by Bert Bartlett
In big time college and pro sports, Image is everything. The National Football League has long, not so subtly, marketed their games with “perceived adversity”, military regimens, controlled violence and war, on the confines of a 100 yard ‘strategic’ battlefield. On the Gridiron, ‘drafted’ squads, home stands, bombs for long passes, blitzes by the defense. First the Shotgun formation, now the Pistol. On punts, it’s the Gunners that sprint down the sidelines.
Over the years, the Saints have effectively thumbed their noses at the stereotypes, with the Catholic spiritualism of a Notre Dame, the lovable losers of a Chicago Cubs, the festivity of Carnival, and last but not least, an absolute and unyielding sense of humor. They have left impressions more Muse and Angelic than Soldierly. Quintessential New Orleans.
On November 1, 1966, the Roman Catholic All Saints Day, then Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced the establishment of the franchise in a bar, suitably, in the Lower Garden District, in the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, while green bullet streetcars swayed on by amidst the trees, clanging the tracks. The Crescent City was going to the Big Leagues. Yet there was a definite scent in the air, heels dug in, that New Orleans was not going to change, for anything or anyone. That it would remain a small town unique like no other, to the rest of the country – and world – in its myriad history, architectural abundance, bastions of neighborhood, moss laden oaks, mystery and ghostlike lure, esoterically spicy native cuisine, stifling heat and balmy, potentially virulent weather, danger, sleepy fore, and charm. Insularity wasn’t a defect, it was its treasure. Our Town. Those who alluded to it as Third World had a point but simply didn’t know it well enough. And to the rest of the NFL? Here Come The Saints, Our Saints.
The Saints were hatched by some old fashioned back room politics in Washington.
Commissioner Rozelle needed an antitrust exemption for the NFL passed in
Congress, in conjunction with its fiery rivalry and intended merger with the
American Football League. Rozelle lobbied La. (Dem.) Senator Russell Long and Congessman Hale Boggs to get it through, a de facto exchange for Rozelle getting his league’s owners to approve a franchise for New Orleans. Long delivered, the exemption conveniently tucked into some other pending bill, and Rozelle told Long he would “see what he could do”. That wasn’t good enough for the Senator.
When made official shortly thereafter, it was fruition to the persistent efforts of local promoter Dave Dixon, which had included preseason exhibition games in the city, Baton Rouge, and region.
The franchise was awarded to John Mecom, Jr., all of in his late 20’s at the time,
son of an oil tycoon in Houston, purportedly for something for his son to do. Only
minority shares of local or Old Money went into the franchise fee of $7.5 MM. There was some reservation that the confines of Tulane Stadium should not be used for commercial purposes since on university grounds. How yesterday is that ?
As the teams stumbled and bumbled for what seemingly was forever, Mecom was
derided by the media and fans, but he was a players’ owner, as in liked. Frugality
was not at the top of his business plan. There were worse locales with more
humidity to have the sultry rigors of a summer training camp than Vero Beach,
Florida. Players packed swimsuits and golf clubs.
Like plenty of his peers prior and since, Mecom simply didn’t know much about or
have a feel for the game of football, nor could he find or hire or stick with anyone
long enough enough that did. He hired “Dick” Gordon, Jr. as General Manager in
1972, with no prior football experience, the retired astronaut having logged 315
hours in space, including Apollo 12, the second land mission on the Moon.
A 2014 headline included this quote of his: Football Was No Place For A Romantic. Affably, in that retrospect interview, he said that he’d have rather been a fan than an owner, and that he didn’t really own the team, the fans did. And that they were the Louisiana alumni of the Saints. Mecom eventually sold the Saints to Tom Benson in 1985 for $70 MM and moved on to Team Mecom race car teams, including Formula One.
In 1967, When John Gilliam (#42) scooted on by, virtually untouched, against the
Rams, on the opening kickoff for a touchdown on the first official play in team
history, it reverberated right then and there, the Saints were going be something
special. Tulane Stadium absolutely rocked, thundered, all that was missing was
lightning (it was a day game). Obvious to the viewer, television replay cameras
shook. Instant Stars aligned, how crossed? Nobody had a clue.
The Saints tried to grow up too fast, aggressively pursuing aging “has beens” from
other teams rather than building a roster by relying predominantly on the college
draft. Splashingly, Notre Dame Golden Boy Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor were
signed off the champion Green Bay Packers. Taylor was from Baton Rouge and was
an All American at LSU. Big Doug Atkins and defensive back Davey Whitsell were signed away from the Chicago Bears.
Former all pro receiver and ex Vince Lombardi assistant Tom Fears was the team’s first head coach. Promisingly, they acquired quarterback Gary Cuozzo, back up to the great John Unitas in Baltimore. With the glitterati of acquired proven names and backgrounds, excitement and optimism abounded. There were whispers of Super Bowl on the front page of the now defunct evening daily The States Item before the team even started training camp.
Well, Hornung had spine problems and never played a down in New Orleans, and Taylor had one mediocre season before retiring. The tall as timber defensive end Atkins became more notorious for some late night brawls in bars in the French Quarter (only a fool would get into a fight with Atkins).
Cuozzo didn’t win the quarterback job and was traded to the Vikings. Former 49’er running back Billy Kilmer unlikely did, his resume including falling asleep in his ‘57 Chevy convertible and driving off a freeway into the San Francisco Bay, suffering a fractured leg bad enough to miss an entire season out there. The accident left the carouser known as Ole Whiskey with a familiar limp for the rest of his career. Kilmer’s wounded duck throws could make quite a sight. Whitsell was the best of the veteran lot and was the team’s first All Pro.
Wearing Kilmer’s #17, actor Charlton Heston was an early star, playing washed up quarterback Ron “Cat” Catlan in the 1969 flick Number One. The B Movie (United Artists) didn’t do well at the box office and Heston didn’t win any Oscars for it, but it did capture sundry sights and sounds of Tulane Stadium and the city well.
Another Sixties star was the canine mascot Gumbo, a robust, rollicking St. Bernard. Gumbo did not capture the hearts of players though, as he was prone to squat and do a Number Two on strategic parts of the grass field on game day.
Considering the ragtag early rosters, Fears was a good coach and had the Saints semi competitive, with some decent defenses. The wooden bench seats at Tulane routinely sold out for home games in stifling heat on Sunday afternoons, 80,000 plus. Dixie Beer vendors roamed the stands with backpacks of draft to satiate fans, the legal drinking age then being 18. The hustling pourers weren’t exactly known for checking ID’s.
Fears was given up on too early and the reins of the team were passed to J.D. Roberts, a former semi pro coach and employee of Avondale Shipyards. Roberts had an auspicious home debut in November of 1970 as Tom Dempsey’s 63 yard field goal beat a good Lions team when the ball barely cleared the crossbar as the clock ran down to 00:00. Incredibly, the record stood 43 years and was broken only by a yard. Roberts’ record as coach went forgettably south from there.
In 1971 the city went bonkers when the club drafted Ole Miss Rebel Archie Manning, still one of the best college quarterbacks ever. This looked like a match made in Black & Gold Heaven. In Tulane, he scored a late touchdown in his first home start to beat the Rams, and led an upset of the eventual champion Cowboys a month later.
But #18 and the team proceeded to take a beating in the Seventies. Manning had an often hurt right shoulder that altered his throwing motion akin to that of a baseball shortstop’s sidewinder. He garnered lots of respect around the league for his resilience and being a good player on perpetually bad teams.
Promoter Dave Dixon’s other pet project, the Louisiana Superdome, seemed just a glorified copy of the Astrodome in Houston at the time, but became a boon for development of downtown New Orleans and quite the contribution to it as a tourist mecca. After it opened in ‘75, many influential voices in the NFL thought it should be the permanent home of the Super Bowl, so perfect it’s walking distance mix of hotels, restaurants, bars, Canal St. shopping, and the French Quarter. Other cities ably host Supers, but not with this kind of party.
On the field, the Saints were often a panacea for opponents needing a win or to feel good about themselves. Tampa Bay was 0 and 26 in almost two seasons before that franchise got its first win in the Superdome in ‘77.
Though Dick Nolan coached it, former Kansas City Chief and Super Bowl champion coach Hank Stram had a hand in assembling promising talent on offense in New Orleans by the 1979 season, with the likes of freakishly talented running back Chuck Muncie and dual threat fullback Tony Galbreath. Wide receiver Wes Chandler was added and the Saints became able to score points in multiples for a change. (Muncie and Chandler later left and starred as San Diego Chargers). ‘79 was the first season the Saints broke even, a dozen years after birth.
Like Tom Fears at the start, Hank Stram was let go by John Mecom too early, after only two seasons. Stram definitely had something brewing. Rumor had it assistant coach (linebackers) Nolan backstabbed Stram to Mecom about something or other, and the owner bit on a change for the head position in ‘78.
Hopes were high for ‘80 but the team crashed, going 1 and 15, and this was the apex of the franchise’s woebegone reputation as the Aints, bagheads and all.
Despite the losing, and the hexes and voodoo that have loomed over the team (Marie Leveaux has a season ticket from St. Louis Cemetery), New Orleans has always treasured her Saints (Benson may own them but there’s no doubt who has paid for them). Remaining a fan became annual litmus tests not just for team but city loyalty.
As Al Hirt trumpeted When The Saints Go Marchin’ In’, meandering up the aisles of the stands with a Second Line in tow, fans’ hearts warmed, yesterday’s shortcomings festively and quickly forgotten.
Truth be known, over the years, losing has not been Saints fans’ prime beef. It’s when the team doesn’t show up to play and flatly stinks up the joint, or makes boneheaded mental errors in critical situations that grates, and when the radio waves would emanate with “1 800 Bad Team”, or suicide prevention assistance available from “Dr. Kervorkian”. New Orleans knows the math more than most places – that nobody can win ‘em all.
The fans knew when the team played well, even if they came up shy, and could live with that. When San Francisco was tallying up titles with Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jerry Rice, the Saints often pushed the 49’ers around and gave them all they could handle, out by the bay or down here by the river.
Go Saints Go was, crudely, the team’s first battle cry. Bless You Boys has reverberated for years on the airwaves.
Faith, Hope, & Bum didn’t quite work in 1983. In the home finale, Coach Bum Phillips conservatively waved off kicker Morten Andersen for a lead padding field goal, electing to punt instead to the Rams. They moved down the field and their bare footed place kicker booted the Saints right out of the playoffs. In the Dome’s concourse exits, fans bellowed Bum Sold Us Out ! Phillips had brought in ex Oilers and up in years stars Earl Campbell and Ken Stabler, but the coach’s version of Houston East was a dry hole.
Whoomp There It Is blared from the dome’s loudspeakers, and from below old school disco balls on sweaty, grinding dance floors in late night honky tonks and dives. Who Dat has done more for race relations than anything or anyone else in New Orleans; Saints fans anywhere are instant friends. Besides being argued about who originated and owns the phrase as trademark in court (humor us), it even spawned a copy, Who Dey, in Cincinnati.
After purchasing the franchise in `85, Tom Benson wisely hired Jim Finks the next year as General Manager, who had championship pedigree in Minnesota and Chicago. Finks who brought in Jim Mora as head coach, who had won two titles in the spring league USFL.
Mora brought in key talent from the lesser league and got the team competitive with stingy defense, leading it to its first division title and several playoff spots. The Saints had their first winning season in 1987, two decades after the start.
The Dome Patrol was led by the excellent linebacking corps of franchise icon Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Pat Swilling, and Vaughn Johnson. The defense was title capable but the offense held onto a conservative run first philosophy with offensive coordinator Carl Smith, and could not deliver enough points when it really needed to, despite talent on the unit and the capable arm of Bobby Hebert.
Mora’s teams frustratingly never got past the first round in the post season. Tensions mounted. In October of `96, after a particularly poor effort in losing to Carolina on the road, Mora used profanity, called his team’s effort “Diddley Poo” (among other things) and abruptly resigned. A proud ex Marine, he inevitably felt he had lost the motivational pulse of his players, and didn’t want to be part of this kind of product. Mora subsequently rejuvenated his career, going to Indianapolis and starting a rookie quarterback by the name of Peyton Manning.
In the late Nineties, the local iconic sportscaster and personality Buddy Diliberto said he was out of the head coach suggestion business after his, Mike Ditka, came and went, after much fanfare. In the spring of `99, Ditka traded an entire class of draft picks for Texas’ star running back Ricky Williams, and then went to play golf, while other teams assembled rosters. The pair was on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, Ditka in a tux, with Williams in a wedding dress, with the caption For Better Or Worse. It was mostly the latter as Williams got injured, had issues, and Ditka ignobly started some forgettable Billy Joes at quarterback. Mrs. Ditka gracelessly blamed the “losing culture” of New Orleans in huffing and puffing her way out of town.
A former back-up to Brett Favre in Green Bay, at 6’4” with a good arm and feet, Aaron Brooks was more than an able quarterback and had a happy go lucky attitude when he led the Saints to their first playoff victory ever, 31-28, over the Rams after the 2000 campaign. Coach Jim Haslett had plenty of confidence in the youngster and held onto it when Brooks began to falter in subsequent seasons, neglecting to give Louisiana native Jake Delhomme a shot in his stead. Delhomme moved on and immediately lead division rival Carolina to a narrow Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.
Brooks tenure came ignominously to an end after 2005; he did not endure himself to Saints fans when smiling and jiving on the sidelines while the team got pummeled by double digits. But Brooks’ and the team’s woes were miniscule compared to Hurricane Katrina ravaging the Gulf Coast, suddenly leaving the Saints presence in New Orleans very much in doubt.
Resilience As Reward
Shortly after Katrina, when the Saints beat the Panthers in the opener in Carolina, longtime radio man Jim Henderson aptly said it wasn’t the biggest win in the history of the franchise, but that none felt better.
Predictably, the ramshackle season went down the tubes. But all the drama was about whether the Saints would become San Antonio’s, where Mr. Benson had accumulated a ranch, a bank, and considerable business interests.
The mayor there talked out of both sides of his mouth, about how sorry he was for New Orleans and that his city would welcome the team under the dire circumstances. He meant permanently of course. Their Alamodome was built in part for a pro team that never materialized.
This didn’t sit well with commissioner Paul Tagliabue in the league offices in New York, who, like his predecessor Rozelle, considered New Orleans a unique and irreplaceable NFL venue.
Intense private negotiations took place all fall. An Act of God was referenced in a full page ad in the paper, advance justifying the franchise potentially breaking the lease with the State of Louisiana Stadium & Exposition Authority.
Fans feeling left out heckled Mr. Benson at “home” games at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, to the extent he demanded beefed up security, “fearing for his life” to the league office.
Players made increasing complaints about the tenuous and uncertain working conditions, some came off as whines. Lots of regular folks had it much worse than pro football players Post Katrina. Admirably, Coach Haslett did not join that fray despite inevitable doom to his job.
The league’s owners ponied up financial assistance (a non disclosed amount) so the franchise wouldn’t bleed money, satiating Mr. Benson. And just before Christmas it was announced the franchise was staying and would play in a renovated Superdome. Besides being the right thing to do, Mr. Benson was awarded by a fan base that sold out for the next season, and has ever since.
No Saints moment was more poignant than the anthem for the nationally televised ‘06 home opener against Atlanta in a renovated Superdome. Tears welled in fans’ eyes as they stood and marveled at the scene. After all, not long prior, people died in there.
Further, the team had an improbable Magical Carpet Ride of a season that didn’t end until the conference championship in Chicago, the team in it to win it until running out of gas and yielding in the fourth quarter.
Coach Sean Payton and Drew Brees established proficiency on offense that has been amongst the league’s elite ever since. They are already right there, on a wall of fame alongside historically accomplished head coach and quarterback tandems such as Lombardi & Starr, Landry & Staubach, Noll & Bradshaw, Shula & Marino, Walsh & Montana, Aikman & Johnson, and Belichick & Brady.
When Tracey Porter of Port Allen, La. made a pick six off Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl and clinched a title for New Orleans after the ‘09 season, Bourbon St. went wild. In rural Louisiana, screen doors banged open and shut as fans hooted and hollered and shot fireworks.
The victory parade downtown in frigid temperatures before Mardi Gras, with Coach Peyton holding the trophy from Tiffany’s made for quite a preamble for that year’s Carnival.
The 2011 outfit was good enough to win it all again, but the defense came up a few stops short out in San Francisco, despite scoring in the 30’s.
2012 was a dark year with Bountygate suspensions that gave the team no competitive shot, particularly with not one but two interim head coaches. Mr. Benson and the front office fumbled that season away by not bringing in a proven interim, such as Jim Mora or Marty Schottenheimer out of retirement, the latter having coached Drew Brees in San Diego (Bill Parcells was reportedly approached, at the request of his protege Sean Payton). It was such an inferior product that which fans could have hired a Ralph Nader and filed for a mass consumer refund from the league as well as the team.
With the likes of Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles spicing and dicing up the offense, the team returned to the playoffs in ‘13.
After a pair of mediocre 7 and 9 seasons expectations nationally are low for the Sixteen Saints. Prime time TV appearances are reduced. This could be a good omen though; writer Peter King of Sports Illustrated picked them to come in last in their division in ‘09. Lamentably, the team leads the league in “dead money” under the salary cap +/- $40 MM, meaning almost a third of the $155 MM payroll goes to players not currently on the roster. Did the calculator in General Manager Mickey Loomis’ office malfunction ? If the Saints of 2016 win big, no question they will be known as the Galloping Ghosts.
Nevertheless, the club has a bevy of young players with potential that pass eye tests, and by season’s end fans locally and nationally could become much more familiar with the spelling of their sundry last names and jersey numbers.
Regardless of the outcomes this anniversary year, one thing is certain. Who Dat Nation will retain its unique brand of …Faith.
For an online celebration of the Saints At 50, check out the team’s “micro” site at www.saints50.com.
Bert Bartlett is a native of New Orleans and attended the first Saints game. He is the author of the traditionally published A Tale of Two Seasons, Katrina & A Super Bowl (2010) and has had his blog, Souls of The Saints (www.soulsofthesaints.wordpress.com) since 2009. This is his third article for Inside New Orleans.