Say what you will about Thomas Milton Benson, the head of the New Orleans sports empire that includes the NFL Saints and NBA Pelicans who died Thursday at the age of 90 after a month-long bout with influenza.
He was many things to many people — beloved, by some, despised by others and respected by most. He was a spiritual man, a shrewd businessman, a powerfully influential man who tirelessly strove to make a difference in the world of business and sports and the business of sports.
He loved his family, even those estranged and now rich family members who challenged his lucidity and competency in a court of law.
He loved his football team.
He loved the city in which he was born and raised, though he showed that love sometimes in strange ways down through the years (i.e., post-Katrina relocation turmoil). He shared his vast wealth for the betterment of others, and no one — I repeat, no one — crunched numbers like he could. His business acumen, aka his innate ability to turn his vision into a massive profit, benefited him and his extended family greatly over the years and made him the multi-billionaire that he became before his passing.
His legacy is burgeoning, stretching near and far, beginning with but not ending with the two local sports franchises. Over the last years of his life, Benson prepared for a smooth transition to pass his sports empire to his wife of 13 years, Gayle Marie Trudeau Benson, for the sole purpose of keeping the teams at home.
I want to believe the two franchises are safe and sound and in capable hands for years to come with Mrs. Benson and her team of sports/business/legal advisers. I want to believe the Saints are here to stay. In my mind, the jury is still out on the playoff-bound Pels, regardless how successful they end up this season.
But the Saints belong in New Orleans, lock, stock and barrel.
I had the good fortune of covering the Saints teams during the early years of Benson’s tenure, those first glory years in the mid-80s and early ’90s under President/GM Jim Finks and Coach Jim Mora.
On one of his first visits to the football practice field, Mr. Tom, who had purchased the team from John Mecom for a cool $70.2 million back in 1985 (its current estimated value according to Forbes eclipses $1 billion), wondered aloud why some members of the team wore black jerseys and some wore white.
Years later, during an unfortunate downswing under Mora, Benson demanded that his head coach fire “someone, anyone,’’ a business strategy that served Benson extremely well in the automobile dealership business but didn’t necessarily translate to the pro football business.
And while Benson never fully grasped Xs and Os, the man certainly understood the meaning of dollars and cents.
And for that we are eternally grateful.
Who knows, maybe his passing will spur his football franchise and newly-inked quarterback Drew Brees to bigger and greater things this season.
That said, his basketball team will need divine intervention to win it all.
Rest in peace, Mr. Benson.
Brian Allee-Walsh is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.