Tom Benson's influence remains in New Orleans, NFL, NBA
By John DeShazier, @johndeshazier
If there still are times when it feels as if Tom Benson is attending a game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome or Smoothie King Center, watching a practice at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center on Tom Benson Way, or making clear his vision at an NFL or NBA owner’s meeting, that’s understandable.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of Benson’s death at the age of 90, and it’s easy still to feel the presence of the New Orleans titan.
But while the state, NFL and NBA all fondly can reflect on Benson’s life and legacy today, and New Orleans can commemorate on how it galvanized during one of its most significant celebrations of life a year ago, two franchises can warmly look to the past and hopefully approach the future because of the foundation laid by Benson.
Benson’s wife, Gayle Benson, now occupies the role of sole owner for the Pelicans and Saints – and with it, likely assumes the mantle of Most Powerful Woman in Sports – having been prepped for her current role by no less of an authority than her late husband. And several of his trusted lieutenants, including President Dennis Lauscha and General Manager Mickey Loomis, remain in place.
The seamlessness of transition – one that Benson crafted – helped allay concern over the fate of the franchises. And it highlighted the cohesion with which the principals operated, through the emotionally trying time that was Benson’s illness and death, to triumphs by GMB Racing, a playoff series victory by the Pelicans in 2018 and playoff wins by the Saints in the ’17 and ’18 seasons.
Obviously, Gayle Benson’s role can’t be overstated.
The Saints and Pelicans owner not only took over the leadership position for two pro sports franchises, but has flourished in it while injecting her own thoughts and vision. She was credited with influencing Tom Benson’s decision to buy the Pelicans in 2012, steadfastly has maintained that the Pelicans are not for sale and will not be moved on her watch, and is a regular at home and road games.
Beyond the sports presence she has maintained the charitable outpouring that only appears to have increased the last several years.
There was the Christmas gift she presented to hundreds of shoppers, when she paid the tab for 408 customers’ layaways at a local Walmart, totaling nearly $100,000. And, more recently, she donated $5 million in February to Jesuit High – the largest gift in the school’s history – toward improving the school’s athletic facilities. The basketball arena will be renamed the Gayle and Tom Benson Arena.
And as philanthropic and successful as Benson has been outside the sports arena, her football and basketball teams and stable have been as noteworthy inside those environs. The Pelicans won’t advance to the playoffs this season, but last year swept Portland in the first round. GMB Racing had two Kentucky Derby starters in 2016 (Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready) and Lone Sailor made headway in 2018.
The Saints, whom Tom Benson bought in 1985 and who never had a winning record prior to his ownership, won the Super Bowl in 2009 under Tom Benson and advanced to the NFC Championship Game in 2018 – the third NFC Championship Game in franchise history – under Gayle Benson.
But all roads lead back to Tom Benson, whose memory has not faded and, likely, won’t fade any time soon in New Orleans, if ever.
It’s not because of the statue overlooking Champions Square outside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, or the myriad photographs of him inside the Ochsner Sports Performance Center during different high points of his ownership period; raising the Lombardi Trophy, welcoming Anthony Davis to the franchise, joined by a few dozen Pro Football Hall of Famers in 2015, months after an $11 million donation to the Hall, the largest contribution ever made by an individual to the Hall. The stadium was renamed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in his honor.
More, his DNA courses through the empire that he built, even now.
A year later, Tom Benson’s fingerprints remain on the businesses that he loved, and his influence remains a comfort to the people that he cherished.
If there still are times when it feels as if he’s attending a game, watching a practice or wielding his influence, that’s understandable.
Because he still is.