Tom Benson brought the New Orleans Saints to heavenly heights

Benson's Empire
Updated: Mar. 15, 2018 at 7:42 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Saints owner Tom Benson could never be accused of backing down from a challenge. His purchase of the hapless New Orleans saints back in 1985 attests to that.

At the time, Benson was taking the reins of a franchise that had never had a winning record. He knew at the time that the leadership beneath him had to be solid, so he hired Jim Mora as his head coach and Jim Finks as his president and general manager.

And almost immediately, the Saints went from also-rans to contenders. The teams first winning season, along with its first appearance in the playoffs, came two years after he gained ownership of the franchise.

It was the official beginning of his pursuit of a Super Bowl as his teams from 1987 until 1992 made the post-season four times.

The famed Dome Patrol led by linebackers Rickey Jackson and Sam Mills, and an offense spearheaded by Bobby Hebert, Dalton Hilliard and Eric Martin.

They are why winning had become an expectation amongst the Who Dat Nation because the players that Benson and Finks assembled demanded it.

But, as the years went on, success faded seven straight years of losing from 1993 to 1999. The Black and Gold did not make the playoffs. Players got older and not better. Head coach Jim Mora's magic touch faded away. And then a heavy blow to the franchise, the death of Finks in 1994.

All of that was too much for the franchise to overcome and it set into motion the wheels of change.

In 1997, Benson hired Super Bowl winning coach Mike Ditka as the franchise's 12th head coach. He quickly realized that the big personality of Ditka was not what his team needed, hence another change was made just three years later with the hiring of Jim Haslett.

And Benson saw right away that he got this hire right. Haslett got the team back into the playoffs in his first season. Not only that, he got the team's first ever playoff win.

A 31-28 win over the St. Louis Rams ended up being the high of Haslett's tenure with the Saints. The low of his time at the helm, and the Saints' time in New Orleans came in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina rolled through, devastating the region.

Katrina's devastation to the Dome, and to the city, turned the Saints into nomads.

The entire 2005 season was away from New Orleans with three games being played in Baton Rouge, four in San Antonio and the rest, even further away, including a home game in New York.

That was a hard season for this franchise, a hard season for Benson as he faced the decision of keeping the Saints in New Orleans or moving them to San Antonio.

The NFL led by then commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped in and said the team was not leaving. And the Saint were whole again, even if the city was not.

Soon after the 2005 season, Benson made another change at the top of his coaching tree, firing Haslett and bringing aboard current head coach Sean Payton.

Soon after, he signed off on his first-ever franchise quarterback Drew Brees, and this match made in Saints heaven went about the business of making the Saints relevant again.

Payton and Brees' first season included a historic playoff run all the way to their first ever appearance in the NFC Championship game in Chicago.

Since then, the Saints have made the playoffs five times, including finally realizing a life-long ownership dream.

Super Bowl XLIV was the Saints' first and only trip there and they made the most of it, beating Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Miami.

Bringing home the Vince Lombardi trophy and setting off a Super Bowl celebration for the ages in the Crescent City.

What Saints fans always expected to happen next year finally did, and Benson was the man to bring it to them.

But, the Saints owner wanted to do more for the sports landscape in New Orleans. And, once again, it was all about taking on a huge challenge.

It came in the form of the New Orleans Hornets. Then owner George Shinn had been bought out by the NBA and in April 2012, Benson stepped in to purchase the team from the league for $338 million.

He wanted to keep the team in New Orleans, he wanted to give that franchise stability and he did both.

Nearly six years and a franchise name change to the Pelicans later, the team has firm footing in the Crescent City with an ever-growing fan base rallying around its own franchise player in Anthony Davis.

It remains to be seen if the Pelicans can ever reach the same level of success as the Saints have. If they don't, it won't be for a lack of exhausting all options.

Benson even tried his luck at horse racing, and of course Benson had the magic touch.

With his wife Gayle by his side, they formed GMB Racing and won a stakes race at the Fairgrounds with Mo Tom. Their other horse, Tom's Ready was also a success.

And they would ride those two horses all the way to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby.

Benson once said, "Some people like to play golf; I like to come to work." For more than seven decades, being at the office and around his teams is what he loved the most.

Even as he got older and needed the assistance of a golf cart to get around, the Saints and Pelicans owner loved his job. The true face of the franchise never shied away from the public eye.

He loved interacting with the fans and he loved the thought of doing the unthinkable again. Bringing another Super Bowl to the Who Dat Nation.

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