Tom Benson: A NoLa story
Tom Benson, a rare owner of teams in both the NFL and NBA, died on March 15 at the age of 90. Benson was admitted to a local hospital on Feb. 21 with flu-like symptoms, and never was discharged.
Benson was born and raised in New Orleans, attended Loyola University in the city, and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He made his money through a group of auto dealerships and banks in Louisiana and Texas.
He entered the sports business in 1985 and was credited with keeping both the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans in a city beset by challenges over the last decade. His ownership of the Saints was especially noteworthy and colorful, as he purchased a team that had never had a winning season in the 18 years prior to his purchase. By the third year of his ownership in 1987, the club went 12-3 and were in the playoffs.
The team’s travails during Hurricane Katrina were well-documented but Benson returned the organization to New Orleans and fans were rewarded with the Lombardi Trophy in winning Super Bowl XLIV.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Benson “a generous and caring philanthropist. Within the NFL, he was a true leader among NFL owners. He served as the chairman of the League’s Finance Committee for many years, was a key advisor to my predecessors, and was someone whom I frequently turned to since becoming Commissioner.”
A look at Tom Benson’s life in sports
1985: Purchases New Orleans Saints.
1998: Is granted a license for the now-defunct AFL New Orleans VooDoo, which began play in 2004. The team ended play in 2015.
2001: Benson says he wants a new $450 million stadium to replace the “dingy and depressing” Superdome. He floats San Antonio, where he had lived years earlier, as a possible relocation site.
2005: The Saints relocate to San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina decimates New Orleans and the Superdome.
2006: After nearly a year of speculation that Benson may seek to keep the Saints in San Antonio permanently, he says he is committed to New Orleans “forever, as long as the community commits to me.” In the team’s first game back at the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina, they defeat the Atlanta Falcons 23-3 on “Monday Night Football.”
2008: Donates $7 million toward construction of the Gayle & Tom Benson Stadium & Benson Fieldhouse at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
2009: Negotiates a lease extension with Louisiana through 2025, which results in a $185 million renovation to what is now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
2010: Saints win Super Bowl XLIV, bringing the first major title to the city.
2012: Donates $7.5 million to Tulane University, where the playing field of the school’s new Yulman Stadium will be named Benson Field.
2012: Buys the New Orleans Hornets, now known as the New Orleans Pelicans, from the NBA for $338 million.
2014: Along with his wife, Gayle, forms GMB Racing. Two years later, two of their horses — Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready — ran in the Kentucky Derby.
2015: After a tumultuous year, which saw Benson fire his daughter, Renee Benson LeBlanc, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, from executive positions with the Saints and Pelicans, a New Orleans judge finds Benson mentally fit enough to handle his own affairs. Benson drafts a will that includes a clause: “I specifically provide that Renee Benson, Rita LeBlanc, Ryan LeBlanc, and all of their descendants shall have no interest in my succession whatsoever, and no legacy or other inheritance or benefit of any kind shall be paid to any of them under this will or otherwise.”
2017: Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium is dedicated at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Benson donated $11 million to the stadium renovation project and toward the construction of a senior living community for retired professional football players at the hall.
2018: Benson dies, and his wife, Gayle, assumes control of the two teams.