Benson’s Vision vs. Jazz’s Departure

Saints Sold
Tom Benson, left, and Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards are all smiles as they announce that Benson just signed a deal purchasing the New Orleans Saints for $64 million March 13, 1985 at a press conference in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

 

Tom Benson liked to tell the story about the phone call he received in 1985 from then Governor Edwin Edwards. John Mecom Jr., 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 buyers 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 an ownership group and plunged into the world of NFL football. He would soon buy out his partners and become sole owner of the franchise that he would shepherd, building a success in one of the league’s smallest markets and eventually becoming one of only a minority of owners who could wear a Super Bowl ring.

Last week, the question of selling the Saints came up again. There is nothing immediate as far as we know, but a series in The Times-Picayune/ The New Orleans Advocate reported on an extensive interview with team owner Gayle Benson and President Dennis Lauscha. Benson said she would one day have to sell the franchise, along with the Pelicans, (there are no legal heirs) but insisted that everything would be done to assure that the new owners kept the franchises in New Orleans. Lauscha, who is designated to oversee the sales, concurred. More good news: The profits from the sales would be given to local charities. Lauscha will oversee that, too. (The series describes the philanthropy as “a ‘transformational’ endowment for the city.”) These are good people.

I thought back about Tom Benson’s meeting with Edwards. What if the Saints franchise had wound up in the hands of some big corporation, especially an out-of-town group? (Investors from Jacksonville, which at the time did not have an NFL franchise, were reportedly hoping to relocate the Saints to their town.) At the time, skeptics wondered if a local car dealer was up to the task. Benson may not have known all the Xs and O’s of pro sports but, more importantly, he had a heart for the city. What New Orleans lacks in Fortune 500 companies we at least have in a preponderance of folks who really think the city is a special place – a Venice of the soul. Fortunately, Gayle Benson feels the same way.

That same commitment is made to keeping the NBA Pelicans in the city. The team has yet to have major success at playing its game, but neither did the Saints, the squad that was once so pitiful that fans wore paper bags on their heads and referred to the franchise as the “Aints.” Many disappointing seasons passed before things got magical. The same could happen to the Pelicans.

Losing a franchise to another city can hurt. In the newspaper series, Lauscha, like the Bensons, a New Orleans native, recalled when New Orleans suddenly lost the NBA Jazz franchise in 1979 saying, “It tore my heart out when the Jazz left.”

I, too, remember feeling bitter. It all seemed so sneaky. One day the season ended, the next day it was announced that the franchise, owned by an out-of-towner, Californian Sam Battistone, was moving to Salt Lake City. (Battistone also owned a chain of restaurants, actually called “Sambo’s)”. The city filed a lawsuit, but it was useless. The franchise just left – and then had the nerve to keep the name “Jazz.” (My suggestion back then was if New Orleans ever got another NBA franchise it should be called the “Tabernacle Choir,” or “Tabs” for short.) The NBA did nothing to stop the heist.

Fortunately, the Saints and Pelicans are in more trustworthy hands because Gayle Benson is such a decent person, Dennis Lauscha is a local guy who gives a damn, and because Tom Benson once returned a phone call from the Governor.

 

 

 

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Have something to add to this story, or want to send a comment to Errol? Email him at errol@myneworleans.com.

 

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