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I witnessed Chapter 1 of the Tom Benson evolution

by J.W. Miller on 03/16/18

When I first met Tom Benson, I thought he was the janitor. It was January, 1986, at the Super Bowl in New Orleans, and I was in town to interview for a job with new Saints President and GM Jim Finks. I had been in the Saints’ Superdome offices many times in my position with the NFL Management Council, but I had not yet met the team’s new owner. I was waiting in the lobby when a rather rumpled gentleman walked from some back offices and extended his hand. “Tom Benson,” he said in a thick drawl. “Welcome to the Saints!” I did not realize it then, but my life had changed forever. 

Memories flooded back after news Thursday afternoon that Benson had passed away at age 90 from complications with the flu. You don’t have time to hear all my stories here, but I’ll share a few that I hope reflect the man I knew who became the most prominent individual in New Orleans sports history. The many different sides of Tom Benson could be encapsulated in a character study called “the evolution of an NFL owner.” I witnessed the first chapter between 1986-96 when the Saints went from zero winning seasons to a league power. 

First, I remember the images. There was the ebullient Tom, parasol high, second-lining around the Superdome field after a Saints win. There was the playful Tom, intent on winning a few bucks from his entourage in intense Saturday night bourré games during road trips. There was the Imperial Tom, striding through his dealerships among fawning employees who showed proper respect to “Mister Tom.” And there was the ruthless “bidness” Tom who would raise his voice, slam his palm on the table and use any other tactic to intimidate his target. 

I go back to the beginning and consider why Tom Benson got into a business he knew nothing about. The popular answer is that he wanted to preserve a community asset that was being courted by outside investors. That might have been true in the context of Chapter 2 of Benson’s evolution when he spent freely to buy the Pelicans, WVUE-TV and revive Dixie Beer. Add in his recent endeavors to endow the athletic programs at Tulane and Incarnate Word University in San Antonio and the numerous philanthropies of the Archdiocese and you have the current consensus. 

But the early Tom Benson realized that the preservation of a local asset could also enhance his automobile empire. In his first season as owner, Benson wanted to use a preseason game to showcase his vehicles, and he ordered cars from every dealership to be positioned around the Superdome playing field. Fortunately, Saints PR guy Greg Suit, a veteran NFL hand, rushed to Benson and informed him that NFL rules prohibited such  advertising. 

The early years with GM Jim Finks were part of a learning experience for Benson as he evolved from a hard-charging business man into an NFL owner. Finks was in control, and Benson deferred to the Hall of Fame GM, who affectionately called him “the tire kicker” behind his back. But Benson was the owner, and soon his fellow owners began to hear what he was saying and not how he said it. He was named chairman of the prestigious Finance Committee, whose authority extended to nearly every business aspect of the League and member clubs. His acumen was on display, and his reasoned judgment and sound recommendations were seldom opposed. 

During this time, the Saints went from a sideshow a few years earlier to one of the best operated franchise in the league and one that other owners wished to emulate. In 1989, Benson informed Finks that a new owner had asked if he could bring his top people to New Orleans and learn how to put together a winning franchise. That was my first meeting with Jerry Jones and his son Stephen, who listened and asked questions of us for a full day. After that, every time I saw Jones at League meetings or games, he would ask if I had any more advice for him. 

Chapter 2 in the Tom Benson evolution began in 1993 when Finks resigned to begin a futile battle against lung cancer. For seven years, Finks had served as the buffer between the owner and the rest of us, but now Benson was in full charge, and it became a learning experience for us. We saw parts of his personality that we had not seen before. I remember 1995 when the Saints started out 0-5, and Tom called Coach Jim Mora, VP of Personnel Billy Kuharich, and me, the Executive VP, into his office. He was agitated and told us in no uncertain terms: “This is unacceptable, and if you can’t fix it, I will!”

Benson proceeded to tell Mora to fire some players and coaches, Kuharich to fire some scouts and me to fire the least-seniority person in each department. Three hours later, we had talked him off the ceiling, but he was not convinced, telling us that he would think about it. Fortunately, the team started playing better and we got our reprieve. That was Typical Tom, who never would settle for mediocrity without using radical measures to try and fix it. Whether he was charming or abrupt, Tom Benson challenged his employees to rise to his own definition of success, and we bought in. We knew that behind every decision was integrity, facts and a passion to succeed. 

Sometimes things did not go the way we would have liked, particularly the morning of May 17, 1996, when Benson called me into his office and told me I was “terminated.” It was not a good time for us because two days later my wife Jean would give birth to our son, Charles Connor. But Tom honored the remaining months on my contract without question and even made calls to other owners that led to my next position as VP of Administration of the Buffalo Bills. In my first league meeting representing the Bills, in 1997, Benson took me aside and said he had something to say. “I made a mistake in letting you go, and I just wanted you to know that,” he said. I told him he didn’t have to say anything because I understood the business, but I appreciated it. I truly did.

Those are just some of my impressions and memories of Tom Benson during the early years. Buy me a beer sometime, and I’ll tell you a few more. And, oh by the way, thanks, Tom, for being a major influence in my life, a mentor, and a friend.

Comments (1)

1. Tango reaux said on 3/16/18 - 03:27PM
Your column definitely rings true. He was a guy who knew how to make money even if it took being ruthless on occasion. The Saints wound up being the bulk of his wealth at his death. He was truly lucky in this case. The value of an nfl team is primarily attributable to players playing well and fans attributing some of their identity to the team. Hopefully he’s in purgatory praying for the well-being of Drew Brees and Sean Payton. And hopefully the next owner lowers beer prices in the dome which impacts many of us negatively who truly make the franchise worth what it is.

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