swallows her eyes, and she lets us rest on that thought for a moment because it’s an important dichotomy: both gentle and tough. She is describing her husband.

Joe’s a little embarrassed: “Her version of my toughness is that I just fool everybody.”

“Really, he’s not that tough,” she agrees, laughing. “I am way tougher.”

“But then I use that,” Joe says. “If the guy on the other end of a negotiation thinks I’m tough, it’s very helpful.”

In fact, toughness, confidence — he always had them, despite his stature. Joe was 15 when he met Jeff Lurie, a fellow Bostonian a year and a half older, through a mutual friend (and Camp Skylemar bunkmate). Joe and Jeff immediately connected over watching sports. And they both held an improbable idea about where they wanted to end up: Jeff would own a professional sports team. Joe would run one. After college, Jeff moved to California and got into the movie business; over the years, they’d keep in touch, sometimes meet up on vacations.

Always, they talked sports.

Joe went to Denison University in Ohio, where he majored in economics; senior year, he interned at WCAU radio here in Philly. Post-college, Banner wrote to NFL teams looking for entrée to that dream job — predictably, no teams invited him in. When a deal to buy a camp in Maine with a friend fell through, Banner started a retail men’s businesswear company with his father. Joe’s tough side — the one that has no trouble controlling a bottom line — -expanded the business into outlets in several cities; Banner secured a healthy nest egg when they sold the company in 1992. It was time to flex a softer muscle.

Pushing 40, still single, Banner decided he wanted to create a nonprofit volunteer organization. He was advised to go see two Harvard Law grads who were brainstorming City Year, a national service organization of young adults working as full-time tutors in challenged urban schools.

“I’ve never gotten another phone call like Joe’s,” one of the City Year founders, Alan Khazei, says. Here was a successful businessman who approached them with no agenda other than to see how a nonprofit operated so he could start his own. But Banner realized he wanted, instead, to volunteer for City Year, and asked Khazei a question: What do you guys need?

What they really needed, it turned out, was a bigger space. Banner spent more than a year securing new digs for the start-up, which Bill Clinton would visit in 1992 as he planned AmeriCorps.

One other thing Banner did for close to two years: One day a week, from morning to night, he read to seriously ill patients at Children’s Hospital Boston. There were kids with AIDS and cerebral palsy, and Banner got down on the floor to play checkers and other board games with them. When he was eight years old, Banner had had a tumor removed from his shoulder. It turned out to be benign, but he’d never forgotten being hospitalized with other kids whose outcomes were different.

“I could always tell by his voice,” his mother Micki says now — that he’d spent the day at the hospital, if he happened to call her that night. “There was a real sadness, after he went to read to the kids.”

Banner was soon at another crossroads, ready for something different. In the early ’90s, he decided to head to Hawaii, his favorite place in the world. A small problem: Just as he was securing a job teaching eighth-grade math at a private school on Maui, he met Helaine, recently divorced with a little girl. There was soon another complication: His old friend Jeff Lurie had been calling, leaving messages on his answering machine in Boston while Banner was job-hunting in Hawaii: Remember how I always wanted to buy a sports team? Well, I’m ready. Did Banner want to help him?

Lurie admits now it was “a leap of faith” to tap Banner as the hands-on guy to run his team. Clearly, believing in Joe was a feel thing, as if he understood that Banner, so smart and independent-minded and committed — “When Joe loves something, he cares about it intensely” — really was waiting all along for just this opportunity.

Before leaving Boston, Banner went to City Year with a plan: He wanted to expand the organization into Philadelphia. It’s been hugely successful here — rivaling New York’s as the biggest in the country — with more than a thousand volunteers. Banner won’t divulge how much time he now devotes to the organization, but when City Year people talk about him, they say things like “Joe Banner is a national treasure.”

“I guess I drank the Kool-Aid,” Banner explains. He really believes giving a year to national service post-college can become as commonplace as joining Facebook.
As for the way Banner is viewed in Philadelphia, as the cold, bottom-line-obsessed suit who really cares only about making Jeff Lurie richer, a mystified Alan Khazei shakes his head: “It breaks my heart.”

What, then, of that other Joe Banner? The dark one?
Angelo Cataldi, the loudmouth of WIP’s morning show, is the ringleader in hammering him. Consider some nuggets from last year, in the wake of safety Brian Dawkins leaving the Eagles for the Denver Broncos, preserved from Cataldi’s side gig as a Metro columnist:

The newspaper won’t let me use the four-letter words that come to mind first when I think of the Eagles under Joe Banner, so I’ll use the one word that I know will leave a lasting impression. Cheap.

A week earlier, he’d written:

My hatred for the Eagles right now goes beyond even the stupidity of this decision and the total disdain it shows for the fans. My hatred also stems from the way the Eagles do things — as always, so devoid of simple human feeling.

Cataldi’s tone toward Banner on-air is even deadlier. He defends himself by claiming his attacks are never personal, even though an eight-year-old could see that’s the point of them. Cataldi’s sidekick, Al Morganti, raises an interesting question, however: “In my experience, you can never tell people what to think. How much does media really shape views?”

In Banner’s case, a lot — given that he doesn’t speak all that much publicly. Art Block, the general counsel at Comcast who met Banner several years ago when Block volunteered for City Year, had bought the party line: Banner was — all together, now — “a cold businessman without a compassionate side who didn’t care about players as people.” After meeting him, Block poked his head into his boss David Cohen’s office and said, “Joe Banner is really … good” — as in, flat-out driven by a worthy cause — “or am I missing something?”

Cohen knows Banner well, and he assured Block that he had read the guy right. Cohen calls Philadelphia “the smallest big-city echo chamber in America. Where conventional wisdom becomes wisdom.”

From the get-go, it was a stretch for Lurie and Banner, two guys with zero experience in professional sports, to think they could march into Philadelphia and take over the Eagles. But they believed, in fact they were dead sure, that they would figure it out. Take the hiring of Andy Reid in 1999, which is Banner’s favorite story. No one had ever hired a head coach who hadn’t run a college team or overseen an offense or defense in the NFL; an impressive coaching résumé was deemed crucial. That was completely backwards thinking, Banner decided. He and Lurie analyzed the qualities the most successful coaches shared — scrupulous attention to detail, absolute commitment to a philosophy, obliviousness to public criticism … hello, Andy Reid! Never mind that Reid was an obscure Green Bay assistant coach. Banner’s and Lurie’s huge risk — just to remind our listeners out there — became the winningest coach in team history.

But even as the team did well, Banner got heat. He understood the JOE THE CLOTHES SALESMAN signs at the Vet making fun of him early on — as somebody from Boston, as somebody with no football background, he had to prove himself. Winning, though, didn’t ingratiate Banner to fans: He was still the cold money manager who got rid of favorite football sons before we were ready to part with them. And word had it that he was a bear to deal with in negotiations, that some players in the locker room hated Banner.

“Hate? That’s a little much,” says Ike Reese, a WIP jock who played linebacker for the Eagles for seven years. “I think most players, during the time I played, thought, ‘He’s going to be tough to deal with. Prepare yourself to be ready to move on.’” Banner admits that several years ago, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter told him how his negotiating stance, wherein he’d list a player’s deficiencies in excruciating detail, was being received by those donning helmets and pads; Banner toned it down.

Peter Schaffer reps current Eagles Mike Patterson and Jamaal Jackson, and ex-Eagle Tra Thomas, whom Banner didn’t re-sign last year, when Thomas was 34. “I’ve had discussions with Joe,” Schaffer says, “that as medical science and doctors get better, the age cutoff should change.”

Ah yes, one of the prime anti-Banner arguments: Hit 30, the team is done with you. Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor and Trotter and Thomas and Corey Simon and Staley and Brian Dawkins — what they all shared were fans bellyaching that Banner was cheap and cold for not signing them for a year or two more. What these players also share is a sharp downturn in performance, post-Eagles. Even Dawkins, who made the Pro Bowl last season playing for Denver, was targeted by Reid’s offense when the Broncos came to town, because Dawkins now has trouble covering receivers. Banner can’t win. He and Reid have made generally smart football decisions on cutting players loose, but Banner still gets hammered as unfeeling by the same fans who claim he doesn’t want to dance at the Super Bowl as much as they do.

One other thing: Schaffer says he finds Banner not just smart as a whip, but “enjoyable and witty” at the negotiating table.

Enjoyable and witty isn’t the public Joe. But just as fans don’t get him, he doesn’t get us, the fans. That became crystal clear with the opening of the Eagles’ new stadium.

The Linc was something Banner worked on day and night for three years. He had to convince City Council, and Mayor Rendell, and Governor Ridge, that we couldn’t build a new stadium just for baseball and refurbish the Vet for football. We needed a football-only stadium. Jeff Lurie himself would contribute more than $300 million, and “nobody in the world was putting up that kind of money privately to build a stadium,” Banner says. “And it took — this can be taken the wrong way — but it took courage on our part to believe we could generate enough business.”

Banner had to get banks to agree on the risk. He had to figure out how to pay all that debt service. And he had to jet up from the Super Bowl in Miami in 1999 to break a stalemate in Harrisburg, by devising a plan — “It was my idea!” — to assure that stadium tax revenue would cover the state’s cost. So there it was, finally, a glorious new stadium in the fall of ’03, the first time in their 70-year history that the Eagles had their very own place to play. What a wonderful gift to the fans! On the way to the grand prize, homing right in on that Super —

A small interruption. Brought to you by Angelo Cataldi. Something that would be called Hoagiegate.

Cataldi got wind that the Eagles would be restricting the size of packages fans could bring into the Linc, ostensibly for reasons of security in the wake of 9/11, and he seized the opportunity on-air:

“Jeff Lurie and Joe Banner are telling me I can’t bring my hoagie to the game?” he shouted repeatedly. “I have to eat my hoagie at 12:45?” He said it over and over and over and over — that Lurie and Banner were taking hoagies out of our mouths.

Banner went public with a rebuttal: “It is patently irresponsible in this day and age to question the motives behind a policy driven by and recommended by security experts.” That was a colossal mistake, coming off as defiant instead of sensitive. The Daily News created a front page with a hoagie coming out of Jeff Lurie’s ears. Then-editor Zack Stalberg remembers Banner calling him to make his case again and again for an hour and a half: It’s not about money. It’s security. Many other stadiums have these rules.

Cataldi also said, on-air, “If the Eagles are given the opportunity to choose the security, I totally expect them to wear swastikas on their arms.” Both Jeff Lurie and Joe Banner are Jewish. The Eagles complained to WIP management, and Cataldi was suspended for two days.

Still, the Eagles caved in to a foaming fan base by allowing larger, clear-plastic-wrapped packages — our hoagies! — through one entrance at the Linc.

But here’s the rub, where Banner’s hyper-logical world collides with the strange theater of sports fandom. We’ll never know whether the team banning fans from bringing food into the Linc was about security (as Banner still says), or to enrich the food concessionaires (given that he also says, “Every penny we made from concessions was new money that could help us justify the investment”). But that’s beside the point. Hoagiegate wasn’t about greed, but ignorance.

Banner would end up going on Howard Eskin’s afternoon show on WIP — against the advice of his PR people — to spend an hour getting hammered by callers. Ike Reese, the host of the show following Eskin’s, introduced his guest, one Brian Dawkins calling in, by saying, We’re going to learn that everything Joe Banner just said is a lie.

Now, at lunch, Banner doesn’t want to relive the whole Dawkins saga, but he says, “I’ll tell you something nobody knows. After Brian signed with Denver, he remarried his wife, and he invited me to the wedding.”

The recommitment ceremony was in Florida, and Banner couldn’t make it.
Then Banner re-creates a simple e-mail exchange he had with Dawkins after he signed with Denver:

Banner: I feel terrible about your leaving and hope that at some point we can sit down and talk and clear the air.
Dawkins: I hope we can do that too. I’m heartbroken about leaving.

These things — the remarriage invitation, the e-mail exchange — might be self-serving. When I ask Banner if he can help me get in touch with Dawkins, he says, “I’m not comfortable reaching out to him now.”

“Are you in communication?”


We’re silent for a moment. Banner pokes at his fries and looks miserable.
In a few minutes, he’ll head back to his rental overlooking the ocean to deal with an erroneous Howard Eskin tweet proclaiming “Say goodbye to vick!!!”

But at the moment, Joe Banner can’t put Brian Dawkins to rest.

Finally he says: “If you asked Brian if he’s disappointed he didn’t finish his career in Philadelphia, it would be an emphatic yes. And do you view Joe as at least part of the reason it didn’t work out — he’s going to say yes. But I do believe — and hope I’m not wrong — if you say, do you respect him, or think he’s a bad person, he’s not going to say anything bad. I would hope. I would be surprised if he says anything bad.”

Brian Dawkins declines to comment. He might be the only one.

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