NATCHITOCHES — There was a time when Tom Benson was the most vilified person in the state.
After all, folks don’t paint your name on discarded flood-ruined refrigerators because they’re big fans.
But here on Saturday night, the owner of both the Saints and the Pelicans will be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
It’s a testimonial to Benson’s unique accomplishment, not just in the state but in all of sports. A self-made man, he is the only individual who owns two major pro franchises located in the same city, and that city also happens to be the one of his birth.
“I’m really humbled by this,” Benson said. “It’s such a wonderful honor to be in there with all of the great athletes, especially since I was never much of one myself.”
Benson’s selection, voted on by a Louisiana Sports Writers Association panel, is not one being given grudgingly, even if it did take his name being on the ballot for some time before it happened.
What occurred to change Benson’s image from that of a person who thought only of money (With a net worth of $1.5 billion, he is the state’s richest man), even during his home town’s greatest disaster, to a much-admired, if not beloved, grandfatherly figure who brought that same home town its greatest sports moment and, at a month shy of his 87th birthday is doing all he can to make it happen again.
Credit a late-in-life epiphany that the attachment of the public to the Saints is far stronger than Benson’s own considerable financial attachment to the team he bought 29 years ago, in large part to keep it in New Orleans, an action he repeated in 2012, when he purchased the Hornets, now the Pelicans.
“When we had to leave town (after Hurricane Katrina) and everybody was concerned about what was going to happen to New Orleans, getting to come back brought us together,” Benson said. “We were all so happy to be back we couldn’t believe it.
“I think people realized how much they would have missed the Saints, and it made us realize how important the Saints were to New Orleans and the region.”
Also credit good fortune — 2006’s hiring of Sean Payton, signing of Drew Brees, drafting of Reggie Bush and the magical return to the Superdome, all of which propelled the Saints to a totally unexpected appearance in the NFC Championship Game.
That proved to be a precursor to the Saints winning the Super Bowl three years later and remaining one of the league’s top teams. Since 2006, the Saints are 80-48 in the regular season with five playoff appearances. In the eight years before that, they were 54-74 with one playoff berth.
“Winning covers a lot of other things,” said Bobby Hebert, the Saints quarterback during Benson’s early ownership years and now a member of the team’s radio broadcast team. “All of a sudden, people weren’t just glad to be back in New Orleans, but we were winning, and as owner, Mr. Benson was getting his share of the credit for it.
“Nothing could have done more for his image.”
And credit, too, an astute piece of spousal advice making a big difference.
The post-Katrina nadir for Benson came in Baton Rouge on Oct. 30, 2005, the day the Saints played the Miami Dolphins in Tiger Stadium, the first of four games scheduled there after the storm made the Superdome unusable.
A few days earlier, reports out of San Antonio, Benson’s primary base of his banking and automobile interests and the city where the Saints had relocated after Katrina, were that he was ready to negotiate making the move permanent.
That created predictable outrage among Louisianians who were already leery of Benson’s intentions after he had broken off negotiations with the state for a new Superdome lease earlier in the year.
Benson was a pariah in a city that had once lauded him.
Exiting an elevator following the Saints’ 21-6 loss, Benson lunged at TV news crew, grabbing a camera before team security pulled him away.
A week later, when the Saints played Chicago at Tiger Stadium, Benson did not attend, citing safety concerns for himself and his family. He may not have been exaggerating.
That’s when Gayle Benson, whom Tom Benson had married in 2004, stepped in.
“It was so hard on him,” she said. “I told him, ‘You are allowing the media to put you in the worst possible light.’
“Just start smiling, and waving and being polite. Show that you’ve got nothing to hide and that you’re doing the right thing and people will love you.”
Benson holds that it was the best advice he’s ever received.
“It was great because it sure worked,” he said. “I think it taught everybody a good lesson.
“That also shows you how much Gayle has meant to me — more than you would ever believe.”
Benson’s image makeover didn’t happen overnight, and some have never let those unhappy times go.
“There was a lot of rhetoric going around, and most of it was absolutely false,” said Mickey Loomis, Vice-President/General Manager of both the Saints and Pelicans. “Nobody knew if New Orleans would come back, and especially nobody knew what would happen to the Superdome.
“The truth is that we always wanted to come back because his love of New Orleans is what caused Mr. Benson to buy the team in the first place. But we weren’t sure that it was the best thing for the team at the time, and that caused a lot of panic in the media and from politicians in Louisiana while some politicians in Texas were saying things they shouldn’t have.”
Indeed, it wasn’t until December that Benson, with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue at his side, announced that the Saints would return to New Orleans in 2006, with the NFL kicking in $20 million to accelerate the reopening of the Superdome.
The return and reopening became the symbol of the recovery.
By the time the Saints hosted Atlanta on Sept. 25, the team had sold a record 55,000 season tickets. There’s now a waiting list, and the team has the highest renewal rate in the league.
Benson’s standing among local fans increased even more during the Saints’ darkest moment since the storm — the pay-for-performance scandal in 2012 which resulted in the year-long suspension of coach Sean Payton plus shorter ones for Loomis, two assistants and four players.
Benson did not fire Payton and Loomis, as many of his fellow owners reportedly felt he should have done. Also, he was less-than-supportive of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, helping turn him into the enemy in the eyes of many fans.
In the end, Benson not only brought back Loomis and Payton, he signed Payton to a contract extension that made him among the highest-paid in the league.
“His support was amazing,” Payton said. “It was the No. 1 thing that kept me going while I was away from the building.
“Despite all of the b.s. that was going on, he was 100 percent behind us. A good leader is someone who can tune out the noise and make the decision he feels is right.”
Today, fan views tend toward taking a long-term perspective on things.
“Mr. Benson is a businessman and what he was doing back then was just business,” said Stanley Hyde of New Orleans, who was in attendance at last week’s minicamp. “But his love for this community won out.
“He’s the reason the team is still here. He does things for the right reasons, and that makes him somebody you can respect.”
In recent years, Benson’s image has been further improved by his making a large number of substantial philanthropic donations, most notably of late the $5 million to Steve Gleason’s Team Gleason Foundation.
Benson has been particularly involved in Catholic charities and related endeavors. In 2012, Pope Benedict bestowed the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, the highest papal award given to any lay person.
“When you get a little older and you’ve been blessed in life, you realize that it’s time to start sharing,” Benson said. “It wasn’t anything that was planned, but it just fell in place as we went along.
“And now special things like Steve Gleason’s foundation keep coming up.”
But make no mistake that Benson remains highly motivated by the business of business. He is a person who would much rather talk about spreadsheets than spread formations.
As he points out, Benson may be in his state’s sports hall of fame, but his own athletic career ended after a failed attempt at freshman basketball at St. Aloysius. To Benson, activities like golf and tennis take too much time away from business.
“Other owners buy a team so they can focus on the players and the game, but my grandfather has always been passionate about finance and the business aspects,” said Rita Benson LeBlanc, Owner/Vice-Chairman of the Board and Benson’s heir apparent. “The office is his comfort zone. The actual game itself is the priority of each team’s on-field and on-court departments.”
And even though Benson is no longer seen as the person of whom it was once said, “If there’s a nickel at the corner of Gravier and Baronne and Tom Benson wants that nickel, I would suggest you get out of the way,” Gayle Benson is impressed by how her husband is energized by deal making.
“He goes to the office six days a week because he just loves being around the people in the office talking about this deal or that deal,” she said. “I’m 19 years younger than he is, and I have a hard time keeping up with him.”
And those deals continue to pay off.
Benson’s leases with the state for the Superdome, Smoothie King Center and Benson Towers, which guarantee the teams remaining in Louisiana until at least 2025, will alone bring him nearly $400 million in revenue.
To Loomis, Benson’s business-first attitude has made their working relationship strong for more than a decade.
“We both have a financial background,” Loomis said. “And he appreciates that I pay attention not just to the football side of things, but what things cost and try to make sure that everything we do has value to it.”
Still, Benson’s early reputation for tight-fistedness doesn’t seem to apply to his teams anymore — the decision to spend about $1 million extra to move the early part of training camp at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, being cited among the examples.
“No matter what we need to be successful, Mr. Benson has given it to us,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “Not all owners are like that.
“The success you’ve seen us have over the last eight years is in large part because of what he does for us.”
According to his wife, success is every bit as meaningful to Benson now as it was back in the heady “Benson Boogie” days of the late 1980s, when the Saints reached the playoffs for the first time, only in a slightly different way.
“Winning is a big part of his life,” Gayle Benson said. “But I think it’s because now he feels the passion the people have for the team.
“It’s really about those people. A lot will spend their last few dollars just to go to the games, and it means so much to him for them to get to see the team winning.”
Likewise, the purchase of the then-Hornets can be seen as more than purely financial, although the team’s value has increased by at least $50 million in just the two years.
Dennis Lauscha, president of both the Saints and Pelicans, points out that there was considerable consternation about the viability of the team in New Orleans, especially since previous owner George Shinn had been forced to relinquish it to the NBA.
“We walked away and then came back on this so many times we called it ‘Lazarus,’ ” Lauscha said. “But Mr. Benson kept telling us we had to find a way to make it work.
“He felt one of the worst things for the community in the post-Katrina era was to let the team leave. He also knew that it would be tough to get the focus on basketball in a football community, but he was relentless about it.”
“Relentless” is a word many would apply to Benson, who grew up in modest circumstances in New Orleans’ 7th Ward during the Great Depression.
He used his acumen for finance to acquire his first auto dealership in 1963, eventually growing it to 33 dealerships and interest in five banks.
Benson professed not to know or even care much about sports when he led a group of investors who purchased the Saints from John Mecom Jr. in 1985 for $70 million.
At the time, it looked like the team might relocate to Jacksonville. Benson’s purchase made him a hometown hero.
His popularity would wax and wane over the next two decades, largely depending on the team’s fortunes, plus Benson’s pursuing either a new stadium and/or generous subsidies from the state.
All the while, Benson has had to deal with personal tragedy.
Widowed twice, he’s also seen two of his seven children die at early ages. Of Benson’s surviving children, only daughter Renee, who oversees the Texas banking interests, is part of the Saints/Pelicans ownership.
Benson has had heart surgery and overcome kidney cancer along with his recent knee surgery, which has him using a walker.
At the recent NFL owners meeting, Benson fell after making his part of the New Orleans presentation seeking Super Bowl LII. However, he delayed going to the emergency room for what turned out to be an overnight stay until the final vote was taken.
The fall, along with Benson’s advancing years, has led to speculation about how long he will remain active in team affairs. In recent months, four other NFL owners, all in their 80s, have died. Benson does have a succession plan in place that will keep the teams in the family, although his favorite piece of advice is “Don’t ever get old, kid.”
While Benson concedes he has given thoughts to his mortality, he also finds himself in a good place.
“We’re very happy with life,” he said. “I have a great family, and I’ve been able to enjoy that.
“The early years of my life were rough, but as I got older they calmed down a little bit. God has been very good to me.”