PHOENIX — Tom Benson remembers this feeling. He was scared. Frightened. Unsure.
When coach Sean Payton came to town in 2006, Benson watched his New Orleans Saints transform from the perennial also-rans they once were. He wasn’t sure it was going to work or where things were headed, but he knew something had to be done. The status quo wasn’t going to work, and there wasn’t time to think much about that fear.
Benson finds himself in the same position today. Change is needed — both on the field and in the front office. Benson sat back and watched over the past two weeks as his football team, which finished 7-9 last year, has undergone a face lift. And on both a business and personal level, the two-time widower recently made the decision to name his third wife, Gayle Benson, as the heir to the Pelicans, instead of his daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc.
Both situations have been difficult — one more than the other. The second situation has led to a legal battle between Tom Benson and his daughter as well as her children, who think they should remain the heirs to the Saints, Pelicans, and other holdings in a business empire estimated to be worth almost $2 billion.
In doing so, they’ve called into question 87-year-old Benson’s mental capacity to make such decisions.
But Tuesday, Benson met with local reporters for the first time since his new succession plan was announced in January. He appeared relaxed and coherent, and was making jokes about the number of moves the Saints have made. There were, however, no jokes about what’s going on with his family.
Benson said what’s going on pains him, and he admitted the decision was difficult. It was not what was originally planned, but he felt it was necessary to ensure the long-term health of both sports franchises.
“In life, you’re going to have a lot of problems,” Benson said. “Everybody’s got problems. Some worse than others. Some are sickness. Some are like me. You got problems you don’t like that come up, but you got to handle them.
“The person that lets them get you down, any kind of problem, is the kind of person who fades out. You have to be strong enough, you don’t like it, but you got to be strong enough to accept what’s going on and are you going to fight it or whatever it takes to overcome this matter.”
While he has full confidence in his wife’s ability to oversee both organizations after his death, something he said won’t happen for a long time, Benson is using this week’s owners meetings in Arizona to help prepare Gayle Benson for that day. Gayle Benson has flanked Tom Benson throughout the week, attending various meetings involving financial and business matters.
Rita LeBlanc, a former high-ranking executive with both the Saints and Pelicans until she was fired by her grandfather in January, once participated in such meetings as she was being groomed to take over the sports franchises through the years.
Tom and Gayle Benson attended a league party Monday night and were in a competition committee meeting Tuesday afternoon. The league typically allows only three members from an organization to attend a meeting, but in the instances where Tom Benson, Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis need to attend a session, the NFL has allowed Gayle Benson to sit in as a fourth.
“It’s great. We got married about 10 years ago,” Benson said. “Before that, she was in business. It’s nothing new to her. Not like somebody that was never in business. She knows the difference, you have to make profit against a loss.”
Some of those same principles can be applied to the Saints. Finishing with a losing record last season, New Orleans did not make enough profits against their losses. Changes had to be made, even if at times it has seemed drastic. Tom Benson joked that it feels like Loomis is in his office every day telling him about some other change being made.
Benson likened it back to the 2006 season, when Payton first came to town and he and Loomis stripped down the team and changed everything that wasn’t working, regardless of who the player was, what he was paid, and what he once meant to the franchise. Some of those same things are going on now, which is why Benson said he is fretting the losses of players like Jimmy Graham.
He said he believes in Payton and Loomis’ ability to get the right mix of players and to build the organization back into a winner. In fact, he remembers how the San Francisco 49ers used to serve as a roadblock to the Saints when they were in the same division — and he has a vision of winning the Super Bowl in the 49ers’ new stadium.
“Nothing I’d like better than to go out there and be in the Super Bowl,” Benson said.
Benson said he believes this is possible because he believes in the people he has empowered to lead the franchise.
“I’m the type that gives a guy a job and gives him the responsibility that goes with it,” Benson said. “If it doesn’t work out, we’ve got to get somebody else. In both cases, Mickey and the coach got a good relationship. The coach doesn’t go flying off in left field, and Mickey doesn’t make changes without talking to the coach about it, too.
‘How’s this going to fit in with our program, how are we going to do this?’”
He added: “ Every week I have a meeting with these key people, and it’s very, very interesting to see how they work together very good. That makes a good organization when you have something like this. One’s not trying to downgrade the other or anything like that.”
Those same principles, Benson said, are what have helped the Pelicans work their way into the NBA playoff picture this season. He said he’s pleased with the progress of that organization and is especially enamored with franchise player Anthony Davis, whom Benson said is the kind of person you’d like to take home for supper.
This is the kind of success that Benson wants to know will continue long after he passes. Everything he’s done recently, he said, was to achieve that goal. He built the training facilities for both teams side by side. This wasn’t just because he owned the property. It was his goal to have everything feel tightly knit.
The players and executives from both teams eat in the same cafeteria, they walk by one another on the way to their cars or passing from one place to another. He said this is key to the success of both programs — to have everyone getting along and working toward a common goal, whether on a field, court, or in an office.
The fact that he’s seeing some harmony gives him confidence that things will work out as he hopes.
“I have a lot of confidence in them,” Benson said. “As you know, my wife, she’s been very active with us now. It wasn’t planned that way, but things happened. So now she’s taking an active part. When I’m gone, she’s going to be the owner.
“It’s also great to see how these people are working with her. When you have that in a club, and you don’t have any jealousy going on, whether it’s between the general manager or the coach or the (public relations) guy, then you have a good organization.”
That’s the bigger piece of the puzzle. On a more immediate level, it remains to be seen if his Saints can hoist a trophy in San Francisco, site of Super Bowl 50 in February 2016.