Tom Benson has told 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 has shepherded since then, building a success in one of the leagues smallest markets and being one of only a minority of owners who can wear a Super Bowl ring.
Benson is celebrating his 90th birthday this year (July 12) at the same time that Edwin Edwards (August 7) is celebrating his. Both men are being honored with big birthday parties this week (Edwards’ is tonight, Benson’s is Saturday); both men can 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, now he owns the franchise, renamed The Pelicans. In the process he has made deals with the state that have 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 says 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 would be at the top of the world waving a Super Bowl trophy. The evolution is even more implausible considering that during that period was the upheaval and uncertainty caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Benson has had 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 has paid off.
Ridding of Ditka and the staff was one thing, in 2015 Benson in effect fired his family. No longer would he bound to loyalties forged by lineage and adoptions; now he could turn to those that he trusted.
Benson's wife Gayle Bird Benson is a classy person. For all of their wealth, their most important possessions is that Tom and Gayle have each other. She is the one he trusts the most to maintain the integrity of the world he built, a world that will soon include six-packs. It is not unexpected for a man reaching his 90th birthday to want to buy a beer. Benson bought a brewery and in doing so will no doubt bring 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 brags that he and Benson are good friends. The biggest difference he adds, “is 2.2 billion dollars.”
See related Blog on Edwin Edwards at 90, July 24 MyNewOrleans.com
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.