Countdown to the Saints season opener: Franchise still run the Benson way

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Ken Trahan and Gayle Benson before QB Club luncheon
Gayle Benson (right) pictured with Ken Trahan at the first Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club meeting of the 2022 football season August 30 (Photo: Michael Green).

METAIRIE – When you drive to the New Orleans Saints training facility you turn into the parking lot from Tom Benson Way.

From Airline Drive you can see on the façade of the team’s indoor training facility a silhouette of Benson second-lining, featuring the initials “TB”.

The inside of the practice facility features a larger-than-life photo of the late owner hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in February, 2010.

And the Saints media guide still features Benson and his biography as owner/chairman, a title now belonging to his widow, Gayle.

“If it wouldn’t have been for Tom Benson, none of us would be here – the executives, the team, everything,” Mrs. Benson said recently in an interview with Crescent City Sports.

The Saints begin a new season against the Falcons on Sunday in Atlanta as well as a new era.

In a recent span of 1,413 days the Saints lost the three most important figures in the history of the franchise with Mr. Benson’s death on March 15, 2018, quarterback Drew Brees’ retirement on March 14, 2021 and head coach Sean Payton’s resignation on January 25.

Still, the Saints are in the midst of an unprecedented five consecutive winning seasons, a stretch that began with four consecutive NFC South championships.

“It has been seamless,” Gayle Benson said of the transition. “(Tom Benson) built the foundation. We’re just following what he did. As long as you follow what was placed in front of you it becomes easy.”

Benson was quick to add that it also has taken a lot of hard work by a lot of people to maintain the high standards established during her husband’s tenure.

From a football perspective, former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen takes over for Payton and Jameis Winston begins his second season as the starting quarterback since Brees retired.

The stability also is due in large part to the management team that Mr. Benson fielded and remains in place as Mrs. Benson’s inner circle – team president Dennis Lauscha, Executive Vice President Mickey Loomis and six senior vice presidents.

“He hired an incredible group of people and executives that really were able to carry on his legacy and what his way was,” Mrs. Benson said. “So I’ve just followed that path and created my own as I go along, but they all highly respect me and they work very well with me. So I feel like I’m very blessed.

“All I need to do is ask them and they help me with anything I need. It’s been almost five years now that he’s been gone and I still feel like he’s here every day. And I know they do too.”

Mrs. Benson wasn’t thrust into the managing part role without significant preparation. First of all she was a businesswoman in her own right, starting an interior design business long before she met Mr. Benson.

“I think the Lord was preparing me for what my life later was going to be because I was in business for 30 years,” she said. “It was the design business and though it sounds glamorous it’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of different things that you have to do. And I’m a very organized person so I can put things in compartments and work on them that way.”

The Bensons were married in 2004 and Mrs. Benson began a new phase in her professional life as well as her personal life.

“I was the kind of person,” Mrs. Benson said, “if I was going to be married to somebody I was going to get into their life and do what they liked to do. He asked me to get rid of all of my real estate that I owned, all my interior design business that I had and he wanted me to be 150 percent focused on him and what he did. So that’s what I did.”

Mrs. Benson learned the Saints operation from her husband in a manner not unlike a young football player watching a star player in preparation for succeeding them someday.

Mr. Benson would spend four days a year on retreat at Manresa.

“That’s the only time during the year that we wouldn’t be together,” Mrs. Benson said.

The other 361 days during the year the couple would talk business as they had breakfast, lunch and dinner together.

“He talked to me and told me about the football,” Mrs. Benson said. “My husband prepared me. We were married for 14 years before he died and all of those years he talked to me (about the business).

“I learned a lot. He taught me over the years and as he a got a little older in his life he told me what was going to happen (when he passed) and told me how things were going to be and explained everything to me. I didn’t want to hear it at the time because I was upset, but he did very well by explaining everything in detail.”

Along the way she saw Mr. Benson follow a business principle she had employed.

“You give someone a job and you step back and you let them do their job,” she said. “When I had my business I would give somebody a job and I would let them take care of it. Now if they didn’t take care of it, then I’m going to take over.”

Mrs. Benson started her business by designing the interior of private residences and gradually expanded to car dealerships, boats and “mostly hotels.”

One of Mr. Benson’s non-football businesses has been a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Metairie, and in 2011 the couple traveled to Stuttgart, Germany to meet with the hierarchy of Mercedes-Benz.

Mrs. Benson tried to convince her husband to make a pitch to the Chairman of the Board of Mercedes-Benz to purchase the naming rights to the Superdome.

Mr. Benson dismissed the suggestion, convinced that Mercedes-Benz wouldn’t agree to a worthwhile deal.

But Mrs. Benson persisted, had the Saints front office throw together a small set of documents explaining the business opportunity and fax it to her. When the Benson met with the chairman at a German castle, she casually presented the proposal to the him.

“I’m sure my husband was mortified,” she recalled with a laugh.

But the chairman’s curiosity was piqued, he agreed to bring it up to his board and a few months later the Mercedes-Benz Superdome came into being.

After 10 years the deal with Mercedes-Benz expired and Caesars took over the naming rights.

But at Saints headquarters, there’s no expiration date on Tom Benson’s influence on the business.

“I feel like it would be horrible to ever forget where all this came from,” Mrs. Benson said. “Now it’s left to us. I think it’s our responsibility to give him the respect that he deserves.”

(Next: Part 6: Expectations remain high for the Saints in 2022)

Click here for the entire Saints countdown series.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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