Sean Payton Remembers Tom Benson, a Stickler for Organization and an Invaluable Mentor

A behind-the-scenes owner, Tom Benson prioritized organization and neatness, but he prioritized his team and the fans above all, the Saints head coach recalls.
Publish date:

The city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana are in mourning, and should be. Tom Benson—a giant of an owner in all ways, and my boss with the Saints since 2006—has passed.

I just wish every Saints fan had the privilege I had. I got to be mentored by Mr. Benson for over a decade. Almost every day since I got the job coaching the Saints, Mr. Benson, a very behind-the-scenes owner, would give me some football—and life—advice.

I’d walk into his office in the morning. He’d always have a bowl filled with Tootsie Rolls and Hershey Kisses. I’d grab a couple of pieces of the candy and sit there for a few minutes, maybe longer, and listen. This is when we’d talk on a variety of topics. In every meeting, some piece of wisdom from his life in New Orleans, his business life, his military life, his sporting life, would pass from him to me.

“Retirement speeds your aging, you know. Don’t retire. It’s the most overrated thing ever.”

“You got plenty of time to coach, Coach.”

“Accountability, Coach. Be on top of your coaches. Make them accountable in everything they do.”

He hated a mess. He wanted everything to be neat, organized. He was a military man, through and through. One day in one of those meetings, he’d seen our mail room all messed up, and he said to me, “Coach, we’ve got to get that mailroom organized. Can’t have a mess.”

He was obsessed with all Saints employees parking in their correct spaces. Periodically, this topic would pull me from a game plan meeting. But in a business where the little things are the big things, I came to appreciate his attention to every detail.

When the message of the day was given, and our conversation began to wane, Mr. Benson had this way of ending the meeting with his right hand. He’d open his right hand and tap his open palm twice on the table … tap tap

I knew it was time to go. Meeting over.

Tom Benson Leaves Behind a Lasting Impact on the City of New Orleans

One time, we’d lost two or three games in a row. The fans were down on us, the media was down on us, everyone was down on us. Not Mr. Benson. I come in to work one day that week, and there was a handwritten note on my desk.

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going, Coach.”

Of course you’ve heard that before, and you wonder what good that does. But it just showed you he cared, and he wanted me to know he cared, and it doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re in—sometimes you just need that. With Mr. Benson, it was unconditional.

I’m out in Los Angeles right now. I found out he died Thursday while I was on the way to UCLA’s pro day, and it was hard to pay close attention to all these drills. So many good memories about what he meant to me and our city raced through my mind. We’ve all had days like that—we’ve been somewhere, but we’re not really there. That’s what this pro day was like.

The hallmark of a great owner is knowing what’s important to the football team, and doing what he can to help in every way. I cannot think of one time when we asked for anything remotely important and he said no. I wanted to take the players on a team-bonding trip to a water park once. It cost $8,000. No problem. Never a problem.

That even extended to sleep—and to his organization and neatness. Lots of coaches in the NFL periodically will sleep one or two nights in the office. With Mr. Benson, the challenge was getting the sleeping bag rolled or the couch folded up before he walked down the hall in the morning. He hated our offices looking sloppy. So he ended up footing the bill in 2016 for a high-tech sleep room at our facility—climate-controlled, built-in chargers for a phone, blackout shades on the window and door. No more excuses for a sloppy office, and the coaches loved it.

Mr. Benson loved winning, of course. But I have to say he loved seeing the fans happy just as much. That made him so incredibly happy. When I got here in 2006 after the angst and heartache of Hurricane Katrina, he was looking for structure and discipline and organization. We signed Drew Brees, and the fans started to get a little excited, and the fix of the stadium was coming along, and then we drafted Reggie Bush with the second pick that year. The fans were so fired up that we sold out the Superdome for the season within two-and-a-half hours of making the pick. It’s been sold out since. That made him so excited.

When we’d go on road trips, I wanted the veterans to sit in first class, and he loved that. Rewards for the veterans. He and Mrs. Gayle [wife Gayle Benson] flew coach with the rest of us. Like her husband, she was such a great fan and supporter. We won some games that year, and we won our division, and people would be waiting for us after road games at the airport. Hundreds of people.

He loved seeing the customer happy. Isn’t that the essence of a good businessman?

Tom Benson and Sean Payton before the NFC Divisional Playoff game against the Eagles in 2007. The Saints would go on to win that game.

Tom Benson and Sean Payton before the NFC Divisional Playoff game against the Eagles in 2007. The Saints would go on to win that game.

Image placeholder title

When I got suspended for the season in 2012 over the alleged bounties in our games, it was a big shock to all of us. There was pressure from people in the league and the league office—I’m not going to say who—to fire me. Mr. Benson was resolute.

“We’re not doing that,” he said. “He doesn’t deserve that.”

I had six days to get my office packed and to leave. I met with Mr. Benson every day. He was extremely hurt. Blindsided. But he was behind me, and he had my back the entire way, and for the entire year. I will never forget it.

Mr. Benson was a lot like Bill Parcells, another man who’s been very important to me in my career. When you expected a cupcake, you got a fist. But he wouldn’t kill you in the toughest times. This year, we lost to Minnesota in the playoffs on that last-second touchdown pass by the Vikings, one of the most heartbreaking losses a team can ever have. After the game, Mr. Benson saw me. I wondered what he was going to say. Now, this was less than two months ago. Mr. Benson’s 90.

He says, “Hey Coach, I like this group. Tough loss. But I like this group. We’re going in the right direction. We’ll be OK.”

You know how great that is for a coach to hear?

That’s the kind of thing I heard a lot. When I coach the Saints in 2018, Mr. Benson won’t be there. My meetings with him are over. But I’ll hear him this year, and I’ll hear him every year I coach.

Tap tap.

SI TV on Amazon channels

Question or comment? Email us at