Tom Benson, a New Orleans native and successful auto dealer whose business acumen transformed the Saints from bottom feeders into Super Bowl champions, died Thursday at age 90 in New Orleans.
Benson, who was also owned the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, had been hospitalized since Feb. 16 with flu-like symptoms. He was moved to the intensive care unit a few days later and remained there until his death.
Benson rose from working class roots to become one of Louisiana’s wealthiest citizens, with a net worth of more than $2.8 billion. To supporters, he was a kind, gentle man who was the driving force behind the city’s first and only major sports championship. To detractors, he was a shrewd businessman only concerned with the bottom line and kept the Saints in New Orleans only because he was forced to.
Thomas Milton Benson Jr. was born July 12, 1927 in New Orleans. Benson’s father, Thomas Sr., made him and his two brothers walk to school every day rather than take the bus.
“My dad used to preach the virtues of physical fitness to me, and me and my brothers walk two miles to school—each way—rather than take the bus,” Benson said in a 1987 interview with the New York Times. “It wasn’t until we were older that I figured out we couldn’t afford the bus fare.”
As a boy, Benson sold copies of the New Orleans Times-Picayune to earn extra money. After graduating from high school, he served in the United States Navy aboard the USS South Dakota. Although the Navy offered him an opportunity to re-enlist, Benson attended Loyola University on the GI Bill and graduated with an accounting degree in 1948.
After college, Benson began work at a New Orleans automobile dealer as a sales manager. In 1956, he moved to San Antonio to help revive a failing dealership with a 25 percent ownership stake. By 1962, Benson was the full owner of the dealership. Eventually, Benson’s empire include 33 dealerships, interest in five banks, and real estate holdings in both San Antonio and New Orleans.
Benson moved back to New Orleans in 1978. He purchased the Saints in 1985 for $70 million in an effort to keep his hometown team from moving to Jacksonville, Fla. in spite of not being a huge football fan.
“The (1984) World’s Fair had folded, unemployment was 13 percent, and if the Saints left, what would we have left in the city?” Benson said at the time.
Football in New Orleans was a part of Benson’s lineage, however. His great-uncle, Herbert, was a founder of college football’s Sugar Bowl and the architect of Tulane Stadium, where the Sugar Bowl was played until 1974.
Benson purchased a team nicknamed the Aints whose fans were often in the stands with paper bags over their faces. The team’s turnaround began with the hiring of general manager Jim Finks and head coach Jim Mora, who led the Saints to their first winning season in 1987.
In 1991, the Saints won their clinched their first division title. Benson himself became one of the NFL’s most popular owners with his Benson Boogie, a dance he did with a parasol along the sidelines after home victories, and his New Orleans drawl.
Benson’s playful gameday persona turned into an icy, strictly business demeanor in 2001 when he negotiated $187 million in concessions and state subsidies to keep the Saints playing at the Superdome through 2010. Benson said the deal was necessary for the Saints to continue playing in New Orleans.
Benson’s deal to keep the Saints playing at the Superdome was followed by another one. The state stopped paying direct subsidies to Benson after committing to relocate several state offices to a high-rise next to the Superdome owned by Benson at above-market rates. The building is known as Benson Tower.
To make matters worse, the Saints only posted two winning seasons between 1993 and 2005. The ineptitude was perhaps best exhibited when Mike Ditka, who succeeded Mora as head coach, traded all of the Saints’ 1999 draft picks to select Ricky Williams.
After Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed much of New Orleans in 2005, the Saints relocated to San Antonio, a city where Benson had many business interests. Benson’s public image took even more of a hit. This was best exemplified by Benson arguing with a Saints fan during an LSU game in Baton Rouge. Benson also lunged at the camera crew that filmed the exchange.
The exchange in Baton Rouge highlighted Benson’s lack of public relations skills. His constant demanding that taxpayers help support the Saints and not-so-thinly veiled threats to move the team did him no favors either.
Benson eventually returned the Saints to New Orleans, after some prodding from then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Saints fans are a forgiving a bunch as the team has sold out every home game since returning to the Big Easy in 2006.
The Saints became a symbol of New Orleans’ post-Katrina renaissance. Behind head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints advanced to the NFC Championship Game in the 2006 season. Three years later, they defeated the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
Two years after Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints were embroiled in the Bountygate scandal. It was discovered the team paid players cash bonuses off-the-books for hits that sidelined or injured players. The team was fined $500,000 and Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season.
In 2010, the NBA took over the financially strapped New Orleans Hornets. Benson purchased the team in 2012 for $338 million. He renamed the team the New Orleans Pelicans after the state bird and former minor league baseball team. The Pelicans made just one postseason appearance since Benson took over the team but they currently sit as the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference led by Anthony Davis, one of the NBA’s rising stars.
Benson was also a philanthropist who contributed millions of dollars for causes in New Orleans and San Antonio among others. He was instrumental in bringing Super Bowl XLVII to the Superdome, which brought in millions of dollars to the city. He also started GMB Racing, which produced 2016 Kentucky Derby entrants Mo Tom (finished eighth) and Tom’s Ready (finished 12th).
Benson’s death highlights a bitter family split that puts the ownership of the Saints and Pelicans in question.
During a 2014 Week 16 game between the Saints and Atlanta Falcons, Benson’s granddaughter Rita confronted Gayle, Benson’s third wife in the owner’s suite at the Superdome. The incident caused Benson to write a letter to his daughter and grandchildren saying he never wanted to see them again.
“Suddenly after I remarried you all became offensive and did not act in an appropriate manner and even had arguments among yourselves, which created a very unpleasant family situation, which I will not stand for,” Benson wrote in the letter.
In January 2015, Benson made it known that he wanted Gayle to inherit the teams after his death. The original succession plan called for daughter Renee Benson to receive a 60 percent of the Saints and Pelicans and grandchildren Rita and Ryan getting a 20 percent minority stake each.
Renee Benson vowed to prove that Benson was being manipulated against them in spite of standing to inherit millions of dollars from an irrevocable trust set up before the acrimony began. They sued to have Benson declared mentally incompetent to handle his affairs, claiming he was only being fed “candy, ice cream, sodas, and red wine” among other things.
A judge later found Benson mentally competent to handle his affairs, including the affairs of the Saints and Pelicans. He turned most of his Texas businesses and real estate interests to Renee Benson and her children while retaining sole rights to both sports franchises.
For the time being, Gayle Benson will be in charge of the Saints and Pelicans. She will run the teams with Dennis Lauscha, president of business operations for both teams and Mickey Loomis, executive vice president of operations for both teams and Saints general manager. Although Renee Benson lost the lawsuit, she can still contest her father’s will.
Benson was married three times: to the late Shirley Landry (1927-1980), the late Grace Trudeau (1927-2003) and Gayle Marie LaJaunie Bird, whom he married in 2004. Benson had three children with Shirley, two of whom are deceased. Benson had several stepchildren with Grace.
Benson’s first wife, Shirley, was unable to bear children so they adopted three children: Robert (who died of cancer at age 36 in 1985), Jeannie Marie (also known as Tootsie, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1991), and Renee. Besides his estranged daughter and grandchildren, Benson is survived by another granddaughter, Dawn Jones.