When Garrett Hartley kicked the New Orleans Saints into the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 2010, the team’s first owner, John Mecom Jr., was in the Superdome and watched the kind of celebration that was worlds away from when he owned the team.
“It was incredible. A lot of things ran through my mind. In fact, I was sitting in our old box, Mr. Benson's box now,” Mecom said in an interview at his home in Houston recently.
After years of hard work, arm twisting and pleading, on All Saints Day in 1966, New Orleans became home to the 16th NFL franchise.
Given Louisiana's history, perhaps it's not surprising that landing the team occurred, in part, after a back room deal. The NFL needed Congressional approval for its AFL-NFL merger and New Orleans wanted a team. Louisiana's powerbrokers in D.C., Rep. Hale Boggs and Sen. Russell Long, pulled it off. The NFL got the the vote they wanted and just 11 days later New Orleans got the team they'd been working years to land.
Mecom was at NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle's side at the Pontchartrain Hotel when he announced New Orleans would get the team and Mecom would be the owner. The son of the oil-rich Mecom family in Houston, John Mecom Jr. purchased the team for the $8 million expansion fee. At the time, he was just 27 years old.
“Frankly most of our business connections are in Louisiana not Texas, although Texas is where my home is. We see quite a future here,” Mecom told legendary WWL-TV sports anchor Hap Glaudi at the time. In that same clip is Dave Dixon, the ultimate New Orleans promoter, who wanted two things most: the yet-to-be-built Louisiana Superdome and an NFL team to play inside
“I'm interested in anybody who likes New Orleans,” Dixon said. “This is a wonderful city and I’m for anybody who likes our town.”
Mecom was the majority owner, but a Big Easy ‘who's who’ became minority owners, including trumpeter Al Hirt. “Can you imagine when that team’s on the five-yard line and you rip that ‘When the Saints Go Marching In?’ Baby, how you gonna keep them out of the end zone?” Hirt says in an archival film clip, featuring his famous gravelly voice.
Xavier University’s vice president at the time, Dr. Norman Francis, along with Louisiana Weekly owner C.C. Dejoie, became a 2 percent owner, the first African-American owners ever in the NFL.
Francis, who would spend 46 years as Xavier's president, says he wanted it as it meant better opportunities for African-Americans.
“Bringing pro football was one of the most important decisions for the future of New Orleans and it enhanced the ability to keep making the strides that we were making,” Francis said. In the turbulent 1960's in the south, the Saints did what they have done now for 50 years since: unified a city in good times and bad. “Our motto was jobs are going to make a difference and it was going to bring people together and you don't see color when folks are cheering for the Saints. They are with a common goal: let's win,” Francis said.
When the very first play of your existence is a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by John Gilliam, you think it's magic and all you're going to do is win. Mecom did. “I thought, this is not going to be as hard as they told me it would be,” he laughed. But by the third quarter of their opener, a sense of reality emerged and it never went away during Mecom’s 18 years. “All of the sudden it's like oh my God, we don't compare to these people at all when it got serious,” he said.
Over the next 11 years you could count the number of Saints victories each season using only one hand.
During Mecom’s tenure, he would have 8 head coaches - roughly a coach every couple of years, and it showed. He was a millionaire kid in his mid-20s running a football team where the players were older than he was. It was a recipe for failure.
“That's stupid. I mean to think back, I'm not using it as an excuse, but at 26 years old, what do you know about the world and what do you know about professional football. I'd been around football all my life and had a lot to learn,” he said.
With the 2nd pick in the NFL draft in 1971, the Saints went with Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning and while “Big Red” led the team to a 7-9 record in 1978 and the team’s first 500 season of 8-8 in 1979, he spent most of his time running rather than winning. “Well we obviously didn't put a great supporting cast around him and not for lack of trying. We thought we had picked the right people,” Mecom said.
He added that because of his inexperience, he followed the advice from the league, his friends, fans and even the media and bad situations got worse. In 1980, when the team lost its first 14 games in a 1-15 season, the bags arrived. With fans too embarrassed to show their faces, the Saints became the ‘Aints and Mecom says following the advice of a TV reporter, so too came the eggs.
“The Saints have laid a big egg, let’s go lay some eggs on them,” Mecom recalls the fans saying. “My God, the Saints building and my apartment was bombarded for a week.”
Despite that, supporting this team of Mecom's misfits as they were called was a fan base like none other. A most colorful band of characters who adopted this team and never gave up hope when little was offered.
“They're just amazing fans and they deserved a lot better than what they got and even the smallest amount of success obviously was something they all hung on to. And I did too. I hung on too,” Mecom said.
But hanging on the team by 1984 was over and with several cities looking to take the Saints out of New Orleans, auto dealer and businessman Tom Benson – the St. Roch native and self-made millionaire - arrived and purchased the team for more than $70 million. The Saints were staying put.
Soon Benson would hire Jim Finks as general manager and Jim Mora as the head coach. Both were proven football men. The Benson Boogie replaced the bags and 20 years after their 1967 inaugural season, the team went 12-3. It was their first winning season and those lovable losers finally had something else: respect.
- Special thanks to KHOU
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