by Bert Bartlett
In an acute bug year for it nationally, the longer Tom Benson stayed in Ochsner Medical Center with complications from the flu, the less likely it was he’d make it out.
His passing elicited sundry reflections, some hallowed civic savior to an angelic reach, a service in St. Louis Cathedral, Second Line on the streets, and so on. Over on Nola.com Jeff Duncan wrote he was “complicated”, though he wasn’t as much complicated as public perceptions of him were. And let’s face it, complicated can be a euphemism for mixed bag. That’s no sin on Benson’s part, just that he was a mere mortal too.
From his clipped accent and gruff persona, Benson was homage to the humidity and sidewalks in his native Seventh Ward, some of the asphalt uprooted, broken, and roughed up, to be walked over. He was no trust fund baby, marching self made on from cars and more cars, to the Saints, to a ranch and banks in San Antonio, to the local Fox affiliate, to the arena league Voodoo, the NBA Pelicans, and near the end, resurging Dixie Beer, and even racehorses (the day after he was laid to rest, he and wife Gayle’s colt Lone Sailor placed in the Louisiana Derby).
All in a good day’s “woik”, as he pronounced it.
If there was money to be made in a given venture, Benson could gobble it up like Pac Man. And he always kept his eyes on the prize$. All the way to the top of Forbes’ list as richest Louisianan. Motivated by a chipped shoulder, Benson’s ego was largely laden with that he wasn’t given a damn thing. So he earned the right to have it.
Mr. Benson deserves toasts from fans of the Saints. Let’s not though, without violating any post mortem grace, lace the wine with any Kool-Aid.
Who Can Forgive But Can’t Forget…
As the new millennium approached, in his annual state of the Who ‘Dat Nation addresses, while the Saints were fielding crappy teams, Benson lamented declining ticket sales while sending out his lieutenant Arnie Felkow out to explain the rising ticket prices. He took a stab at New Orleans as perhaps not an “NFL City”, a veiled threat to pack up and go elsewhere for a better deal. He also hinted it might take a new stadium on the West Bank or the Gulf Coast for it to compete as a big league town.
When in fact what the Saints needed more than anything else was a good coach, a franchise quarterback not named Billy Joe, and better drafting out of the colleges. Prior to standardized payroll expense that is the salary cap, Benson threw loose change at the Saints to improve them about as loosely as Sewerage & Water Board manhole covers.
After Katrina, the Saints were going to bleed money in 2005 and Benson was livid. The tensions got hostile at Tiger Stadium in a pit stop home game as fans hissed and mocked him for repeatedly threatening to permanently relocate the franchise to San Antonio, whose mayor courted him with open arms, an empty stadium built with the pros in mind, and blank checks. It got so bad that Benson vowed he’d never go back to Baton Rouge again and requested beefed up personal security from the league, emanating paranoia in the process.
Benson could not envision Nola’s recovery anywhere in sight soon and took out a full page ad in the Times Picayune formally warning that the Saints could break the long term lease with the Louisiana Superdome due to an “act of God”. Burdened and annoyed with plenty of other matters, Mayor Ray Nagin quipped: Damn Saints talkin’ about leavin’ again? Let ‘em go, just go…
The Saints came darn close to changing addresses, if not for the efforts of then Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who did not want the charm and tourist mecca of New Orleans off the league radar screen, and sent his deputy Roger Goodell to handle much of the prickly negotiations with Benson. The tide changed only when the owners ponied up an undisclosed sum in a forgivable loan or the like to keep the Saints in the black. Jerry Jones was instrumental in enjoining that route, not wanting more market competition for Dallas from a third team in Texas. Benson announced the commitment to stay over the holidays, taking everyone’s edge finally off.
Boy, did he underestimate Nola’s devotion to the Black & Gold. Even if plenty were subsidized by FEMA benefits to purchasers, season tickets sold out, on a roll, for years in advance. Nothing appeared to make Benson happier. Like other cities with pro sport franchises where tradition is stitched fabric, fans don’t feel that the owner owns the team, that they do, and that the owner just happens to be the current custodian. The smarter owners don’t mind that perception, and Benson was in that category, unless it came to the bottom line.
It’s OK Mr. B, we got it. It was just bidness…
On the personal front, the rift with the team’s heir apparent, his stepdaughter Rita and kin was ugly and rife with public innuendo, on anything from his capacities or lack thereof, to new wife Gayle’s machinations in control and acquisition, to Rita’s lifestyle and recreational choices. Such can be the cost of doing business in the public’s arena. It was a too familiar reminder of how money can quickly get thicker than blood. Apparently they didn’t even make it in for Benson’s service, despite him saying they would be “taken care of” financially anyway.
The Benson Organization had its share of palace intrigue, only some of which got out, and was speculation at that. Any whiff of lack of loyalty could generate an abrupt pink slip. The aforementioned Felkow got one for reportedly being too pro Orleanian in the building and with the media to keep the franchise here after Katrina.
General Manager Randy Mueller was doing a respectable job on the field (in 2000 the Saints won their first playoff game under his watch), but was suddenly and inexplicably let go. Perhaps he agreed to a few large player contracts without running it by the boss first, or listened to a job nibble from another club, though he may not have solicited it or had any intention of taking it. Again, perhaps. TBO is a tight wraps company.
And local yokel icon, the late great sportscaster Buddy Diliberto, lost his seat on the team plane to away games after ragging on the Saints for their miserly play. He and Benson later kissed and made up though, to the extent the owner took his recommendation to hire “Iron Mike” Ditka as head coach, a decision everyone later came to regret. Especially a bitter Mrs. Ditka, who in hightailing it out of town after the hub got fired, singed that all of New Orleans were losers.
Way before Benson acquired the local Fox affiliate, the local media learned the hard way that a mother’s advice was best; if nothing nice to say, best to not say anything at all. Currying any organizational favor at work or their job security or could depend on it. Indeed, there was unspoken verbatim around town that better be careful what you say about the man, TBO, or ‘dem Saints. Third Reich atmosphere is a stretch but you get the drift. Longtime Saints voice Jim Henderson was probably best at stating criticism in un-offensive eloquence.
In 2015, Benson’s longtime driver and personal valet got fired and sued in retort. In the news releases were references to petty tasks done never to the satisfaction of a constantly irritable Mr. and Mrs. Benson, humiliating gopher treatment, even the plantation mentality befitting his Mistah Tom nickname. A disgruntled employee can certainly bend the truth, but if the gist of it was true, the story didn’t paint a pretty picture and wouldn’t be on anyone’s resume for Sainthood.
In The Box…
Mr. B was actually a dream owner, a Prince, for any general manager or head coach to work for because he exercised the common sense to stay the heck out the way of the football ops. To the media he often deferred questions about the Saints to, as “Mickey’s (Loomis, GM) team to run”. When Loomis and Coach Sean Payton sought approval for rather large checks to sign Drew Brees and Reggie Bush, Benson didn’t flinch and gave them his blessing.
This was in stark contrast to boob, elbow bumping behavior by owners like Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder in Washington. Having been self integral in player personnel, drunk at a bar after another Super Bowl win in the Nineties, Jones garbled that “hell, I could coach this team”. Which was the beginning of the end for Coach Jimmy Johnson, who overheard it sitting at a nearby table with his assistants, and the Cowboys basically haven’t won diddly squat since.
Though he has slowed down after it kept the Redskins in the pits for years, Snyder impulsively kept signing overpriced free agent busts, and not out of the need to sell tickets in D.C. At his worse, he was on the horn from the suite with Coach Mike Shanahan during a playoff insisting that his prized young QB, RG III, stay in the game, despite he being obviously injured badly and gimping around out there like a dog shot in the hindquarters. Shanahan made best efforts to keep a straight face on the sidelines, but had little choice than to obey. It wasn’t that the ‘Skins lost the game, it arguably cost the kid a career as he was never the same and subsequently drifted away, his heart buried by a wounded knee. It was a disgrace.
Mr. B would never do something like that, not even close. The media could pin him all day on who should be starting at quarterback and he wouldn’t budge with an inch of opinion.
Benson wasn’t about X’s and O’s, dollars and cents his game. He was prominent on the league’s Finance Committee, particularly astute at feeding from the public trough when it came to the Saints. One of his sweetened New Deals included acquiring office space downtown from the state at a discount and leasing it back to the state at a rate per square foot and long, secure term difficult to obtain on the open market. Governors Edwards, Foster, and Blanco had little choice than to cede to his demands, lest commit political suicide by the Saints departing a ticked off populace.
Mr. B wasn’t an exception though, just poised in his box when the business of pro football became more about suite sales, new stadiums, naming rights to those stadiums, real estate development, corporate sponsorships, permanent seat licenses, merchandise, and commandeering of concessions and parking – than the game itself. And why NFL franchises can be alluded to as satellite branches of Fort Knox.
But in 2012 we wish he made a stand outside his box and made a necessary call.
The season long suspension mixes of GM, coaches, and players due to Bountygate were unprecedented. Reputedly, the harsh penalties included some payback by now Commissioner Goodell for Benson being so difficult in Post Katrina negotiations (though the Saints repeatedly lying about it to the league didn’t help). Airline Drive spun aimlessly in what best to do. Coach Payton wanted to bring in his retired mentor and friend Bill Parcells to fill in, but he declined. So pending his own suspension, Loomis anointed two assistants, one after serving his own suspension, to be interim head coaches for the season.
The whole thing was an ill conceived mess, when the ship needed a rudder the most. And because of his own transgressions in the affair, not Mickey’s. Mr. B could have said “the heck with this inside stuff, I am going to bring in a qualified interim, so ya’ll just sit out your sentences or go back to woik”. Jim Mora might have come out of retirement from the West Coast to do it, his successful head coach stint here tainted when he abruptly quit mid-season, after fuming and giving up on his poor effort roster. From his Marine days, Mora would have known how to handle the assignment.
Predictably, the 2012 Saints stunk and the team hardly qualified as NFL product. Ralph Nader, had he been hired to do so, might have won in court a class action for season ticket refunds.
Benson demanded loyalty but could give it out too. After Loomis and Payton brought him a ring in ‘09, there was Bountygate, Loomis not doing enough homework and bungling player signings and the salary cap over and over, Coach Payton stuck at 7 – 9 on the sidelines, and a sordid swipe at the coaches for prescription drug abuse in the locker room that was at risk of becoming a felony case. Mr. B could have made some justified changes, but didn’t. Payton even got a raise in a new contract after his suspension (!).
Down The Stretch…
Pity that Loomis and Payton could not bring him another ring; like the 2011 outfit whose sun set in San Francisco, last season’s team was capable of going all the way, if not for a freak game ending touchdown pass with the Saint defender rolling around on the ground like a mummy and into the legs of a teammate that was the last line of defense, abetted by the ghost of Prince in Minneapolis.
As he aged, perhaps he more realized he couldn’t take it with him and became more benevolent, at least that publicly disclosed.
Admirably, out of respect to the league’s old school coterie of ex-players, in 2014 he donated $11mm to the reno of the stadium for the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, OH, including $1mm towards Legends Landing, an assisted living and memory care facility as part of the Player Care Center, filling a void where the owners and the Players Association fumble in their periodic collective bargaining agreements.
Benson also underwrote another football team, which didn’t get much press here, the Cardinals of the University of the Incarnate Word, a small Catholic school in San Antonio that he was a major benefactor of, where he was instrumental in getting an ex-Saint, the wandering and recalcitrant Ricky Williams, a job as assistant coach.
Nola has been most fortunate the Saints had only two owners in half a century, John Mecom, Jr., and the last three decades by Mr. B. It came within a hurricane of hitting the road, but the Crescent City was spared the just bidness franchise hop-scotching that has left so many fans in cities holding the bag, most recently St. Louis and San Diego. Oakland is about to crap out to Vegas.
In a city that knows how to dance, Benson was brave to chop those goofy, uncoordinated steps on the turf of the Dome when the Saints finally started winning more than losing. The adagio was so bad it became great, and the self deprecation scored him some likers where they weren’t any. The city’s voodoo heritage deems opening an umbrella indoors as bad luck, but Benson’s flout of his with papier mache gold on top went unchecked. This was when Mistah Tom became Boogie Benson, and gave Saints fans something they yearned for from him but never stopped to think about – just some warmth.
And showed that fair skinned N’awlins Boys have soul too.