The Man behind the SAINTS and the SUPERDOME
Family members recall the vision of Dave Dixon
Craig Mulcahy PHOTOGRAPH
The date Nov. 1, 1966 sticks in Frank Dixon’s mind like it was yesterday. He was 16 at the time, and after some debate his parents had agreed to let him miss school so that he could witness local history in the making.
At mid-morning he joined his mother, Mary, in a meeting room at the Pontchartrain Hotel, and they watched as his father, David F. “Dave” Dixon, stood at the front of the room among Louisiana’s highest dignitaries.
The timing of the press conference had been Dave’s idea. There couldn’t be a better time than All Saints Day to announce the startup of a football team that would be called the Saints, he had told National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
And so it was that Rozelle, surrounded by Gov. John McKeithen, U.S. Sen. Russell Long and House Majority Whip Hale Boggs, announced the launch of the New Orleans Saints, the NFL’s newest expansion team.
The saga that culminated in that November 1966 press conference had begun taking shape years earlier in the restless and ever-hopeful mind of Dave Dixon, a New Orleans native and Tulane University graduate who badly wanted to bring professional football to the city and in ’61 had begun talking up his ideas to anyone who would listen.
A born marketer and promoter, Dixon was so convinced that New Orleans deserved a professional football team that he was sure he could sell the NFL or the American Football League on the idea.
It helped that he had recently sold his company, Dixon Plywood, and as a result could afford to pursue his mission full-time. As Frank Dixon remembers those years, there was rarely a time when his dad wasn’t immersed in lobbying for a team.
“I would come home and find Dad sitting in a chair, with a yellow pad and pen, and he was furiously writing letters to Pete Rozelle and (AFL commissioner) Joe Foss – handwritten letters,” Frank Dixon remembers.
Dave Dixon followed the letters with visits to the league offices.
“He would come back from New York and say, ‘I think we’ve got a chance!’” Frank recalls. “He was sure that in just a couple of years, New Orleans would be in the NFL. My father was the ultimate optimist.”
But Dave Dixon knew it would take more than letters to get the job done. He saw that New Orleans would have to demonstrate strong interest in football, and he felt the best way to do that was to arrange exhibition games in the city. If he could put enough fans in the seats, the leagues were sure to take note.
Dixon successfully lobbied friends on the board of Tulane University for permission to use Tulane’s 83,000-seat stadium for a Sunday exhibition game. A factor he saw as an advantage was that the stadium stood on privately owned property.
As a private institution, Tulane wasn’t subject to the racial segregation laws then still in effect in Louisiana and other Deep South states. In a public stadium at the time, black ticket-buyers would have to sit in “colored only” sections, but at Tulane’s stadium they would be able to choose any seat.
The prospects seemed so promising that Dixon began planning a double header. He worked his contacts for help in lining up teams, and soon arranged for the Detroit Lions to meet the Dallas Cowboys in game No. 1. For the second game, he had his eye on the Chicago Bears, and for this target he enlisted his wife’s help.
As Frank Dixon tells it, his dad had learned that Bears owner George Halas was easily charmed by attractive ladies, and Mary Dixon fit the bill. As lovely and engaging as her husband was enthusiastic, she agreed to fly to Chicago with Dave.
“Mom did a really good job on Mr. Halas, and at the end of an hour he agreed to an exhibition game in New Orleans,” Frank says.
Not only did Halas commit the Bears for the event, he also lined up an opposing team. “He picked up the phone and arranged for the Baltimore Colts, and (quarterback) Johnny Unitas, to play the game,” Frank says.
The 1963 double header drew some 50,000 fans and NFL big-wigs, and in Dave Dixon’s mind, his goal was within reach – though he was starting to realize that Tulane Stadium might not be the best venue over the long term. During game No. 1 of his double header, rain had begun to fall in New Orleans and Tulane’s playing field quickly flooded, causing a two-hour delay of the second game.
Dixon began looking into the cost of building a domed stadium. He hired an architect friend to build a simple model of a covered arena, and he carried the prop around the state as he drummed up support not only for professional football in Louisiana, but for construction of a stadium in New Orleans.
Start of construction of the Superdome.
Principals at the first purchase of land for the domed stadium proudly display a sign marking the spot, which was the property of F. Strauss and Son Inc. at 1300 Poydras St. It passed to the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District at an act of sale. From left are Gerald Fedoroff, stadium general counsel; Mayor Victor H Schiro; Simon Silencer III, representing the sellers; Dave Dixon, stadium executive director; and Moon Landrieu, Democratic nominee for mayor.
“He could sell anything,” Mary Dixon says, recalling her husband’s zeal for the project. Certainly, he met little resistance in the governor’s mansion.
John McKeithen had taken office in 1964, and when Dixon came calling with his dome model, the two immediately hit it off. As Frank recalls the story, once his dad finished pitching the governor on the dome idea, McKeithen stood up and declared, “By God, we’re going to build that sucker.”
As McKeithen laid the groundwork for a bond issue to fund the construction, Dixon continued to press the leagues for an expansion, but as Rozelle and Foss dragged their feet he grew frustrated, which led to a new plan.
Building on the investor support he had already developed, Dixon lined up financial heavyweights around the country to back the startup of a new football league. In the spring of 1966, he wrote letters to Rozelle and Foss, notifying them that he had garnered financial commitments to launch the United States Football League.
Exactly three days later, as Frank Dixon tells it, Rozelle showed up in Atlanta to announce a new NFL franchise in that city. “People in Atlanta were stunned,” Frank says, speculating that Rozelle’s surprise announcement was aimed at quashing his dad’s startup of a new league.
But Dave Dixon saw that he could use the turn of events to advantage.
“Dad called Rozelle and said, ‘OK, now that you’ve got a 15th franchise, you will have to have a 16th, and it needs to be New Orleans. What can we do?’”
It was fortuitous that Rozelle, at that point, needed help. The NFL and AFL had decided to merge, but they could do it only if Congress would exempt the deal from federal antitrust laws.
When Rozelle admitted to Dave Dixon that he was worried about getting the exemption, Dixon asked a crucial question: “Have you talked to Hale Boggs?”
Dixon’s offer to intercede with the powerful congressman from Louisiana led to a deal with Rozelle: If the leagues succeeded in getting an exemption from Congress, New Orleans would get an NFL franchise.
In the hands of Boggs and Russell Long, the exemption won approval. And just a few weeks later Rozelle was announcing the launch of the New Orleans Saints – whose name Dixon had chosen years earlier.
Dixon had already launched a search for a prospective owner who could come up with more than $4 million necessary to buy at least 51 percent of the team, and it led him to John Mecom Jr., the son of a wealthy Texas oil man.
Dixon and Mecom soon concluded a handshake deal in which Mecom would become the majority owner of the Saints, and Dixon would get a 20 percent interest in the team and become its general manager.
But according to Frank Dixon, when all was said and done, Mecom reneged on the agreement. He allowed Dave Dixon only a five percent interest, and he hired a former NFL front-office employee to manage the team.
The announcement of Mecom as owner of the Saints came around the same time that the Legislature, spurred on by McKeithen and New Orleans Mayor Vic Schiro, approved a bond sale that would enable construction of the Louisiana Superdome.
McKeithen wanted Dixon to become executive director of the Dome, though accepting the position would mean Dixon would have to give up his stake in the Saints. Dixon agreed to take the job.
The next several years brought repeated delays of the Superdome as state lawmaker John Schwegmann Sr. filed more than two dozen lawsuits charging that the stadium bond bill was ill-advised and taxpayers should have been allowed to vote on it.
Schwegmann’s effort ultimately failed, but in 1972, three years before the Dome opened, Dixon resigned his position and returned to running his family’s art and antiques business, Dixon and Dixon.
For years after he relinquished his interest in the Saints, Mary Dixon lamented her husband’s decision. “He should never have left the Saints,” she says today. “We worked so hard on it.”
Though Dave Dixon didn’t get to own a piece of the team or preside over a finished Superdome, he won lasting recognition as a driving force behind the startup of professional football in New Orleans.
When he died in 2010 at the age of 87, news and sports media around the country noted the passing of a man often lauded as the father of the New Orleans Saints and the Louisiana Superdome.
In his lifetime, Dixon not only got to see the Dome host six Super Bowls but also enjoyed the thrill of the Saints winning a championship of their own.
Health issues had prevented him from attending Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, but he later told a New York Times reporter that he “watched every second” of the game on television. “It was just a great, great experience,” Dixon said.
Frank Dixon looking through old photos.
Frank Dixon and his mother Mrs. Dixon.
New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu (left) and Domed Stadium Executive Dave Dixon (center) are still smiles as they complete the last major land purchase for construction of the Louisiana Superdome. Kansas City Railroad VP James Fitzmorris (right) holds a $3,375,00 check for the 13.7 acre tract of land in downtown New Orleans.