Tom Benson rose from a working-class childhood to the pinnacle of sports royalty as owner of the 2010 Super Bowl champion Saints. He left an indelible mark on the team, on his hometown, and on the NFL before his death last week at the age of 90.
Benson’s rise is an authentic (and legendary) rags-to-riches story, but it began with an old-fashioned Louisiana political deal: getting the state to help finance his 1985 purchase of the Saints. I covered that story as it unfolded in the Louisiana Legislature. It was as bumpy a ride as a pair of successive 7-9 football seasons - except it had a much happier ending.
The Saints were the laughingstocks of the NFL from their inaugural season in 1967 through 1984, going 18 straight seasons without a winning record. Original owner John Mecom Jr. was universally derided for meddling in team affairs, and by the end of the ’84 season the team appeared headed to another city.
Long-suffering Saints fans were beside themselves. Amid the uproar, Benson, a little-known businessman who had built his fortune on auto dealerships and bank holdings, quietly assembled a team of investors to buy the team. But his offer came with a catch: the state of Louisiana needed to ante up as well.
[jump] Rural lawmakers went berserk, setting off a wave of anti-New Orleans rhetoric not seen since the days of Huey and Earl Long. The state was just beginning to feel the impact of a slump in the Oil Patch, and conservative lawmakers (very few were Republicans back then) were of no mind to “bail out” a losing sports franchise.
New Orleans area lawmakers led the fight on the House and Senate floors, but the deal that kept the Saints in New Orleans could not have succeeded without the all-out support of then-Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, who put all of his political capital on the line for the team.
Backing the first “Saints deal” may seem like an easy call today, but it was no easy task, not even for a political master like EWE. It came at a time when the feds were putting together their first (and ultimately unsuccessful) criminal case against the wily governor. Over the years, I’ve been a frequent critic of EWE, but give the man his due: He had a genuine love for New Orleans and an intuitive knack for putting together big deals - and no deal was bigger than that one, for the city as well as the state.
For his part, Benson helped pioneer the art of marrying public money with popular support for NFL franchises. Keeping the Saints in town earned him Gambit’s 1985 “New Orleanian of the Year” honor, and in the ensuing decades he gave New Orleans all 13 of the Saints’ winning seasons - plus a Super Bowl championship. He also bought the NBA Hornets - now our beloved Pelicans - assuring that franchise a permanent home here as well.
So long and thanks, Mister B. Like the Saints and Pelicans, you’ll always have a home in New Orleans - and in our hearts.