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John DeShazier: Tom Benson provided ingredients for winning Saints formula

Every winning season in Saints history – 13 total – occurred under Benson’s ownership

A look back through the years with New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson.

On Nov 29, 1987, courtesy of a 20-16 victory over Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium, the New Orleans Saints ensured the first winning season in franchise history.

In actuality, the franchise's biggest victory occurred two years, eight months and 17 days earlier. Because when Tom Benson reached an agreement to buy the Saints from John Mecom, Jr., on March 12, 1985, the fortunes of the franchise changed.

From there, the Saints began an ascent that was unparalleled in franchise history and helped propel Benson to a status of being the owner of one of the NFL's most successful teams during his tenure.

In addition to monumental charitable donations and mountains of benevolence, and later the purchase of the New Orleans Pelicans, that is most prominent memory today of Benson, who died Thursday, March 15 at the age of 90.

Every winning season in Saints history – 13 total – occurred under Benson's ownership. And among the myriad successes was a victory in Super Bowl XLIV, two NFC Championship Game appearances, six division titles, 11 seasons of 10 or more wins and eight playoff victories.

"Tom Benson, our great owner, will forever have a pretty unbelievable legacy in New Orleans," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "I think from where he's taken this team in the mid-80s to where we are now. Certainly over the last 12 years since I've been here and my experience with him, I cannot think of a better owner, someone who wants to win more than he does, someone who's willing to sacrifice and give to the team whatever it takes to put us in the best position to succeed."

Inarguably, scores of good front office personnel, coaches and players played the most significant roles in that success, from General Manager Jim Finks to General Manager Mickey Loomis, from Coach Jim Mora to Coach Sean Payton, from linebacker Rickey Jackson and quarterback Bobby Hebert to quarterback Drew Brees and defensive end Cam Jordan.

But Benson was the common thread that wove through the "then" to the "now," the owner who provided tools that contributed to a winning formula.

"It starts with ownership," Mora said. "One day, I was sitting around when I first got in the league as a head coach. I was sitting in an airport with Marty Schottenheimer, and he says, "you know Jim, the three most important things for a head coach in the NFL?" I said, "what?" He said: "No. 1 is owner, No. 2 is owner, and No. 3 is owner."

The New Orleans native, who graduated from St. Aloysius (currently Brother Martin High) and was a U.S. Navy veteran, was a dogged advocate of his team and city and a critical voice in New Orleans hosting five of its 10 Super Bowls. Benson served three stints as the chairman of the NFL's Finance Committee, and was as charitable to his beloved NFL as he was to local causes.

That benevolence included two gifts totaling $11 million to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014, with $10 million earmarked for renovation of the Hall's onsite stadium. The stadium was renamed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

"I think he's been a very strong owner," said David Baker, president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "I think he's a guy who's led a lot. I know Commissioner Goodell has a lot of respect for him. I think that he's done of number of things that have made the league more financially sound in many respects. I think he's helped in terms of revenue sharing and the things that have happened there. New Orleans is not a big market, and yet he's done a wonderful job of selling out the Superdome every game. The New Orleans Saints are a legendary team. When they go to Atlanta, or they go to San Francisco, people know about the Saints. That's really come from Tom Benson. When he bought the team it was another team in the NFL, but he's brought so many Super Bowls to New Orleans, and I think New Orleans to me is kind of the ultimate Super Bowl town. All of that has been Mr. Benson's doing."

Even with all that, the Saints' owner best was known for his franchise and the way it anchored the city, serving as a beacon and rallying point after Hurricane Katrina and leading the celebration after the Super Bowl victory.

The Saints forever were changed by Benson, who provided the ingredients for a winning formula. Forever, for the better.

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