The Saints at 50
A Civic Backstory
All Saints Day is supposed to be an occasion for remembering the dead. Not so on that day in 1966, when the afternoon was one of celebrating the newly arrived. It was on that day that Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the National Football League, announced to the anxious, power-packed crowd that had gathered in the Pontchartain Hotel that New Orleans had been awarded a franchise in the league.
Still to be announced in the weeks ahead was Rozelle’s selection of a team owner (Texas millionaire John Mecom). It would not be until January that the team’s nickname would be made official (though the decision to announce the franchise on All Saints Day must have been an indication of which direction the thinking was heading). In the months to follow, New Orleanians would devour all scraps of information as a head coach and eventually players were announced in preparation for the Sept. 17 opening of the 1967 season.
That season would have as incredible of a beginning as possible when on the kickoff of the first regular season home game, played against the Los Angeles Rams before a capacity crowd of 80,879, Saints rookie John Gilliam ran the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. In its first minute of regular play the new Saints were already ahead 7-0. The franchise seemed invincible. Unfortunately that invincibility didn’t last until the end of the game, which the Saints lost 27-13. Ahead would be many dismal seasons.
That was the beginning of the on-field segment of the franchise’s existence, and there will be many moments to be relived in the years ahead. This year, though, what should be remembered – and honored – was the toughest contest of all: the struggle to get a franchise.
By 1966, New Orleans, like many southern cities, was trying to re-invent itself. Segregation had kept many national corporations away from the South, including professional sports leagues. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in ’64, the South began to open up. Throughout the region there were progressive elements that wanted to bring their communities into the national mainstream. Having a professional sports franchise would make a statement. It would also justify economic development as new stadiums would be built and hotels, now part of national chains, would be built near them. New Orleans was so enthusiastic about redefining the future that it even promised a domed stadium that would be bigger and more functional than the one being awed in Houston.
Atlanta had economic power, a burgeoning population base and a geographic base in the center of the South, so it was generally understood that it would be the first city to get a new franchise. New Orleans had charm, lovability, an established tourist economy and, oh yes, politically powerful members of congress – the latter who were of special interest to the NFL as it faced anti-trust issues. Politics was the game that Louisiana played best.
For whatever the reason, New Orleans was awarded the franchise. Businessman Dave Dixon (with backing from Governor John McKeithen and Mayor-to-be Moon Landrieu) was that day’s star, having done the playmaking to secure both the Superdome and the franchise.
Getting the franchise was a victory of Super Bowl proportions, an experience that fans would not be able to relate to until 44 years later. Here, too, there would be some rocky seasons, though another businessman, Tom Benson, would secure the team’s future.
Curiously the Pontchartrain Hotel, where the announcement was made, has also had some tough times. This year, however, it has come back restored and ready. As the year is celebrated, it isn’t the boys in uniforms who are to be honored as much as the men in suits. Sometimes the most vital of game plans are drawn in corporate boardrooms.