NFL

Susan Tose Spencer broke glass ceiling for women in NFL front offices while saving Eagles from disaster

Randall Cunningham was dubbed “The Ultimate Weapon” when he took over the NFL world in the late 1980s, changing the way the quarterback position was played. Alongside being a nightmare for defenses, Cunningham brought life back to a dormant Philadelphia Eagles franchise.

The Eagles were thrust into the national spotlight and a new generation of fans was born from Cunningham joining the franchise. The untold story of the quarterback’s rise sits with one woman who spearheaded the braintrust that ensured Cunningham bore the “Kelly Green” jerseys that are still the most popular in the team’s history. Susan Tose Spencer, the first female general manager in the history of the NFL, is in large part to thank for the draft choice that went on to shape the franchise.

“My mom never saw a player like Randall,” said Marnie Schneider, Tose Spencer’s daughter (Schneider spoke for Susan, who is suffering from dementia in her late 80s). “She knew the moment she watched him play she wanted to do whatever she could to get him in. Part of her job as general manager was to follow up with her personnel and this was the culmination of a five-year plan of our scouts watching him.”

Tose Spencer set the standard for women in football, breaking the glass ceiling in 1983 when she was hired as the Eagles general manager. Tasked with rebuilding the franchise three years after Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl appearance, Tose Spencer embarked on a roller coaster ride in three seasons many executives don’t experience in their lifetime in the NFL. 

Being the first woman general manager — and to date, only woman GM in the NFL — was no walk in the park for Tose Spencer. A trailblazer for women in sports. 

The daughter of Eagles owner Leonard Tose 

Leonard Tose was one of the most popular — and controversial — owners in Eagles history. Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Tose invested with a group to purchase the Eagles in 1949 before finally becoming the principal owner in 1969 for just over $16 million — the highest purchase for a franchise in sports history at the time. 

Tose suffered some trying years in his first couple seasons as owner, but turned the franchise around once he hired Dick Vermeil to become the head coach in 1976. Vermeil took the Eagles to their first Super Bowl appearance just a few years later as Philadelphia defeated the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game in 1980. 

While Tose is credited for helping turn the franchise around, his positive impact was displayed throughout the city of Philadelphia. Tose was influential in starting the first Ronald McDonald House in 1974 (there are over 350 worldwide in 2021), and continued raising funds to help benefit local area hospitals. He started “The Eagles Fly for Leukemia” program, personally wrote a check for $80,000 to keep Philadelphia public high school sports up and running in the 1970s amidst financial troubles, and bought 800 bullet-proof vests for the Philadelphia Police Department when the city refused to purchase them. 

Not only did Tose help the community, he created a first-class experience for the Eagles organization — specifically the players, coaches, and staff that entered the building every day. 

“His number one priority was the players and the families were always taken care of. The players were always going to be treated first class,” Schneider said of Tose, her grandfather, who passed away in 2003. “He was very complicated, but he was colorful. When it came to giving back to the community, he gave everyone an opportunity. If you were suited for the job, you could do the job.”

Tose — an Eagles fan himself — embraced the blue-collar nature of the city after his father worked his way up from a peddler to the owner of a trucking business Tose turned into a $20 million-per-year enterprise.

“All he wanted to do was give back to the fans,” Schneider said. “He knew how many sandwiches someone would have to make to buy one ticket in the nosebleed section. He knew the sacrifices people had to make to attend a game. He would go up to the 700 level and buy beers and sit with everyone. 

“It was a very emotional experience for our family, being around real fans and sitting with the people who made so many sacrifices to be there.”

Tose Spencer’s rise to the top of a NFL front office 

A job with the Eagles wasn’t originally in the cards for Tose Spencer, who was an aspiring teacher when her father took over the team in 1969. 

“She was always well ahead of the curve academically,” Schneider said. “In the 60s, that was a job a lot of smart women did. She loved being a teacher.”

Tose Spencer had different ambitions as the 70s emerged, starting a tennis dress business before deciding she wanted to go to law school. Already having a Master’s degree in Education/Economics from Hofstra University, Tose Spencer pursued a law degree from Villanova University, graduating at the top of her class. 

Leonard Tose was as flamboyant of an owner as they came, spending religiously to make sure his players were taken care of. Of course, that didn’t come cheap. 

The Eagles used to fly a jumbo jet to road games, which cost money. Players and coaches — especially Vermeil — got what they wanted. At the end of the day, a franchise that soon would become worth up to $100 million wasn’t turning in a profit. That changed when Tose Spencer was hired by the team in the late 1970s. 

Tose Spencer would give her father legal advice while she was in law school, becoming immersed with the organization. Despite her father wanting her to stay clear of the family business, her guidance became instrumental when the franchise was facing financial woes in the late 1970s. 

“She started working with (former Major of San Francisco) Joe Alioto at the Eagles and my mom was really good at negotiating,” Schneider said. “She was really smart and ambitious in the front office — and in some ways, it made people really not like her — because she had it all together. 

“She wanted to do great things for the Eagles and the city. She noticed overspending in the organization, and followed my father’s philosophy of giving the players a first-class experience.” 

Tose Spencer found ways for the Eagles to continue giving players the best while remaining profitable, which started small by switching to a still-luxurious chartered plane. Her real impact came with contract negotiations. As Leonard Tose was living in the fast lane and literally gambling the team away, his daughter was keeping things afloat. 

“There’s an art to doing contracts and it isn’t easy. You just don’t hand someone a million dollar check,” Schneider said “Being an attorney, my mom wanted to make sure everyone got a good deal for both sides. She had an amazing ability to look at the positives and find a way out.”

First woman GM — and the challenge ahead

Tose fired Jim Murray — a good friend of his who helped start the Ronald McDonald House — as the team’s general manager in 1983 after a nine-year stint with the team. The owner decided to hire his daughter, Susan, as Murray’s successor — making her the first woman general manager in NFL history. 

Tose Spencer was the team’s vice president, legal counsel, and general manager — a similar role to those held by today’s general managers. It’s safe to say in a field that still employs far too few women, Tose Spencer’s presence in an NFL front office was the exception. 

Susan Tose Spencer was hired as the first woman general manager in NFL history in 1983. 
Marnie Schneider

The primary aspect of Tose’s job was negotiating contracts, notably for stars like Ron Jaworski and Randall Cunningham. She oversaw the NFL Draft during her three seasons with the team, with a focus on rookie deals. During Tose’s tenure, the Eagles selected Reggie White in the 1984 supplemental draft — although Tose Spencer didn’t oversee that deal since White was playing in the USFL. 

“Scouts do an amazing job and they are the unsung heroes of the NFL,” Schneider said on the team’s draft process. “They would sleep in cars to find the best talent and the right players. It’s up to the teams to sign those guys. That’s what my mom did.” 

The Eagles struggled to win games in the wake of the 1982 player’s strike. Philadelphia went 11-20-1 in Tose Spencer’s two years as general manager, all while the team was crumbling from within. The product on the football field was the least of the problems. 

Philadelphia was losing popularity to the Stars of the USFL, who coincidentally played in the same stadium. The Stars won back-to-back USFL division championships and the league title in 1984, with a roster made up primarily of local players. That prompted the Eagles to counter and draft Penn State’s Kenny Jackson with the No. 4 overall pick in 1984, signing him to a contract worth up to $2.6 million. 

“My mom tried to bring in people from Pennsylvania to get the fan base excited and Jackson was a dynamic player from Penn State, one of the best in the country,” Schneider said. “We wanted to reinvigorate the brand because the product was stale.”

Prior to the 1985 NFL Draft, Tose Spencer was given a scouting report about a player that had the highest quarterback rating the team had ever seen. On top of his impressive passing, UNLV’s Cunningham was also a prolific runner. The dual-threat quarterback was just what the Eagles needed and Tose Spencer was certain he would inject life into the franchise that was slowly fading back into obscurity. 

“She immediately told my grandfather the Eagles had to draft him,” Schneider recalled, as the Eagles selected Cunningham in the second round of the 1985 draft with the 37th overall pick. 

In addition to the Eagles’ glory days under Tose being in the rearview mirror, the owner was not a favorite of commissioner Pete Rozelle. After gaining a reputation as a gambler and an alcoholic, Tose and Rozelle had conversations about his gambling habits as it would bring bad publicity to the league. Tose gambled in casinos — not on the Eagles — but Rozelle didn’t like the direction the franchise was headed. 

“Playing preseason games outside the country was a form of punishment under Pete Rozelle if he was mad at you — you played an expensive preseason game in a crazy setting,” Schneider said, as the Eagles played in a preseason game in Mexico City in 1978. “It was expensive for the owners and players, and they didn’t even send stuff like toilet paper on the plane.” 

“We were just told certain things. It was a whole different experience than it is now,” Schneider added.

The Eagles were under the watchful eye of Rozelle, and Tose Spencer knew it.

Eagles to Phoenix — an incredible opportunity 

Tose’s gambling debts were rising up and he was in danger of losing the franchise. His daughter faced the daunting task of keeping the Eagles afloat, trying to find a minority partner to own a stake in the team so the family could keep control. 

A potential move to Phoenix was an opportunity Tose couldn’t pass up.

“The NFL wanted to have a team in Phoenix,” Schneider said. “They looked around on who wanted to be the right people to go. They thought Philadelphia was the right fit. Like good businessmen do, my mom spent some time out in Phoenix and listened to a potential deal. It was highly unlikely my family wanted to leave, but the opportunity was very grand. The benefits for the players and the fan experience of a new stadium were enticing.”

A bank was willing to take over Tose’s debt and the Eagles had Arizona State’s stadium to play in for a few years until a new stadium was built. This was Tose’s opportunity to remain the owner of the Eagles. Word spread he was set to move the team, as the Eagles’ brass already checked out available office space in Phoenix. The Arizona Republic broke a story of Tose selling a minority interest in the team to real estate developer James Monighan, on the condition the Eagles would move to Phoenix.

The Eagles appeared set to leave Philadelphia, but Tose had cold feet. 

“My grandfather was a Philadelphia guy. At the 10th hour, he spent a lot of time undercover and there was talk of a potential deal announced right after the final regular-season game in 1984,” Schneider said. “When my mom came back, the plan was to try and figure out how we can stay in Philadelphia.” 

Susan Tose Spencer (right) and father, Eagles owner Leonard Tose, made a deal at the 10th hour to make sure the Eagles didn’t leave Philadelphia. 
Marnie Schneider

Backlash ensued in the week ahead, with the Eagles still facing an uncertain future. Tose Spencer was negotiating to keep the team in Philadelphia, while being called the “Wicked Witch of the Vet” by famous radio personality Howard Eskin. A rough week ended with the Eagles staying in Philadelphia, but that decision signaled the end of Tose’s ownership of the team. 

“She negotiated an incredible deal at Veterans Stadium; they only had to pay $1 for the stadium lease for 20 years — and the Phillies got that deal too,” Schneider said. “That locked them into Philadelphia and Veterans Stadium for 20 years, which made the Eagles valuable. 

“There was a large chunk of money left on the table. I don’t know any other owner that would leave millions on the table. If we moved to Phoenix, my family would have still been owners of the Eagles. You don’t leave the money sitting at the table, he did.” 

Months later, Tose sold the team to Norman Braman for $65 million. Tose didn’t have to make the deal, but the aftermath of a potential Phoenix move turned the fans against the once beloved owner. Tose was in debt, but could have found a way to stay the owner — even if the deck was stacked against him. 

“The damage control was very difficult. The name calling and harassment of my family was so bad,” Schneider said. “That’s what prompted my father to sell the team. He just couldn’t take the abuse anymore.”

Aftermath

Tose sold the Eagles in March of 1985, ending Tose Spencer’s tenure. Harry Gamble took over as GM, but new owner Norman Braman wanted her to stay in the front office. She passed on the opportunity.

“He wanted my mom to stay. It’s very complicated when you were the old boss’s daughter and the new boss wanted her to stay on,” Schneider said. “She loved football, but just was unsure how that was going to work out.”

Tose Spencer launched a new career in meat processing plants, which she owned and ran for more than 20 years while turning annual revenues of over $50 million. She built up those companies and sold them in the mid 2000s, later embarking on a writing career. Tose Spencer published a book titled Briefcase Essentials, which helps women survive and thrive in businesses that primarily employ men — similar to what she did during her stint with the Eagles. 

Tose Spencer and her daughter Marnie co-wrote Football Freddie and Fumble The Dog — a children’s book series aimed at teaching the game of football while visiting every team in the country on their home turf — that discusses historical sites, national parks, museums, and local dishes in each city. 

Legacy around Philadelphia and the NFL

Tose Spencer remains the only woman to hold the title of general manager in NFL history, but her impact on the Eagles goes beyond the glass ceiling she shattered. She found ways to save the franchise money while keeping the players happy. Even while the franchise was in limbo, she ensured the players and coaches had everything they needed.

Tose Spencer negotiated deals with advertisers and was part of the process to get the Eagles on 94.1 WYSP, simulcasting the regular-season games to a wider audience. She also figured out how to keep the Eagles in Philadelphia, saving the NFL from another major franchise relocating in a span of two years (the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1983) — even though it came at the expense of her family’s ownership of the team.

Susan Tose Spencer’s impact on the Eagles is still felt throughout the franchise. 
Marnie Schneider

Outside of her own accomplishments, Tose Spencer helped open the door for other women, hiring Mimi Box to the Eagles in 1983. Box rose through the ranks in the Eagles organization over the next decade, eventually becoming the first woman to be hired as the chief financial officer of an NFL team — in addition to Box’s duties as senior vice president of the team. Box was with the Eagles from 1983 to 1999.

“My mother was so great to women. She promoted women, she took care of the women that worked for her,” Schneider said. “She was tough, generous, fun. She went out of her way to make sure they were happy. She wanted to promote other women in this business. She set the example for being a strong female and made sure other women got the recognition they deserve.” 

Women in football today 

The lasting impact of women like Tose Spencer remains clear as women continue to make historic gains in front office positions around the NFL. Women have broken barriers in the NFL for decades, but 2021 has put the stamp on how valuable they are becoming in front offices. 

The Denver Broncos hired Kelly Kleine as their executive director of football operations, and special advisor to general manager George Paton — one of the highest scouting positions in league history. Just 10 days later, the Eagles promoted Catherine Raîche to vice president of football operations, making her the highest-ranking woman working in personnel in NFL history.

While women are finally being included in roles that have long excluded them, Schneider believes football still has a long way to go when it comes to hiring women.

“We’re at the 50-yard line,” Schneider said. “It’s up to the new generation of owners to embrace women in football. If they don’t — it’s going to be a rough road ahead. We need to keep riding the history of amazing women in football and the amazing things they’ve done, so we need to continue to move the ball down the field. We’re only halfway there.” 



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