Jan 21, 201911:17 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Saints Robbed By Refs: We Need Inspiration From Tom Benson
AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File – Sept. 25, 2006
Try not to think about it too much. What happened to the Saints was unfair. There are some people in this world who are occasionally blind to pass interference. But if we must think back about the game we should also think about Tom Benson who faced many days much worse than yesterday.
Tom Benson liked to tell the story about the phone call he got in 1985 from then governor Edwin Edwards. John Mecom, the original owner of the New Orleans Saints franchise, wanted to sell and there was a chance that the city might lose the team to out of state investors. Edwards told Benson that he was putting together a meeting with some potential investors and would like Benson to attend. Benson would recall that he went to the meeting only to discover that “I was the only potential investor he had.”
For whatever cajoling Edwards did it worked. Benson, at the time a little known owner of car dealerships, put together a buyout group and plunged into the world of NFL football. He would soon buyout his partners and become sole owner of the franchise he would shepherd since then, building a success in one of the league’s smallest markets and being one of only a minority of owners who can wear a Super Bowl ring.
Benson celebrated his 90th birthday in 2017 (July 12) at the same time that Edwin Edwards (Aug. 7) was celebrating his. Both men could look back at careers of major triumphs, occasional heartbreaks and having rejuvenated New Orleans in ways that only professional sports franchises can do.
In 2012, Benson got another call, this time from David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association. We will assume that Stern did not have Edwards’ hutzpah, but here again the effort worked. By most accounts Benson was not pleased when the Charlotte Hornets of the NBA first relocated to New Orleans, but eventually he would own franchise, renamed The Pelicans. In the process, he made deals with the state that revived downtown including an overhaul of the Superdome, the arena, Championship Square and the building now known as the Benson Towers.
According to Forbes Magazine, Benson, as of March 2016, was worth $2.2 billion, putting him at number 288 on the magazine’s top 400 list. In a state short of the super rich Benson’s money has been a vital economic development tool.
In 2012 Benson and his wife, Gayle, funded a cancer recovery center at Ochsner hospital. Personally, as well as through the Saints and Pelicans, Benson’s holdings have written many checks for community causes.
Forbes description of Benson said a lot about him: “Self-made.” Born in New Orleans to a working class family and armed with a high school diploma, he maneuvered his way to the top.
Yet we hear this about the top: It can be lonely up there. Benson must have felt that loneliness in 1999 when on the day after a disastrous 3-13 season he fired everyone beginning with Head Coach Mike Ditka, his entire staff and the Saints front office. Fetch Monster, the kicking-tee retrieving dog, would also be banished from the roster.
Benson was battered by the talking heads of sports coverage after that. He was viewed as being incompetent; the worst owner in sports. Yet, the move opened the opportunity for other people to become part of the operation. From the hole into which the team fell it seemed near impossible that by 2010 the Saints were at the top of the world waving a Super Bowl trophy. The evolution was even more implausible considering that during that period was the upheaval and uncertainty caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Benson would have some rough moments since Katrina, including speculation, fanned by the Mayor of San Antonio, that he was going to move the Saints to that city. In fairness, there was a time when no one knew if New Orleans, much less the Superdome, would make a comeback. Benson received a lot of cajoling to do the right thing and it paid off.
Ridding of Ditka and the staff was one thing, in 2015 Benson in effect fired his family. No longer would he be bound to loyalties forged by lineage and adoptions; now he could turn to those that he trusted.
Wife Gayle Bird Benson is a class person. For all of their wealth their most important possessions was that Tom and Gayle had each other. She is the one he trusted the most to maintain the integrity of the world he built, a world that now includes six-packs. It is not unexpected for a man reaching his 90th birthday to want to buy a beer. Tom Benson bought a brewery and in doing so brought new energy to the old Dixie Beer label.
Edwards and Benson celebrating similar birthdays at practically the same time is a reminder of the characters that the state can produce and the success they can have. Edwards once bragged that he and Benson were good friends. The biggest difference, he added, “is 2.2 billion dollars.”
If only money could buy better officiating.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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