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Tom Benson, 1927-2018

The longtime Saints owner and recent Pelicans owner was possibly the most instrumental figure in keeping major league sports in New Orleans

I was expecting my next post to be a review of the Saints’ free agency moves, but when news like this breaks, you have to cover it first.

Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson passed away Thursday at the age of 90. He had been hospitalized since February 16 with the flu. The New Orleans native made his fortune by first owning a series successful of automotive dealerships in New Orleans and San Antonio, then taking the profits from those and investing in local banks.

Benson has long been one of the biggest names and personalities involved with New Orleans sports, and with good reason– he’s arguably the single person most responsible for us having professional sports in New Orleans. When he learned that in 1985 John Mecom Jr. was looking to sell the Saints to a group interested in moving to Jacksonville, he stepped in and bought the team himself, keeping it in New Orleans. He took over a team that had not had a single winning season in the first 18 years of its existence, and after hiring the late Jim Finks as general manager and Jim Mora Sr. as head coach, Benson had the Saints at 12-3 with a playoff berth within three years.

Under Benson’s stewardship, the Saints went from a laughing stock to a perennial playoff contender, posting six consecutive years of a playoff berth and/or a winning season.* Behind Mora, Finks, and the legendary Dome Patrol, the team broke San Francisco’s stranglehold on the NFC West, snapping the 49ers’ streak of five straight division titles with the Saints’ first in 1991.

* – It’s exactly what it sounds like; the team missed the playoffs in 1988 and 1989 while going 10-6 and 9-7, but made the playoffs in 1990 with an 8-8 record.

Unfortunately, Finks was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1993 and had to step away from the team, with Bill Kuharich taking his place. After several years of mediocrity collapsed into a disastrous season, Mora was fired midseason in 1996. After three years of an ill-fated Mike Ditka experiment, the strongest imprint of which was the drafting of Ricky Williams (take your pick between “Williams and Ditka posed as bride and groom on the cover of ESPN the Magazine” and “Ditka traded all his draft picks for Williams so he could go golfing that weekend instead”), Benson once again made a change, bringing in Randy Mueller as GM and Jim Haslett as head coach, and Benson’s decision here immediately bore fruit, as the Saints won their first ever playoff game after the 2000 season.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all good times. Mueller, either because of a power struggle or conflicts with the owner, was fired by Benson in 2002, just two years after winning Executive of the Year. (Mickey Loomis replaced him.) Benson had been rumored to be interested in moving the team to San Antonio (where he also owned a series of auto dealerships) previously in the decade, which caused some uproar at the time; when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, reports of his interest again resurfaced. With the devastation in the city, the San Antonio Saints seemed like a real possibility, and naturally, with the love they have for their team, many New Orleanians and Louisianians took it as a betrayal. Eventually– and not in small part because of the pressure of then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue– Benson relented, reaffirming his desire to keep the team in New Orleans. After the 2005 season, in which the team was displaced from the Superdome, ended with a predictably dismal record of 3-13, he dismissed Haslett and ushered in the next great Saints era by hiring Sean Payton.

Payton and Loomis then signed Drew Brees– fortuitously, after the Miami Dolphins didn’t medically clear his rebuilt shoulder and instead traded for Daunte Culepper, who actually never did recover from his knee blowout. Then they had the legendary 2006 draft, and you know the rest from here. Payton’s first year resulted in the #2 NFC seed and a conference championship game appearance. Three years after that, the team was hosting the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl 44. The Saints just completed their sixth season of double-digit wins (out of 12) in the Loomis-Payton era, with a draft class that already threatens to eclipse 2006’s.

Of course, that period also included Payton’s year-long suspension for the bounty scandal, though I still contend that was largely a railroading by a commissioner who wanted a PR win to demonstrate he cared about player safety, at a time the league was actively fighting a lawsuit by ex-players regarding concussions and CTE. Stephanie Stradley has done a much better job breaking down how little hard evidence existed to support commissioner Roger Goodell’s conclusions; indeed, the fact that all the player suspensions were vacated on appeal speaks to that.

In 2002, Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn moved the team to New Orleans, giving the city its first-ever NBA team. However, Shinn’s subsequent financial difficulties required him to sell the team by the end of the decade, and with no buyer in sight, the NBA itself took the responsibility and bought the team from Shinn. It languished without an owner for nearly two years, fueling speculation the team might move again (during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, the Hornets split time between New Orleans and Oklahoma City), before Benson stepped in to buy the team in 2012, once again assuring a local professional sports team would remain in New Orleans. Benson was also adamant on changing the team name to something suitable to the region, and in 2013, the team began play as the New Orleans Pelicans.

Without Benson, New Orleans might have zero major league teams. Because of him, it has two. (Admittedly, it was close for a while there.)

Benson’s colorful personality was a highlight at Saints games; the “Benson Boogie” is familiar to any local. He had the joie de vivre that permeates the city and reflects the spirit of the Saints themselves. Benson’s importance to the teams, the franchise, and the city was reflected in all the former and current players, coaches, and executives who paid tribute to him upon his passing.

Hopefully continuity in management will be smooth. Both the Saints and Pelicans employ Mickey Loomis to over see the sports operation and Dennis Lauscha to oversee the business operation; one would hope they will be able to continue doing their jobs uninterrupted. Who owns the team now is a little trickier. Though Benson was grooming his granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, to take over the Saints after he was gone, a falling out between Benson’s children and his new wife Gayle led him to cut the children out of the team altogether, which led to a protracted and ugly court battle. A confidential settlement was reached in 2017, though the terms are not clear. Most places reporting the story suggest Gayle Benson will take ownership of the teams and keep them in New Orleans, but it remains uncertain. For the sake of everyone involved– including the franchises themselves, the people they employ, and the fans, let’s hope the transition is smooth and painless.

Rest in peace, Tom Benson, for all you did for the teams of and the city of New Orleans.

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