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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

Family feud was Benson's toughest negotiation

by J.W. Miller on 02/05/17

I’ve seen Tom Benson negotiate, and it’s a stirring thing to watch. But maybe negotiation, which implies give and take, is the wrong word. Maybe "dictate" is a better word, as in "he knew what he wanted from the other party, and he dictated the terms." 

I sat beside him the day we went to Baton Rouge and sat across a conference table from Gov. Edwin Edwards to get a better lease at the Superdome. Edwards was being typically coy, and at one point, Benson slammed his palm on the table to emphasize his adamance, but it only drew a smirk from the well-traveled governor. “Now, Benson, we not gonna get anyt'ing done if you sit dere and pound dat table.” But the point was made, and a deal soon followed close to what the Saints' owner wanted. 

He had years of negotiating practice in the automobile business. The picture of young Tom Benson arguing dollars over a used Chevy at Mike Persia’s store belies the reality that Tom was more likely in the back room counting Persia’s money than trying to separate a buyer from a few more bucks. As a self-described “bookkeeper,” he knew the financial side of whatever business he was in far better than anyone around him. He ran and then owned multiple automobile dealerships, banks and real estate before using his negotiating skills to parlay a minority stake into control of a National Football League franchise and ultimately 100% ownership.

But in the past two years, Tom Benson has faced a much different negotiation, one he could not control. I am certain that Benson’s negotiations with his daughter Renee and grand-daughter Rita involved some table-slapping before an agreement was announced Friday. However, it wasn’t Renee or Rita whose table was slapped but that of his own  attorney, Phil Wittman, who likely absorbed Benson’s ire when he had to tell Benson the price of peace. Unable to face his accusers, Benson delegated to Wittman the hardest job, negotiating with opposing counsel and then bringing the bad news back to Benson. 

I’ve given Benson bad news before, and he is not a gracious listener. I can envision him thirty years later slamming his palm on the table when Wittman informed Benson that he would have to give up more than he thinks the other side deserves. In Rita’s case, that amount probably was zero, nada, zilch after some of her antics were interpreted as embarrassing to Benson and his franchises. Benson brought Rita into the operation about the same time he married Gayle in 2004. Rita’s mother, Renee Benson Leblanc, is one of three children Tom and his first wife, Shirley, adopted and is the billionaire’s lone surviving child. 

But Rita did not hew to the manor born and riled Benson repeatedly. He suspended her from the business at least once, but he apparently felt comfortable enough to bring her back into the fold and declare Renee and Rita principal heirs to his fortune. Things were obviously not as they seemed, and the fracture in the family went public in late 2014 when Benson sent a letter to his heirs that was prompted by growing tension between them and wife Gayle. The heirs maintained that Gayle and team executives controlled Benson’s business affairs, leading him to remove them from the teams’ headquarters in Metairie and his other interests. 

Unlike his previous negotiations, where Benson relied solely on his skills and leverage to make the best deal possible, the family feud left him vulnerable to outside pressures. Since the case was expected to focus on the value of the Saints and Pelicans shares Benson was pulling out of the trusts, the NFL and NBA could have been compelled to provide financial details on the franchises. Supporting that theory, the NFL and NBA filed motions Thursday with the federal court indicating they would ask the judge to seal any exhibits with “commercially sensitive and otherwise confidential information.” 

That move likely came when the agreement was imminent, but it was obviously meant to secure sanctity of NFL and NBA finances. Pressure from the two league doubtless had their effect on Benson’s decision to settle. At some point in these final days, probably with the nearest table feeling his frustration, Benson took Wittman’s advice and settled for the best deal he could get.  

No matter who wins, I still hate the Falcons!

by J.W. Miller on 02/01/17

I am not normally one to procrastinate over a decision, but when it comes to choosing between two unattractive options, procrastination is forgivable. Did you make up your mind who you were voting for before election day? That is one reason my column that usually appears on Monday is in your hands two days later. The question? Which team do I like to win the Super Bowl? Wordsmiths will see two questions in that sentence: Who do I like, and who will win, and therein lies my dilemma. 

I can’t take a stand if I can’t make up my mind, can I? Honesty, I’m not crazy about the Patriots, but my Saints pedigree will not allow me to like the Falcons. I almost think it would be a good time for a major blackout to strike Houston, but that is probably extreme. I’m almost pulling for a tie, but NFL rules will keep the game going until somebody prevails. 

My antipathy toward the Atlanta Falcons is understandable, having spent ten years in the front office of their blood rivals. Fortunately, during our time, the Saints were better than the Falcons, posting a 13-7 record between 1986-95. That included some memorable games for a young exec. In fact, in my first game as a Saints’ employee, which also was the first game for GM Jim Finks and Coach Jim Mora as Saints’ employees, the Falcons embarrassed us at home in a 31-10 whuppin'. The rivalry had one curious element in that the visiting team always seemed to have as many fans in the seats as the home team. Those were the days when the African American social clubs in each city had no trouble finding tickets in either venue. They loaded caravans of buses that hauled them into enemy territory. Large sections of the Terrace were painted red with celebrating Falcon fans during our debut.

But what goes around usually comes around in a rivalry, and our fans returned the favor the following year in a game that still is among my favorite experiences in sports. It was the week after Mora’s famous “coulda, woulda, shoulda” speech after a disappointing 24-22 loss to the 49ers in the Superdome. That did not discourage the football-loving social clubs from boarding their buses and painting the upper climes of Fulton County Stadium a zesty black and gold. And their team rewarded them with a pounding of their hosts. The Saints’ defense intercepted five passes, and a ground game led by running backs Reuben Mayes and Dalton Hilliard controlled the ball for 38 minutes in a 38-0 romp. 

But my favorite moment came early in the fourth quarter, after the Falcon fans had left the building and the Saints fans began second-lining through the stands. They had smuggled in their own five-piece band, and it was suddenly Mardi Gras in Georgia. Thousands of Saints fans, snake-dancing through the upper deck, into the lower bowl and around the parking lot after the final gun. 

Of course, the Falcons also parceled out disappointment. When the Saints won their first division title in 1991, we hosted the Falcons in a wild-card playoff match. The Saints were 6-point favorites, and took a 10-0 lead, but QB Chris Miller found easy pickings in the Saints' secondary, hitting receivers Andre Rison and Michael Haynes at will. Rison caught one TD pass and Haynes caught two, including a 61-yard back-breaker in the fourth quarter, in a 27-20 Atlanta victory. 

And what do I remember about the Saints’ games against New England during the same period? I had to look it up. I was reminded that we beat the defending AFC champs 21-20 in the Dome our first year and then beat them in Foxboro in the 1989, 1992 and 1995 seasons. A perfect 4-0 in the Miller years, but no great memories! 

So who do I like Sunday? I told you earlier, dammit, I don’t like either one. Who do I think will win? This pains me to admit, but I think Atlanta’s offense will stretch the Patriots’ defense to the max and come away with a narrow victory. Now excuse me while I go wash out my mouth with soap!

It's time to put UNO back on your list of teams to see!

by J.W. Miller on 01/22/17

Every couple of months, I get together at Commander’s Palace restaurant with some old colleagues from my University of New Orleans days in what we call our "Ernest Gaines luncheons." Gaines, as you might know, grew up impoverished in slave quarters on a Point Coupee Parish plantation but escaped that life to become one of Louisiana’s most prolific authors. Probably his most notable work is “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” but our periodic get-togethers appropriately celebrate another of his classics, “A Gathering of Old Men.” 

Yes, some of our discussions involve literary topics and our current projects, but once we have finished the second round of 25-cent martinis (honest!), the conversation progresses to reminiscences, then rants about what might have been. I won’t reprise the strident nature of the complaints, which you can read for yourself in my book prominently advertised at the top right of this page, but we did talk about the current state of UNO Privateers athletics. And, judging by a field trip a couple of us took after lunch, things are starting to look up. 

The event was a basketball game between the Privateers and Houston Baptist at Lakefront Arena. I had not attended a UNO basketball game since I was athletic director, simply because it was too painful. But since time heals all wounds (or wounds all heels!), I went to the game and was glad I did. Coach Mark Slessinger was bouncing all over the bench area, shouting instructions to his players and advice to the officials throughout the Privateers’ 72-64 victory. It was great fun, and the modest crowd got its money’s worth. I was happy to see the student participation as several student groups boasted their colors, and even some alums wore their old fraternity tee-shirts in a terrific display of school spirit. 

Even better, the win put New Orleans closer to first place in the Southland Conference, a position they attained two days later with an 81-63 victory at Central Arkansas on Saturday. It’s been a while since a UNO team was in first place in anything other than shipbuilding or film studies, and there’s a long way to go, but, hey, let’s enjoy it while we’ve got it. 

I knew Slessinger knew what he was doing with his early schedule. It’s the plight of mid-major basketball budgets that you are required to offer yourself as a sacrifice to bigger schools that will pay you to come in and lose gracefully. The Privateers did that with road losses at Oklahoma State, Tulsa, Southern California and Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois. But they also pulled off the mid-major’s dream of going into a bigger venue and bringing home a victory along with the check, as they did when they defeated Washington State on December 3. That game was less than a week after UNO had pounded Tulane 74-59 at Lakefront Arena in a game the local wipe covered from the Tulane angle. I guess even the championship of New Orleans can’t draw much attention from the local rag, but maybe now the news media will start looking more closely. 

It is certainly conceivable that the Privateers could win the conference tournament and get their first NCAA bid in forever. But don’t just hang your hat on basketball at UNO. Coach Blake Dean is building on the legacy of Ron Maestri and last season restored respect to Privateer baseball with a 31-26 record. Dean’s Twitter messages about recruits suggests his team is going to better that mark this year. Two new pitchers, Kyle Arjona and John Barr, are enough to give the coach reason for optimism. Arjona pitched at Division I Jacksonville University as a freshman last season, posting a 3-2 record with two saves and a 3.79 ERA. Barr came to UNO from South Alabama last season, and already has experience pitching at Maestri Field, having made a relief appearance when the Jaguars played at New Orleans last season. 

We’ll find out when the season starts February 17 with a weekend of games against Southern, Illinois-Chicago and Prairie View, although Dean can be forgiven for looking ahead to his next game. The LSU Tigers, Dean’s alma mater and the No. 2 team in the nation according to Collegiate Baseball, comes to the Lakefront on Tuesday, February 21. So do yourself a favor. Go out and see Privateer basketball and then mark your calendar for the baseball season. It’s finally time to put UNO back on your list of teams to see!

Dr. Charlie Brown was a giant in Saints history!

by J.W. Miller on 01/16/17

We all come across people in our lives who make an indelible impression on us. They could be classmates in high school or college, or men or women we meet at work or even those with whom we share a particular interest such as church or golf. One of those people in my life was Dr. Charles L. Brown Jr., who was the team physician during my ten years in the Saints’ front office. Charlie died Saturday evening at the age of 87, leaving behind a legacy of professionalism and warm memories among those of us who knew him. He was largely unknown to the public, but to those of us fortunate enough to have worked wth him, he was a giant in Saints history.

Working with orthopedists Ken Saer, Terry Habig and later Tim Finney, Brown headed the team behind the team that worked with trainer Dean Kleinschmidt to assure the best medical care possible for Saints players. Team doctors have been maligned in recent years about ignoring players’ ailments, particularly concussions, if it means losing valuable playing time. “Put a Band-Aid on it” might be a clichéd cure-all in some fantasy world, but not to men like Charlie Brown. 

He was big man, standing a few hands over six feet, with a deep, infectious laugh that could brighten anyone’s day. His specialty was oncology, a profession not prone to laughter but to somber expressions of concern for the patient’s condition. But Charlie was a person whose presence was comforting, whether you were chatting on the sidelines at practice or if you were a patient.

He took charge when my boss Jim Finks became ill during the 1993 draft and it was Charlie who told us that Finks, a lifetime smoker, had lung cancer. Charlie designed the treatment protocol, and I remember his optimism several months later when he said Finks was responding so well that he could not detect any cancer. But he was quick to cautioned us that cancer is an insidious and persistent disease. Almost predictably, the cancer reappeared and brought on Finks’ death. 

Charlie Brown was respected among his peers and was named NFL Team Doctor of the Year in 1990 by the Professional Athletic Trainers’ Association. An impartial view came from Rob Huizenga, then a team physician for the Oakland Raiders, who described his first meeting with Dr. Brown in his 1994 book “You’re okay. It’s just a bruise.” The scene was the NFL Combine, which met in New Orleans in 1984 and 1986 before moving permanently to Indianapolis. 

“Toward the end of the morning, as the influx of new players slowed to a trickle,” Huizenga wrote, “in strode Dr. Charles Brown, the team physician for the New Orleans Saints. A graying man in his mid-fifties, he was tall and thin, with a classic bespectacled professorial look. He was the president of the eighty-or-so-member National Football League Physicians Society, a group of orthopedic surgeons, internists, general surgeons, psychiatrists and even dentists…Dr. Brown had been overseeing the entire health portion of the combine, making sure all the medical and orthopedic exams were going smoothly. He had also been meeting with the NFL hierarchy about ways to stem the use and abuse of drugs and begin an educational program. 

"I overheard him making arrangements to go deep into the French Quarter for lunch with a group of similarly distinguished looking team doctors … We caught a couple of cabs to an elegant New Orleans landmark. It had fans overhead, waiters scurrying around, and a very in-looking clientele. I ordered a beer and a shellfish appetizer, and in the next 45 minutes of lunch I learned more about sports medicine than I had in the previous month or two.” 

Charlie loved the cuisine of the city, and I last saw him when he called and invited me to have lunch at Lilette’s, a fashionable spot on Magazine Street. We shared fond memories of the coaches and players we had worked with, and then he dispensed a final bit of advice that is as effective as any pill he ever prescribed. “Never lose contact with your contacts,” he said. “It is critical to remain socialized.” Thanks, Charlie, for giving me the honor to have known you. 

Kentucky’s Diallo could be a “1.5 and done!”

by J.W. Miller on 01/12/17

When top ten high school basketball player Hamidou Diallo enrolled for the spring semester at Kentucky on Wednesday, it was more than just another phenom added to the Wildcats’ already top-rated recruiting class for 2017. Diallo, from Queens, N.Y., finished his high school requirements early, which could be a portent of things to come for top basketball recruits. Early enrollment of top high school basketball players follows a trend that has been a long-time practice for high school football stars where potential pros are locked into at least three years of college before they can test their NFL aspirations. 

"I’m blessed and excited to be here at the University of Kentucky," Diallo said after signing a financial aid agreement. "I can’t wait to hit the floor and get rolling and get better each and every day. I chose the University of Kentucky because the plan Coach Cal had for me was just phenomenal and I felt like this was the best place for me to achieve my goals. I felt like this was the best choice for me and my family." 

The "plan" includes the extra semester that has given football players a platform for early playing time in their freshman year, which translates into experience that can speed their NFL readiness. Anyone who has been around college sports knows that the comfort level can be increased if a player has extra time to learn how to balance the academic requirements with interminable obligations such as strength training, getting to know your position coach, forging bonds with teammates, learning the playbook in meetings, and participating in practice. 

Tim Tebow enrolled early at Florida and went on to win a national championship, but the process dates back as far as January, 1991, when Eric Zeier enrolled early at Georgia and set a range of school and SEC records before heading on to a six-year NFL career. This week, LSU welcomes 4-star dual-threat QB Lowell Narcisse and friends, following the practice of last year when WR Stephen Sullivan, LB Michael Divinity and DB Saivion Smith enrolled in January. Six football players joined Diallo and enrolled at Kentucky this week, including Mr. Football candidate QB Walker Wood of Lexington Lafayette. 

The story is similar at most other football schools, but it’s not yet so prevalent among top basketball players although early enrollment in basketball makes far more sense. Diallo is not going to break into the Wildcats’ lineup right now and is not expected to even suit up this season, but he will begin academic classes, practice with the team, begin strength training and generally get a big head start on the 2017-18 basketball season. When the first ball is tipped next year, Diallo will essentially have one year of experience under his belt. He will be more prepared for the rigors of an elite program with the added experience that many true freshmen do not get. Kentucky fans know the value of an extra year for players such as Isaiah Briscoe, who often struggled as a freshman, came back for a second year and is today the acknowledged leader of the Wildcats’ team. 

Diallo could be the same guy for next year’s class that already features a handful of top 25 prospects. Most are “one and done” aspirants who next year will be joined by a likely “1.5 and done.”

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