Dick Gordon’s skills as an astronaut didn’t translate into an ability to turn the Saints of the early 1970s into winners.
That’s something Gordon, who died Monday at 88 at his home in San Marcos, California, seemed to acknowledge the day in 1972 when was named executive vice president of the team — despite a football background that consisted of one season as a high school halfback.
“If anybody has any suggestions on how to run a football team, I’ll be glad to listen,” Gordon, whose authority was equivalent to that of a general manager, said at his introductory news conference.
Five seasons later, the Saints had gone 18-51-1 during Gordon’s tenure, and he was “reassigned” to a post in owner John Mecom’s oil and gas businesses following a reported power struggle with coach Hank Stram, who himself was out of a job a year later.
But while Gordon’s tenure is generally recalled as an example of the Saints franchise’s ineptitude during those years, he personally was remembered as an honorable man who was simply out of his element in the NFL.
“He was an astronaut, so obviously, he was a very intelligent man,” said Barra Bircher, then the team’s director of entertainment. “But he wasn’t very astute about football operations.”
That didn’t seem to faze Mecom.
In an interview with Nat Belloni, of the New Orleans States-Item, shortly after Gordon’s hiring, Mecom said, “I don’t think it’s necessary at all to have a man with an extensive football background. In fact, I don’t think any football experience is necessary to be a general manager.”
At that point, Bircher said, Mecom was getting desperate about winning and was willing to grasp at any straws that might reverse the fortunes of his team, which had gone 18-48-4 in its first five seasons under original GM Vic Schwenk.
“We’d had so many bad seasons, and Mecom was really feeling the pressure,” Bircher said. “John leaned a lot on the NFL for advice in those days, and I think they told him that having an astronaut running things was a good idea.”
As it was, Gordon was available.
A Navy aviator who was the capsule pilot on Apollo 12, the second lunar landing expedition, Gordon had hoped to return and actually walk on the moon in Apollo 18 instead of remaining 60 miles above the surface.
However, that mission was canceled because of budget cuts, and Gordon decided to leave the space program.
“The name of the game as far as I was concerned was to walk on the moon, and, at that time, I was relegated not to do that,” Gordon told a NASA interviewer in 1999. “I had a job and a function to perform.
“And I was happy for them (fellow Apollo crew members Alan Bean and Pete Conrad) that they were going to get to do that.”
With the Saints, Gordon’s responsibilities encompassed everything but actually coaching the team. That fell to J.D. Roberts in 1972, followed by John North in 1973-75 and finally Stram, who had won Super Bowl IV in Tulane Stadium as coach of the Kansas City Chiefs.
As the person in charge of the draft, Gordon was not particularly astute, as the roster of high picks during his tenure — Royce Smith, Willie Hall, Steve Baumgartner, Pete Van Valkenburg, Rick Middleton, Paul Seal, Larry Burton and Kurt Schumacher — can attest.
At one point in his tenure, Gordon said the team was only three players away from winning the Super Bowl, to which local broadcasting legend Buddy Diliberto responded: “Only if those three players are God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.”
That got Diliberto permanently kicked off the team plane, although it was on the orders of Fred Williams, Mecom’s right-hand man, and not Gordon.
Gordon did oversee the team’s move to the Superdome in 1975, which Bircher said was a relief to all because it meant larger offices than the ones they occupied in Mecom’s headquarters on Lee Circle.
One year with Stram as the coach made everyone realize there wasn’t room for both in the franchise, and Gordon was gone.
Gordon was 47 when his time with the Saints ended. He later held executive posts with companies focusing on technology and energy.
Born in Seattle in 1929, Gordon graduated from the University of Washington and entered the Navy shortly afterward. He was chosen as a Gemini astronaut in 1963 and flew on two of those missions, making two of the earliest spacewalks by Americans.
During his time alone on Apollo 12, Gordon said he enjoyed the solitude, adding, “It makes you think about the fragility of our Earth and the things we do to make you realize how fragile it is.”
Gordon's second wife died earlier this year. He is survived by five children.
“We were not a very good organization back then, and I don’t know who could have helped that much,” Bircher said. “Dick Gordon did acquire knowledge of football while he was here.
“But I think the pressure got to everyone.”