Tom Benson: A winner who made the Saints winners

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Tom Benson Lombardi Trophy
NEW ORLEANS — Just like the professional franchises that he owned, Tom Benson should be judged by the final results.

The Saints and Pelicans have had many games that featured rough spots but ended in victory as well as seasons that seemed headed for poor finishes only to end as successes.

Benson, who died Thursday afternoon at age 90, owned the Saints for the last 33 years and the Pelicans, who were called the Hornets when he purchased them, for the last six years.

When he bought New Orleans’ NFL franchise from original owner John Mecom Jr., Benson declared that he was going to make the Saints winners.

Though there were certainly times along the way when the bad exceeded the good, in the end Benson himself was a winner as an owner and his hometown should be eternally grateful. The Saints, the Pelicans and New Orleans are all much better off because of Mr. Benson.

Unlikely many of his brethren, Tom Benson was a reluctant owner of a sports franchise. He wasn’t born into wealth and didn’t become an owner to satisfy his ego.

Benson built a business empire primarily by selling cars and stepped forward at the 11th hour to form a partnership to buy the Saints because it looked like he was the last chance to prevent the franchise from moving to Jacksonville, Fla.

At the time the Saints were 18 years old and one of the most poorly run franchises in professional sports.

Benson removed Bum Phillips as general manager and head coach after the 1985 season and quickly showed his business acumen, setting out to hire “the best man for the job” of running his football operation. Benson had no delusions about his football acumen and he brought in a Hall of Fame administrator in Jim Finks and suddenly New Orleans’ football organization had the beginnings of respectability.

Finks hired Jim Mora, who had done an exceptional job in the United States Football League. In the second season of the Finks-Mora era, the Saints had their first winning season and went to the payoffs for the first time.

They would make three more playoff appearances under that regime, though they never won a playoff game.

Finks stepped down in 1992 after being diagnosed with lung cancer and died two years later. In Finks’ absence, Benson’s organization slumped.

The owner’s ill-advised appointment of the troika of Mora and administrators Bill Kuharich and Jim Miller to replace Finks didn’t work.

Mora resigned midway through the 1996 season and Benson opted for a new regime led by former Bears coach Mike Ditka, whose three-year tenure was disastrous.

Benson regained his footing when he cleaned house after the 1999 season and hired Seahawks assistant general manager Randy Mueller, who hired former Saints assistant Jim Haslett as head coach.

The first team of the Mueller-Haslett era produced a playoff berth and the Saints’ first playoff victory, but after two seasons Benson shockingly fired Mueller with little explanation.

Haslett lasted four seasons after Mueller was replaced by assistant general manager Mickey Loomis, but New Orleans never returned to the playoffs and things bottomed out with a 3-13 record during the displaced 2005 season because of Hurricane Katrina.

The months that the Saints spent anchored in San Antonio while New Orleans began to rebuild from Katrina were the nadir of Tom Benson’s tenure as Saints owner. He worked to make the move to his second home permanent for his football franchise, but then NFL owner Paul Tagliabue forced Benson and the Saints to return to New Orleans for the 2006 season.

Tagliabue and the NFL also were helpful to the Saints in identifying talented assistant coaches as they searched for a replacement for Haslett, who was dismissed after the 2005 season.

Benson and Loomis settled on Cowboys assistant Sean Payton, which began an historic run of personnel acquisition that immediately turned New Orleans into a Super Bowl contender.

As for Benson, once he returned to New Orleans he embraced the rebuilding of his football team and his hometown. Benson tailored ticket prices to the economic realities of a smaller and rebuilding market and the Saints have sold out on season tickets ever since.

As Payton, new quarterback Drew Brees and a bonanza of other free agents and draft choices led the Saints to the NFC Championship Game, Benson became a leader in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast.

In the 12 seasons since the return to New Orleans, the Saints — a laughingstock when Benson bought them — have been one of the model NFL franchises. They won Super Bowl XLIV and went to the playoffs five more times, including last season.

There’s no denying the fact that if Benson had had his way, the Lombardi Trophy from the 2009 season would likely be housed in the Alamodome rather than 5800 Airline Drive.

But Benson and the Saints did return to New Orleans and the circumstances matter little when compared to not only the team’s success but also to Benson’s leadership in the community. His purchase of the Pelicans, whom the NBA had taken control of from former owner George Shinn, came under circumstances similar to those of his Saints’ purchase.

Benson’s philanthropy includes high-profile donations to the Ochsner Health System and the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well as countless other gifts that aren’t well known.

Ultimately, Tom Benson consistently stepped forward to upgrade New Orleans’ NFL franchise, its NBA franchise, numerous other businesses and the community at large.

As legacies go, that’s a winner.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com 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 and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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