Jeffrey Lurie ’73 talks football, movies and Clark at Reunion

Jeffrey Lurie '73 speaks at the Reunion Weekend Friday Night Dinner.

Jeffrey Lurie ’73 speaks at the Reunion Weekend Friday Night Dinner.

The day after he’d bought the Philadelphia Eagles football franchise in 1994, Jeffrey Lurie ’73 sat at his desk in a windowless office in a dilapidated building and wondered if he’d made the biggest mistake of his life. The rat he watched skitter across the carpet amplified those concerns.

His state of mind wasn’t helped by a front-page Wall Street Journal story that appeared the next morning, taking Lurie to task for making an “emotional” purchase that would never see a good return on investment.

But his instincts and analysis told him differently. While the National Football League was not quite the juggernaut it is today, Lurie saw the potential for it to become “an incredible hit-maker.”

“The rest is history,” Lurie told his fellow Clarkies at the May 17 Clark University Reunion Weekend Dinner, noting that the NFL not only dominates the television landscape but dwarfs all other sports in the United States in popularity.

“If you reach for things and people tell you that’s not the way to go, trust your own analysis, have confidence, and empower yourself,” he said. “I learned some of that at Clark.”

Lurie, in his keynote address in Tilton Hall, recalled that he came to Clark after attending a “rigid all-boys high school in Cambridge.” He discovered the University valued “independent thinking, critical thinking, emotional intelligence. All the things we now know drive success.”

He described how Clark empowers its students to be bold and pursue passions that may defy the norm. When he attended the University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, students were finding their way in a social and political milieu that included the Vietnam War, the rise of feminism and academic innovation. “There was a lot going on in America. You were encouraged to be a participant and not an observer. That mode of being a participant energized me throughout my career.”

Lurie identified his passions as sports and movies, and he has found success in both.

The Eagles are one of the premier NFL franchises, blessed with a rabidly loyal fan base (as memorably illustrated in films like “Invincible” and “Silver Linings Playbook”). But it wasn’t always so: Lurie turned a downtrodden franchise into a powerhouse team.

“It harkens back to one of the lessons I learned at Clark, which is that people matter,” he said. “We built a team around high-character people willing to make hard choices because they were the right choices.” Lurie noted that the Eagles staff worked to transform the culture into one that emphasizes not only victories on the field, but community stewardship off it. The franchise plays in an environmentally friendly stadium that Lurie describes as the “greenest” in professional sports, and places high value on its philanthropic work, particularly in some of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods. He pointed out that the Eagles’ training facility features the Hall of Heroes, which is adorned with portraits — not of football players, but of great scientists, humanitarians and activists whose accomplishments shook the world, like Jonas Salk, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

About five years ago Lurie, who has produced feature films, launched a documentary company, Screen Pass Pictures. Two films on which he served as executive producer, “Inside Job” (2010) and “Inocente” (2012), have earned Academy Awards. Lurie told the Clark audience that the films are a way to address the contemporary issues — “Inside Job” deals with the United States’ economic meltdown and “Inocente” with the plight of a young undocumented immigrant — while a variety of distribution vehicles are employed to get the documentaries seen.

“You can now create real visions through documentaries,” he said. “At Clark in the late ’60s and early ’70s we learned we can confront issues head on. There’s still an opportunity to do that.”

Following his talk, Lurie fielded questions from the audience, several of them posed by fellow alumni from the Class of 1973. One questioner noted the irony that Lurie, the owner of an NFL team, graduated from a university that has no football. Lurie said that while he was an avid fan during his college years, he never wanted to attend a college “that elevated football to something important.”

“To me, college is a time to explore oneself, to learn how to deal with people. It’s not a time to join in a feverish obsession with something like football. Even in sports the best teammates are the ones who are emotionally intelligent. You can have 4.4 speed in the 40, and you can have the strength to lift 400 pounds. But if you can’t maximize your teammates’ level of ability, you’re going to have very little value to the franchise.”

Asked about his influences at Clark, Lurie was quick to note that the University’s environment, in which each class invited student opinion and interaction, was a boon.

“At Clark, it wasn’t just a professor determining what the paradigms of the moment were,” he said. “I didn’t want to hear the paradigms as they existed; a lot of us wanted to hear the paradigms of what could be. That notion infused me with a lot of energy to go after things that others would say were conventionally unrealistic.”