During a career in business and professional sports that spanned more than 70 years, Tom Benson was an endearing figure in his hometown of New Orleans as well as throughout the NBA and the NFL. Mr. Benson served as the owner of the New Orleans Saints since 1985 and the New Orleans Pelicans from 2012 until his death on March 15, 2018.
Benson will be one of four standout local sports figures to be inducted into the Allstate Sugar Bowl's Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, August 4 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. His wife Gayle will accept on his behalf. Benson will be joined by A.J. Duhe, John Fourcade and the final Hall of Famer scheduled to be announced Sunday. Each year's Hall of Fame class is selected by the Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee, a group of current and former media members who annually recognize a variety of award-winners, including the Hall of Fame, the Corbett Awards and the Eddie Robinson Award. The group also selects the Greater New Orleans Amateur Athlete of the Month each month.
A total of 23 individuals, including this year's Hall of Fame class, and three teams will be honored at this year's banquet.
Raised in the city's St. Roch neighborhood, Benson graduated from St. Aloysius High School (now Brother Martin) in 1944. Following his graduation, he enrolled at Loyola University New Orleans to study business and accounting. He interrupted his education to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1945 and upon the conclusion of World War II, Benson returned home to New Orleans and continued his business administration studies.
In 1948, he went to work as a bookkeeper for the Cathey Chevrolet Co. in New Orleans and quickly proved himself in the automobile industry. By 1962, at age 35, Benson established a multi-dealership organization with outlets throughout the New Orleans area and South Texas.
After learning that the Saints were on the verge of being sold to parties interested in relocating the team, Benson, knowing the importance of the NFL franchise to his hometown, purchased the team on May 31, 1985. After limited success in their first 18 seasons of existence, the Saints finally found success under Benson's guidance – the team finished 12-3 in 1987 and hosted its first playoff contest.
After entrusting executive vice president/general manager Mickey Loomis to hire Sean Payton as head coach and sign free agent quarterback Drew Brees in 2006, the franchise has posted a 119-85 overall record, capped by the Super Bowl XLIV Championship. Overall, since being purchased by Mr. Benson in 1985, the Saints have earned 11 playoff berths, six division titles and the Super Bowl XLIV title in 2009, building a foundation for continued success on and off the field.
In 2012, Benson purchased the Hornets franchise from the National Basketball Association, which was successfully rebranded as the Pelicans. In addition to the Smoothie King Center undergoing a major renovation since his purchase, the Pelicans have built through a combination of the draft, free agent signings and trades to become a stable and successful organization. This year they reached the playoffs for the second time since his purchase of the club, advancing to the second round.
"Tom Benson has invested his time, money and efforts into this great city for many, many years and because of his efforts and the work of countless others, New Orleans is back and better than ever," former Gov. Bobby Jindal said in 2014. "He believed in the Saints when not many people did, and his support for the team proved to be a game changer. The success of the Saints and Pelicans is due in large part to Tom's leadership and management over the years, and his contributions throughout this community represent multiple chapters in Louisiana's economic success story."
In addition to the success and the commitment to the community by the Saints and Pelicans, the efforts of ownership have also paid great economic dividends for the city of New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Benson was the driving force behind the city's successful bids to host five Super Bowls, and through his commitment to the Pelicans and his hometown, NBA All-Star Weekend was awarded to New Orleans in 2014 and 2017.
"Long before becoming the owner of the New Orleans Pelicans in 2012, Tom Benson had proven himself to be a giant in the New Orleans community, working tirelessly to support the people of the Gulf South and Greater New Orleans," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in 2014. "With over three decades of advocacy for projects ranging from cancer research to education, Tom is one of a kind."
Community involvement and philanthropy were the hallmark of Benson's career as a local business leader and Owner of the Saints and Pelicans. This was evident through his generous support of local educational institutions, healthcare, faith-based causes, military organizations and numerous local groups that help those in need.
"Mr. Benson was very loyal to his people, and it was easy to be loyal to him because he was great to work for," longtime Saints' employee Jay Romig told The Times-Picayune following Mr. Benson's death. "I loved Mr. Benson. We all did."
The Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee began in 1957 when James Collins spearheaded a group of sports journalists to form a sports awards committee to immortalize local sports history. For 13 years, the committee honored local athletes each month. In 1970, the Sugar Bowl stepped in to sponsor and revitalize the committee, leading to the creation of the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 1971, honoring 10 legends from the Crescent City in its first induction class. While adding the responsibility of selecting Hall of Famers, the committee has continued to recognize the top amateur athlete in the Greater New Orleans area each month - the honors enter their 62nd year in 2018. To be eligible, an athlete must be a native of the greater New Orleans area or must compete for a team in the metropolitan region.
The Allstate Sugar Bowl has established itself as one of the premier college football bowl games, having hosted 28 national champions, 93 Hall of Fame players, 49 Hall of Fame coaches and 18 Heisman Trophy winners in its 84-year history. The 85th Allstate Sugar Bowl Football Classic, featuring top teams from the Big 12 and the SEC, will be played on January 1, 2019. In addition to football, the Sugar Bowl Committee annually invests over $1.6 million into the community through the hosting and sponsorship of sporting events, awards and clinics. Through these efforts, the organization supports and honors nearly 100,000 student-athletes each year, while injecting over $2.5 billion into the local economy in the last decade. For more information, visit www.AllstateSugarBowl.org.
A look back through the years with New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson.