In Philadelphia Sports, It’s 1972 All Over Again

In 1972, Philadelphia’s major sports teams hit a historic rock bottom. A decade later, three of the four had become world champions. How do we make sure history repeats itself?

Illustration by Gluekit

Illustration by Gluekit

Housing values are soaring in Point Breeze, Grays Ferry and Kensington, of all places. The restaurant boom continues along East Passyunk Avenue. Millennials are piling into the city like someone is giving away participation trophies. All this energy and optimism is new and deeply confusing for people who view Philadelphia through an older, more cynical lens.

It’s no doubt a comfort to this veteran crowd, then, that the city’s major sports franchises are still reliably floundering. Sure, the Eagles have won 10 games in each of the past two seasons, but the team did miss the playoffs last year for the third time in four seasons. Similarly, the Flyers have whiffed on the post-season twice in the past three years, and the Phillies are suffering from a crippling hangover after their binge of success from 2007 to 2011. And at least those three teams are trying to win. The Sixers attempted to lose ’em all on purpose over the past two seasons — and were out-tanked twice.

It’s the grimmest time to be a Philadelphia sports fan since 1972.

Those old enough to remember that catastrophic year are no doubt still scarred by the Phillies’ 59-97 debacle of a season (softened some by Lefty Carlton’s virtuoso 27-win Cy Young performance), the Flyers’ loss of a playoff berth when Gerry Meehan’s slapshot eluded Doug Favell with four seconds remaining in the season finale, the Eagles’ miserable 2-11-1 record, and the Sixers’ 30-52 nightmare precursor to the next season’s historically wretched 9-73 belly flop.

The city was stumbling about back then, too, plagued by crime and budget cuts. Racial tensions had heated to near-boiling levels, and the economy was barely out of one recession and soon to face a worse one. From that desperate vantage point, it was hard to imagine that over the next 11 years we would celebrate two Stanley Cups, a World Series championship, an NBA title and a Super Bowl appearance, all of which helped boost Philadelphia’s flagging morale.

What set the stage for that stunning recovery? Good management. Flyers GM Keith Allen knew enough to hire Fred Shero in 1971 and to reacquire Bernie Parent in ’73. Pat Williams convinced Fitz Dixon to sign Julius Erving, setting the stage for Sixers prosperity. Leonard Tose hired Dick Vermeil, and the Phillies’ farm system flooded the Big Club with top talent. (Signing Pete Rose didn’t hurt, either.)

Today, though, none of the front offices has provided fans with confidence that it will be successful. The Sixers could well be headed for yet another season on the stink. (Not that primary owner Josh Harris is upset: Forbes reports that the value of the franchise has swelled 150 percent since his group purchased it in 2011.) The Phillies are a disaster and appear primed for more calamity over the next few seasons, thanks to the mismanagement and crushing contracts bestowed on fading vets by arrogant — and soon to be gone, we hope — GM Ruben Amaro.

The Flyers lack speed, reliable defense and a championship goalie. (Is that all?) And Maximum Leader Chip Kelly’s college-style approach to coaching the Eagles has led to unprecedented roster turnover — and anyone with the temerity to question his methods is dismissed as lacking any semblance of football acumen.

Worst of all, the fans are accepting it. Many are on board with the Sixers’ plan to trade wins for draft picks. The Phillies are on pace to draw two million customers despite being the worst team in baseball. And while Eagles fans used to fricassee Andy Reid for “only” reaching conference championship games, they’re now chanting “In Chip We Trust!” despite Kelly’s lack of a single post-season win. It’s positively un-Philadelphian.

Even if sporting success is always cyclical, fans should be outraged at how their franchises are being run and that post-season interest these days is focused primarily on the draft. Things might well turn around in the next couple of years, but it’s time for results, not requests to embrace the process or condescending shots at the media and fans from unsuccessful executives. Otherwise, get ready for more early-’70s-style futility.

Originally published as “Back to the Future?” in the August 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.