Diehard Saints fans will surely recognize the name of the man a Texas judge is expected to appoint to help replace Tom Benson as head of a trust set up for Benson’s estranged daughter.
Back in 2005, then-San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger was public enemy No. 1 for the Who Dat Nation, the man lobbying publicly to bring the Saints to Texas even as New Orleans lay reeling in Hurricane Katrina’s wake.
With the Superdome still in shambles, the Saints decamped to San Antonio for practices and three of their home games that year, and Hardberger talked openly at the time about wanting to make the arrangement permanent. Hardberger has said that he and Benson — who bought the Saints in 1985 and owns businesses in San Antonio — even discussed the idea more than once.
Ultimately, the Saints stayed put and went on to play their best stretch of football in team history, making their only two NFC Championship Game appearances and winning their lone Super Bowl.
Now, Hardberger is back at the center of a Tom Benson drama, but a very different one.
On Thursday, a judge in Texas reportedly decided that Hardberger and a local attorney from San Antonio will take over a trust set up for Tom Benson’s daughter Renee, who has been seeking to have her father removed as the trust’s steward. Hardberger confirmed the new arrangement after a closed-door meeting with the judge.
The tussle over Renee Benson’s trust is only a sideshow in the bigger fight between Tom Benson and the former heirs whom he decided last month to cut out of a succession plan involving the Saints, the NBA’s Pelicans and other businesses.
But it has unexpectedly brought Hardberger back to the limelight in New Orleans. Speaking with reporters in San Antonio on Thursday, he said the old controversy over the Saints won’t have any bearing on his role with the trust.
“The people in New Orleans are not going to have anything to say one way or the other about the assets in Texas,” said Hardberger, who had been mayor of San Antonio fewer than three months when Katrina struck in 2005 and served until 2009. “We don’t have any interest in the Saints, in this particular trust.”
Saints and Pelicans spokesman Greg Bensel said Thursday that Benson and Hardberger have not spoken to each other in nearly a decade.
He said Benson and his lawyers are confident Hardberger can be impartial. “This is strictly about a few Texas properties and assets,” Bensel said.
Hardberger, 80, said he was getting his hair cut on Thursday when he got the call asking if he would step in to help resolve the trust dispute.
Asked about the Saints controversy Thursday, Hardberger firmly defended his actions after the storm. He said extending hospitality to the Saints and 30,000 other New Orleans residents was one of San Antonio’s “better hours.”
He denied there were ever any formal negotiations to move the Saints, and he said all relocation talk happened amid uncertainty about whether the Superdome could be repaired and whether enough fans could go to the games.
“Being the mayor and looking out for San Antonio, we told (the Saints) we would be delighted if they came,” Hardberger said. “It never got beyond that.”