For most of the past century or so, a pro sports franchise has been a sign of a city’s might, prowess and importance.
A unifying emblem, a symbol of civic pride. With those ideals in mind — and the financial boost pro sports can bring — cities around the country have spent plenty time and money trying to lure teams into their markets and fighting tooth and nail to keep them once they are in place.
Few people in southeastern Louisiana understood that better than Tom Benson, and four months after his death, the patriarch of pro sports in New Orleans is headed into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame on Aug. 4.
“We’re really a big town, small city,” former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert said in March. “But to have an NBA franchise, an NFL franchise, it’s all worthwhile.”
Benson, who died at the age of 90 in March, stepped in twice to ensure the future of pro sports in New Orleans. When Benson bought the Saints in 1985, the franchise seemed headed out of the city and on its way to Jacksonville.
He also ultimately decided to keep the Saints in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, even though he talked openly about moving the franchise permanently to its temporary home in San Antonio.
Then Benson made sure the NBA stayed in the city in 2012. With the then-Hornets under NBA ownership, Benson stepped in and bought the team, renamed it the Pelicans in order to give the team a local moniker and kept the NBA from searching for a potential relocation.
“That level of commitment is why one of the great things about this city is the culture of sport,” Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen said in March. “This is a sports-crazy town, and Tom’s really at the foundation of that, through what he did with the Saints and with the Pelicans. We’re all benefiting, those of us in the sports world, by what Tom did for the city.”
Benson not only bought the Saints in 1985, he presided over the franchise’s rise to relevance. Not long after Benson took over, New Orleans became a playoff contender in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the Saints bounced back after Hurricane Katrina to reach new heights, reaching the NFL’s mountaintop with a Super Bowl win after the 2009 season.
Unlike a lot of owners, who cycle through general managers and coaches every handful of seasons in search of success, Benson made the Saints into a winner by sticking with the men he hired.
In the 33 years that Benson owned the Saints, the franchise has had just five general managers and five coaches.
“You look at successful franchises, and they’ve got owners who know what it takes to win and hang in there with coaches when they’re struggling and everybody’s struggling,” said former Saints coach Jim Mora, who lasted 11 seasons in New Orleans.
“They don’t make a coaching change every year.”
Under Benson, the current team of Mickey Loomis at general manager and Sean Payton as head coach has been in charge of the Saints since 2002 and 2006, respectively, making them some of the longest-tenured men in their positions in the league.
Loomis and Payton have presided over the Saints’ most successful run in the franchise’s half a century of history, but Benson also stayed the course when the duo went through valleys before bouncing back.
“He gave me an opportunity when a lot of others might not have, and then he stuck with me through some rough times when others might not have, saw something in me and believed in what we could accomplish,” Loomis said. “I think that people don’t understand how much he valued his people. He valued them more than he valued wins at times, and look, he valued wins a lot.”
Benson, late in life, also did what he could to make Tulane, the city’s biggest university, into more of an athletic power, donating $7.5 million to Yulman Stadium, a venue that has helped change the expectations for Tulane athletics.
“It’s enabled us to think bigger, to be bolder,” Dannen said.
Benson had a hand in other sports ventures around the country, most notably the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he’ll be remembered most for owning the Saints and Pelicans, and for giving his hometown — Benson grew up in the Ninth Ward — the prestige of playing in the big leagues.
“Is sports that important?” Hebert said. “Hell yeah, it is. You get people feeling good about the community, the whole pride factor, you feel like the team is not only representing themselves and their families, but you feel like you’re representing the city.”
A city that will be thinking about the late owner as his beloved Saints start getting ready for another run at a Super Bowl this week.
Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.