Influential Saints, Pelicans Owner Tom Benson Dies At Age 90
TOM BENSON, the "powerful and at times polarizing" owner of the Saints and Pelicans, died Thursday at the age of 90, according to Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE. Benson was admitted to Ochsner Hospital in mid-February and "remained there until the time of his death." Benson's condition "appeared to be improving in late February," but his health "took a downturn in recent days." Benson bought the Saints in '85 for $70M and was "hailed as a hometown hero." He went on to become one of the Louisiana's "most influential and controversial figures." To the team's fans, he was a "lightning rod, alternately praised for rescuing the Saints from marauding out-of-town interests and pilloried for his bottom-line management style and awkward public relations skills." The Saints' "magical run" to winning Super Bowl XLIV gave New Orleans its first major sports championship and marked the "pinnacle of Benson's mostly successful ownership tenure." His popularity "hit an all-time low" during the '05 season, when the Saints were "displaced to San Antonio because of Hurricane Katrina." While he "never publicly stated his intentions to move the team, his actions fueled speculation that he wanted to leave New Orleans." With some prodding from then-NFL Commissioner PAUL TAGLIABUE, Benson "brought the team back to New Orleans" in January '06. Benson in '12 was "inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame" and in '14 was "enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame." Benson also bought the then-Hornets (now the Pelicans) in '12 from the NBA for $338M, making him the "lone owner of both NFL and NBA teams" (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 3/16).
UP-AND-DOWN RELATIONSHIP: The AP's Brett Martel wrote Benson, with his "heavy New Orleans accent and parasol dances along the sideline" after wins cut "quite the figure among NFL owners when he first joined the league." His jovial game-day persona "turned hardheaded, however, when it came to business matters." Benson in '01 negotiated an unprecedented $187M in "concessions and state subsidies to keep his team playing" in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome through '10 -- a deal Benson deemed "necessary to succeed in small-market New Orleans." That lease was followed by "another unusual arrangement in which the state stopped paying direct subsidies to Benson, but committed to relocate numerous state offices in a Katrina-damaged office high-rise next to the Superdome" if Benson "rehabilitated the building, which is now called Benson Tower." Until recent years, fans "often questioned whether Benson’s desire for profit outweighed his loyalty to his native city" (AP, 3/15). In New Orleans, Lewis & Vargas note the Saints' on-field success during Benson's ownership "erased a bitter stretch in his relationship with his hometown, when Hurricane Katrina chased the Saints to San Antonio for a season and Benson talked openly about staying there rather than risking a return to a depopulated and wounded New Orleans and a badly battered stadium." Benson’s standing among local fans "improved even more during the Saints’ darkest moment since Katrina" -- BountyGate in '12. Benson did not fire coach SEAN PAYTON and GM MICKEY LOOMIS, as "many of his fellow owners reportedly felt he should have done" (New Orleans ADVOCATE, 3/16).
LOUISIANA'S FINEST: The TIMES-PICAYUNE's Duncan writes regardless of what people "think of Benson, there's no denying his place in Louisiana sports history." He "wasn't the father of professional sports in New Orleans," but he "most certainly was their good shepherd." The Saints and Pelicans "might not still be in New Orleans" without Benson. Through his "steady leadership and relentless competitiveness, he raised the standard for professional sports in this city." Benson "keenly understood the unique relationship between his team and the city" (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 3/16). In New Orleans, Rod Walker writes the cheers Benson got "every time his face was shown on the big screen of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome or the Smoothie King Center showed just how much he was adored by local sports fans." If it "weren't for Benson, neither team would still be" in New Orleans. He rescued them both when "some other city could easily have swooped in and taken them away." Benson "loved the NFL, and the NFL loved him back." The stadium at the Pro Football HOF in Canton was "named after him because" of his $11M donation in '14. He is also a "big reason New Orleans got a chance to host five Super Bowls since he bought the Saints" in '85 (New Orleans ADVOCATE, 3/16). CBSSPORTS.com's Kevin Skiver noted when the NBA owned the Pelicans in '12, it "simply would have been a matter of filing the paperwork to move the team somewhere else." But Benson "wasn't going to let a move happen." The league owning a team is a "precarious situation" and Benson "righted the ship" (CBSSPORTS.com, 3/15).
LOVING THE BIG EASY: THE MMQB's Peter King wrote Benson "loved" the Saints, but "even more he loved the city of New Orleans." King: "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." Fans "cannot question his affection for where he was born and schooled" (SI.com, 3/15). New Orleans Mayor MITCH LANDRIEU said, "Tom was one of our great citizens. He was one of a kind. He was born and bred in the New Orleans way. ... His heart and spirit are all New Orleans, and we love him for it." Former NFLer REGGIE BUSH, who played five years with the Saints, said, "He was a true New Orleans native. I will always remember him for just dancing on the sidelines under the umbrella, because it was such an amazing moment to see the owner of the team celebrating a victory like we all should have been” (NFL Network, 3/15). A New Orleans ADVOCATE editorial states Benson was a man who was "much like New Orleans itself: resourceful, a bit unpolished, mercurial, with a flair for a good time" (New Orleans ADVOCATE, 3/16).
PAYING THEIR RESPECTS: NFL Commissioner ROGER GOODELL in a statement said, "Tom Benson's contributions to New Orleans and the National Football League were legendary. ... Tom loved New Orleans, where he was a generous and caring philanthropist. Within the NFL, he was a true leader among NFL owners." NBA commissioner ADAM SILVER called Benson a ''dear friend'' and said the ''loss of his authentic and unique presence will leave an enormous void" (USA TODAY, 3/16). Former President GEORGE H.W. BUSH said, “He really was ‘Mr. New Orleans,’ and we have no doubt Tom Benson is dancing in heaven tonight.” Bush "knew Benson from their days in Texas and sometimes attended Saints games with him" (New Orleans ADVOCATE, 3/16). Louisiana Gov. JOHN BEL EDWARDS called Benson a "Louisiana giant" who was a "very powerful advocate for the state" (New Orleans ADVOCATE, 3/16). Pelicans F ANTHONY DAVIS said that Benson "went 'above and beyond' to make sure the players were in a position to win" (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 3/16). Saints QB DREW BREES: "We know you will continue to watch over us all with that umbrella in your hand" (USATODAY.com, 3/15).
GIVING BACK: The TIMES-PICAYUNE's Duncan examines Benson's charitable efforts, and notes Benson in '04 donated $2M to the Archdiocese of New Orleans for a senior center in St. Cecilia Parish in the "honor of his first wife, SHIRLEY." After Katrina, the Saints donated more than $1.2M to "local high school football programs, including a $550,000 grant to refurbish Pan American Stadium." The club also "gave $600,000 through the NFL Youth Football Fund to high school football programs affected by the storm." The Bensons "underwrote the construction of a football stadium" at the Univ. of Incarnate Word campus in San Antonio, which the school "named the facility Gayle and Tom Benson Field." Benson also was "particularly generous to the armed services." He donated $5M in '10 to "spur the funding" of a $20M cancer treatment complex at Ochsner Medical Center. The facility was "named the Tom and Gayle Benson Cancer Center in their honor." Benson's $11M donation to the Pro Football HOF is the "largest gift in the history of that institution." Benson's donations also "funded a major renovation of the Hall's Fawcett Stadium, which was later renamed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium" (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 3/16).