- There was no doubt that the late Benson loved the city of New Orleans through and through.
Tom Benson loved the New Orleans Saints, but even more he loved the city of New Orleans.
Benson, who died Thursday after a month-long battle with the flu at 90 years old, was a cheerleader for his battered and beloved city. When I think of Benson, in fact, I don’t think of his 33-year reign as Saints owner. I think of his impact on the city of New Orleans. You could quibble with some of his football decisions over the years—the time he gave all power over football decision-making to head coach Mike Ditka in 1997, who then traded every draft pick to select Ricky Williams in 1999, comes to mind—but you cannot question his his affection for where he was born and schooled.
Benson bought the Saints for $70 million in 1985—a time when locals feared the team was on the verge of moving to Phoenix or Jacksonville. He insisted on highlighting aspects of the state on the New Orleans uniform, including prominently featuring the fleur de lis.
“Why not?” Benson once said. “I’m proud of where I come from.”
How proud? When the beloved Times-Picayune announced it would cease being a daily paper in 2012, Benson, who read the paper daily, was outraged and said he wanted to buy it. (The owners would not sell.) When Dixie Beer, a local brewery, never recovered after damages following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Benson bought the brewery and revived it in ’17; the beer is now available in select locations throughout the state. Benson and his wife Gayle donated $7.5 million towards Tulane University’s football stadium, and the field is named in his honor.
There was a time, post-Katrina, when the NFL feared Benson would try to move the team to a more lucrative market in San Antonio. History has never been unanimous in whether Benson would have moved the team had the NFL not stepped in, and many inside the league feel commissioner Paul Tagliabue saved the Saints for New Orleans. But when the Saints returned to a refurbished Superdome in 2006, Benson soon was all-in. He approved spending $60 million for new coach Sean Payton to buy a quarterback coming off shoulder surgery—Drew Brees. The rest is Saints history.
One more thing about Benson—he was exceedingly loyal to Payton and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. When Payton came under fire during the Bountygate scandal in 2012, Benson stood behind Peyton unflinchingly. In the spring of 2012, Benson accompanied Payton to the NFL offices for a meeting with Commissioner Roger Goodell. It was clear Goodell intended to discipline Payton heavily, but Benson defended his coach, even after the coach was suspended for the entirety of that season. The Saints owner earned a lifetime of gratitude from Payton.
Benson’s children challenged the ownership of the Saints and certainly now that will be in question, though the franchise insists that Benson’s wife, Gayle, will take over ownership of the team. I was told Thursday evening that it is likely Gayle will win any legal battles over the ownership of the Saints. She understands how a football franchise works. She better understands civic love.