Tom Benson | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Tom Benson

Tom Benson (right) with his wife Gayle Benson (left) Photo courtesy Tom Benson

Tom Benson (right) with his wife Gayle Benson (left) Photo courtesy Tom Benson

New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson died of the flu on Thursday, March 15, at the age of 90.

When Benson purchased the New Orleans Saints in 1985, the franchise had never finished a season with a winning record. The best finish before his ownership was an 8-8 record in 1983.

In his youth, the New Orleans native spent time in the United States Navy and at Loyola University before becoming a bookkeeper at a car dealership in his hometown. He eventually owned several car dealerships and several small banks in the South.

He bought the Saints to keep the football team in New Orleans after learning that possible buyers from outside of Louisiana were interested in relocating the franchise. Shortly after his purchase, he made the decision to hire general manager Jim Finks and head coach Jim Mora.

Those decisions paid off in 1987 when the Saints finished with their first winning record, 12-4, and a playoff appearance. It was the first playoff game in the team's then-21-year history and kicked off a string of four playoff berths over six years.

New Orleans lost in the Wild Card round each time during those years, and Benson fired Mora during the 1996 season. The Saints didn't reach the playoffs again until the 2000 season with coach Jim Haslett, under whose leadership the team won its first playoff game against the St. Louis Rams.

Owning the Saints wasn't always a love affair between the city and Benson. He flirted with moving the team at times, and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it seemed like the Saints would be off to San Antonio, Texas.

The Saints played in the entire 2005 season on the road after the hurricane wrecked the city of New Orleans and the Superdome. With some urging from the NFL, Benson recommitted to the city and kept the Saints in Louisiana.

That recommitment led to success on the field with the hiring of Sean Payton as head coach, the drafting of star running back Reggie Bush and the signing of free-agent quarterback Drew Brees. New Orleans finished with a 10-6 record in 2006 and reached the NFC Championship game for the first time in team history, but the Saints ultimately fell to the Chicago Bears.

New Orleans finally reached the top of the football world in 2009 when the team won 31-17 over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

The Saints have seen some rough times off the field under Benson, and not just because of Katrina. New Orleans faced a drug scandal in 2010 over the theft of vicodin at the team facility, and only two years later, the NFL suspended Payton for the entire 2012 season due to a bounty scandal.

Benson was instrumental in bringing the Super Bowl back to New Orleans after Katrina. He helped lead financial growth in the NFL as a long-time member and served as chair of the league's finance committee three times.

In addition to his NFL team, Benson bought the New Orleans Hornets in 2012 and renamed the professional basketball team the Pelicans after the Louisiana state bird. He also started GMB Racing, had two horses in the 2016 Kentucky Derby, and invested in Dixie Beer and other local companies.

While he became known for dancing a jig with a parasol on the sidelines after a Saints win, he faced plenty of personal tragedies. He outlived two of his wives, all three of his younger brothers and two of his three children.

Benson faced greater family drama over the last few years when he ousted his daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren from the Saints in 2015 and named his third wife, Gayle Benson, as sole heir to both the Saints and the Pelicans.

This led to a continuing legal drama throughout the next two years. During those legal battles, his family questioned his competency multiple times, but the matter was settled in 2017, after which Gayle, a New Orleans native herself, was approved as the owner of both franchises.

In 2017, Forbes estimated Benson's worth at $2.8 billion, making him the richest person in Louisiana. He contributed to a variety of charitable organizations throughout New Orleans and the Gulf South region. He gave $11 million to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and gave to numerous Catholic charities.

On the field, he helped the Saints make 11 playoff appearances and a Super Bowl victory. The Pelicans have made one playoff appearance thus far but could reach the postseason again this season.

Benson was hospitalized with the flu on Feb. 16 and died a month later at Ochsner Medical Center. His family held a private mass on Thursday, March 23, at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.

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