‘New Orleans will not be the same’: Saints, Pelicans owner Tom Benson dies

NEW ORLEANS -- Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson has died. The prominent New Orleans businessman and philanthropist was 90 years old.

The Saints organization announced his death Thursday afternoon.

He died peacefully with his wife, Gayle, by his side, after being hospitalized for weeks with flu-like symptoms.

'The quintessential American success story'

Tom Benson was born on July 12, 1927. He graduated from St Aloysius High School and Loyola University.

He started young in the car business and amassed a personal fortune of nearly $3 billion by the end of his life.

Just about every day was a work day for Tom Benson, and Louisiana and New Orleans have profited from his intense labor and generosity.

Benson and New Orleans had a complicated relationship.

He was loved by his city in 1985 for rescuing the Saints from the hold of original team owner John Mecom. A frustrated Mecom flirted with out of town suitors, before eventually selling to Benson.

The purchase price was $70 million, and $5 million of that was Tom Benson’s own money.

Benson quickly made all the right moves.

He brought in longtime NFL veteran Jim Finks as the club’s general manager. Finks then hired Jim Mora as head coach.

With those two steering the ship, the Saints made their first playoff appearance in 1987.

The club won 12 games. New Orleans was euphoric.

The Saints would go to the playoffs three more times under Mora, in 1990, 1991, and 1992.

When Finks died and Mora resigned, Benson’s relationship with New Orleans got more difficult. After 1992, the Saints suffered through seven consecutive losing seasons.

Benson, looking for a home run, hired Mike Ditka in January of 1997. But Ditka won only 15 games in three years.

As the Saints struggled on the field, Benson flirted with other cities.

At some point or another, the Saints were allegedly talking with the Mississippi Gulf Coast, New Mexico, Los Angeles, and San Antonio, Texas.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August of 2005, Benson wanted to keep the team in San Antonio, where it had temporarily relocated.

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue nixed that, and the Saints returned after the 2005 season.

It was then that Tom Benson and his hometown reconciled.

Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis hired head coach Sean Payton, who in turn successfully recruited quarterback Drew Brees.

The Saints reached the NFC championship game in 2006, and three years later won Super Bowl XLIV, defeating the Colts 31-17.

In 2012, Tom Benson again came to his city’s aid, purchasing the New Orleans Hornets and promising to keep them in the city.

He and his wife Gayle changed the name to the Pelicans, a moniker once carried by the city’s former minor league baseball team.

Mr. Benson’s life was not without adversity. He was widowed twice, and in 2017, he settled a long court battle with his heirs over the Saints, the Pelicans, and his considerable fortune.

It was a messy family squabble, with Benson and his wife Gayle on one side, and Benson’s daughter Rene’ and her daughter Rita on the other.

In his later years, the Bensons became even more philanthropic.

The couple has given to schools, hospitals, to Tulane University in its quest to build Tom Benson Field at Yulman Stadium, and to the NFL.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame stadium in Canton, Ohio, was named for Benson in August of 2017.