Tom Benson: 'Hard to take' attacks by Rita LeBlanc, family; 'at first, I couldn't believe it' _lowres

Associated Press file photo by GERALD HERBERT -- Tom Benson poses with wife Gayle Benson, and granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc before the 49ers game with the Saints in November.

Everyone expected the New Orleans Saints to make big changes this offseason.

An assistant coach here. A front-office face there. A blockbuster trade, perhaps.

Hardly anyone could have expected this front-office disappearance, this blockbuster, which came down Wednesday when Tom Benson revealed he will transfer ownership of the Saints and the Pelicans to his wife upon his death instead of to his granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc.

And you thought the old man showed some serious moves on the Saints’ sidelines over the years with the Benson Boogie.

This trumps anything like that.

When he’s gone, the keys to Louisiana’s biggest professional sports empire will be in Gayle Benson’s hands, not Benson LeBlanc’s, who before this looked like she had survived a rocky relationship with Benson to emerge as his appointed successor to the throne.

Talk about your palace coup. Benson LeBlanc was listed as an owner and vice chairman of the board in the Saints’ media guide from this season. She had been taking a bigger and bigger role as the public face of the Saints and Pelicans as Tom Benson’s health declined (he’s 87 now and has been slowed by two recent knee surgeries). She was even out front as host committee co-chairman for last year’s NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans.

Thursday, her name was nowhere to be found on the team staff directory on the Saints’ website. Same for her brother, Ryan LeBlanc, and their mother, Renee Benson. It’s as though in the Saints’ world, that branch of the Benson family tree — people all previously listed as team owners (though below Tom Benson, of course) — simply ceased to exist. Sawed off and cast into the Mississippi River like driftwood.

Though Benson’s decision strikes like a Hail Mary pass, it’s doubtful this was a spur-of-the-moment choice on his part. Decisions involving businesses the size of the Saints and Pelicans, dollar signs backed by this many zeroes, don’t come overnight like an epiphany.

Surely this was something that became stoked up over the years in Benson’s mind to the point he felt compelled to act in a huge, game-changing manner, though whether there was a straw-breaking moment is a matter of speculation at this point.

For a man of his age, given the state of his health, this looks like the masterstroke of someone trying to get his affairs in order. And it’s right to ask how much of a role Gayle Benson, Tom’s third wife and not a blood relation to Rita, Renee or Ryan in any way, had to play in all of this.

But what of Benson LeBlanc? Will there be a fight for rule of the kingdom? You’d have to think so. Who could come so close to so much control over something this big and just be willing to walk away empty-handed? After all, she isn’t just some lucky trust-fund baby who was just being handed these teams like new pieces of jewelry. She was groomed for years, working with various departments within the organization, to be trained as a viable professional sports owner.

Given that, it’s logical to expect that Benson LeBlanc will fire back with the argument that Benson isn’t capable of making such huge decisions anymore.

Consider how many Saints and Pelicans players are on their respective rosters. That’s how many lawyers may be about to jump into this fray.

Whatever happens, the fabric of the Benson sports dynasty is irreparably ripped. Benson is the man who bought the Saints from original owner John Mecom Jr. in the 1980s and saved it from potentially leaving New Orleans, then nearly moved the team to San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina, then rehabilitated his image as a Louisiana benefactor when the Saints finally won the Super Bowl. And he bought the troubled Hornets (now Pelicans) from the NBA.

The only happy person involved in this whole scene? We nominate Pelicans coach Monty Williams, whose job security seemed to be down to its last threads after a recent rocky road trip through the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

Nothing like a shake-up at the top to make everyone forget about the Pelicans’ woes.

There’s a picture out there on the Internet, not difficult to find, of Tom Benson and Benson LeBlanc on the field at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, celebrating a big Saints victory.

Gayle Benson is standing between them.

Now is she ever. It’s a scene we’re likely to never see again.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.