Tom Benson tells 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 buyers from Jacksonville, Florida. Edwards told Benson that he had put 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.”
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. Benson would soon buyout his partners to become the sole owner of the franchise he has shepherded since – building a success in one of the league's smallest markets as well as being one of only a minority of owners who can wear a Super Bowl ring.
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 are reviving downtown, including an overhaul of the Super Bowl and his development of the building now known as Benson Towers.
According to Forbes Magazine, Benson, as of September 2014, was worth $1.6 billion, putting him at number 383 on the magazine’s top 400 lists. In a state short of the super-rich, Benson’s money has been a vital economic development tool. As a new sports entertainment complex has developed in the vicinity of what, though Benson’s efforts, is now known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, his money, in partnership with the state, has given life to an area that badly needed a stimulus.
In 2012, Benson and his wife, Gayle, funded a Cancer Center at Ochsner Medical Center. 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 know this about the top, it can be lonely up there. He must have felt that loneliness that day in 1999 when on the day after a disastrous 3 and 13 season Benson fired everyone, beginning with Head Coach Mike Ditka and including his entire staff and the Saints front office. (Fetch Monster, the kicking-tee retrieving dog, would also eventually 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, and from that a championship team developed, playing before one of the league’s most successful franchises.
Last week Benson, in effect, fired his family. No longer is he bound to loyalties forged by lineage and adoptions; now he can turn to those that he trusts. Gayle Benson is a classy person. I wouldn’t want her arm wresting Jerry Jones, but she can at least command the respect of those running the day-to-day operations.
There has been a temptation to draw analogies to palace coups of yore, but this is different. This queen is not the product of a geo-political marriage trying to maneuver a hapless offspring into position. Tom and Gayle Benson have each other. She is the one he trusts the most to maintain the integrity of the world he built. If she takes over her husband’s businesses, my guess is that her main effort will be to build a solid ownership base to keep the teams thriving in New Orleans. That would be her legacy to her husband.
Benson has had some rough moments since Katrina, including speculation that he was going to move the Saints to San Antonio. In fairness, there was a time when he did not know if New Orleans, much less the Superdome, would make a comeback. He received a lot of cajoling to do the right thing and it has paid off.
I do not know anything about the accusations family members are making about his health. For whatever the reality, the world that comprises Tom Benson, including his front office as well as his wife, seems to be doing the right thing. Tom Benson once answered a phone call for the good of New Orleans. He deserves for New Orleans to stay on the line.
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 web sites.
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