Tom Benson transformed New Orleans' sports scene.
The eternal image of Tom Benson will be of him lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy after his New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010. The sight of Benson holding the trophy aloft was seared into memories because so many never thought it would happen.
When it did, it was because of the steps the team’s owner did to ensure his team was not only winning, but capable of competing with the NFL’s elite teams.
When Benson, 90, passed away March 15 at Ochsner Medical Center, after being hospitalized with the flu in mid-February, his wife, Gayle, was by his side.
Benson was born on July 12, 1927, in the Seventh Ward neighborhood of New Orleans. He graduated from St. Aloysius High School (now Brother Martin) in 1944, enlisted in the U.S. Navy to fight in World War II, and returned home to New Orleans and continued his business administration studies at Loyola University. In 1948, he entered the automobile industry as a bookkeeper. In 1958, he moved to San Antonio to run the business operations of a Chevrolet dealership owned by New Orleans car dealer Michael Persia Sr. Just four years later, by 1962, Benson had established a multi-dealership organization with outlets throughout New Orleans and south Texas. He entered banking a decade later.
Benson became a household name across the Gulf South in 1985 when he bought the Saints for $70 million after learning that the team was on the verge of being sold to parties interested in moving it away from New Orleans.
In 18 seasons under the team’s original ownership, the Saints were a perennial loser. They won just 30 percent of their games, lost almost 100 more games than they won, and posted a 78-176-5 overall record. In just two years under his leadership, the team posted their first winning season in 1987 and advanced to the playoffs for the first time. During 33 years under Benson, the team won more often than they lost, going 271-256, and was transformed from a doormat into a contender and, ultimately, a champion. Since purchased by Benson, the Saints have earned 11 playoff berths, six division titles and captured a Super Bowl title.
Benson was heavily involved in the operations of the NFL. He served as chairman of the league’s finance committee on three separate occasions and helped New Orleans become a Super Bowl host five times.
In 2012, Benson purchased the New Orleans Hornets from the National Basketball Association for $338 million. A year later, he rebranded the team to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Today, Forbes estimates the Saints to be worth an estimated $2 billion and the Pelicans $1 billion.
In addition to transforming the city’s professional sports landscape, Benson donated $7.5 million toward the construction of Tulane University’s Yulman Stadium, which opened in 2014 and brought the Green Wave back to campus for the first time since the demolition of Tulane Stadium in 1980. The playing surface is known as Benson Field.
Benson’s business success was only superseded by his generosity toward educational and faith-based initiatives in Louisiana and Texas. He gave millions of dollars to more than 50 charitable organizations, foundations and agencies in annual donations. Benson and his wife, Gayle, were awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice for their generosity to the Catholic Church, the highest papal honor that Catholic laypeople can receive. The Bensons have also donated more than $25 million to establish and expand the Gayle and Tom Benson Cancer Center on the main campus of Ochsner Medical Center. Benson was also a major contributor and past director of The National WWII Museum.