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Saints, Pelicans owner Tom Benson dead at 90

He dies with wife by his side, Saints organization says

Tom Benson, the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner whose humble beginnings as a car salesman belied his future as a self-made billionaire and Louisiana’s richest man, died Thursday. He was 90.

Benson died at Ochsner Medical Center with his wife Gayle at his side, Saints-Pelicans spokesman Greg Bensel said.

On Feb. 21, Bensel said Benson had been “recently admitted” to the intensive care unit at Ochsner, where he was treated for flu-like symptoms. Four days later, Bensel said Benson was receiving “exemplary care for the flu” but was stable. On March 6, the team said Benson was showing “signs of improving.”

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His death is likely to intensify the family feud that played out in courtrooms here and in San Antonio, thrusting him and his wife Gayle into a contentious battle with his daughter Renee Benson and her children Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. The two sides battled over control of Benson’s teams, business empire and estimated $2.2 billion fortune. In December 2014, Benson revealed he wanted to remove his heirs from his succession plans and leave control of the teams and his business empire to his wife upon his death. The heirs sued, unsuccessfully challenging Benson’s mental competency.

Despite those headlines, Benson’s leadership of the Saints franchise generated equally newsworthy achievements in recent years. That includes the Saints’ first Super Bowl title in 2010, two NFC championship games, three division championships and 11 playoff appearances (including this past season). Since marrying Gayle Benson in 2004 and restating his commitment to the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (a position which many doubted in the weeks after the storm), Benson went from being one of the most derided leaders in town to one of its heroes. A statue of him, paid for by private donors, was even unveiled outside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, lauding his commitment to his hometown.

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Despite his advanced age, Benson had maintained an active schedule in the past few years, with appearances at Saints and Pelicans games, team events and press conferences to announce new business partnerships. He celebrated his 90th birthday in 2017 with an all-star affair at the New Orleans Museum of Art organized by his wife Gayle. The crowd of 300 included friends, relatives, dignitaries and elected officials. Party favors included a six-pack of Dixie Beer, marking the decision earlier in the year by Benson to purchase a majority stake in the landmark local brewery, which marked its 110th birthday the same year. Benson also added to automotive portfolio in 2017 by purchasing a Cadillac dealership.

Though Benson would become a billionaire who frequently made Forbes magazine lists of the country’s richest people, his roots were in the modest St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans. Born July 12, 1927, Thomas Milton Benson graduated from St. Aloysius High School (a predecessor to Brother Martin High School) and went by his middle name with friends and family. He said that he earned early the value of a dollar, growing up as the son of a department store clerk and homemaker. In 1945, shortly before his 18th birthday and just weeks before the end of World War II, Benson enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

MORE: Reactions todeathof Saints owner Tom Benson

When World War II ended, Benson enrolled in Loyola University as an accounting major. He left college before graduating to work for a local car dealership as a bookkeeper. Soon, the dealership’s owner, Mike Persia, noticed Benson’s drive and soon promoted him. Persia, whose local business was based on North Rampart Street, was a native of San Antonio. After Benson had worked at Persia’s local dealership for a few years, the owner sent the young New Orleanian to San Antonio to manage one of his franchises there. Later Persia made him a junior partner. In 1962, Benson became full owner of Tom Benson Chevrolet. After Persia died in 1976, Benson purchased other dealerships, which set him on a path to personal wealth.

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As Benson amassed more and more auto dealerships, he also diversified his business holdings by purchasing large amounts of stocks in banks in Texas. By the time he purchased the Saints franchise in the mid-1980s, his auto dealership empire had grown to include 21 locations here and in Texas. He also owned an interest in the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs basketball team.

In 1985, Benson, then 58, emerged as the leading candidate to buy the New Orleans Saints franchise from founding owner John Mecom Jr. Mecom put the team up for sale and, for more than a year, entertained offers from several buyers, most notably the A.N. Pritzker family of Chicago, who owned the Hyatt hotel chain and had the backing of then-Governor Edwin Edwards. Benson and his team of 24 other investors emerged as the winners, only weeks before a $70.2 million sale was finalized. The deal included a generous package of state and city concessions, tax breaks, and an extended lease agreement with the Louisiana Superdome.

“Let’s forget about the old Saints,” Benson said at the March 12, 1985 news conference announcing the deal. “We’ve had the Saints for 18 years, but these are the new Saints.” That news conference, at one of Benson’s car dealerships on Veterans Boulevard in Metairie, came almost exactly one year to the day after Benson first approached Mecom about purchasing the team. With television cameras rolling at the news conference, the New Orleans native also made it clear that his motives for buying the team included high hopes for his hometown. “It meant something to me to be able to give something back to the city where I got my start,” he said.

Though Benson was a millionaire stepping into the spotlight as the team’s new owner, he was truly a New Orleanian at heart. A week after the sale was announced, reporters followed him as he visited the legendary Bud Rip’s Bar in the Ninth Ward, buying customers a round of drinks, talking about the team and hoping to win public support for the tax breaks for which he would need state and city legislative approval. He also sought revenue from Superdome box suites, parking and food and drink sales.

In May 1985, having locked up the necessary legislative votes and tax breaks they were after, and having won the approval of the National Football League, Benson and his investment group signed a 21-year lease with the state. The sale from Mecom to Benson was finalized in June of that year. At the news conference to announce the last step in the negotiations, Gov. Edwards spoke of the miracles it took to seal the deal. “I want to predict the next miracle,” Edwards said. “The Saints are going to have a winning season this year.”

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In reality, it would be two more years before that happened. When Benson bought the Saints, Bum Phillips was the head coach and general manager and the team had just come off a disappointing 7-9 season. In November 1985, with four games remaining in another losing season, Phillips resigned as coach. At the same time, Benson asked for and received the resignation of Saints president Eddie Jones and two other top executives. The following year, Benson brought on Jim Finks, who had built Super Bowl teams in Chicago and Minnesota, as president and general manager. Finks’ first move was to hire former United States Football League coach Jim Mora as Saints head coach.

Finks and Mora, who secured for the Saints some stellar on-the-field talent, led the team to their first-ever winning season (12-3) and the first playoff appearance in team history. That year, Benson’s exuberance was evident as he would tote his second-line umbrella onto the field, dancing what would become known as the “Benson boogie” and celebrating each win with the fans inside the Dome.

The team would make the playoffs again in 1991, the same year it won its first division title. During Mora’s tenure, the Saints made the playoffs four times but never notched a win, much less a shot at a Super Bowl title. Mike Ditka and Jim Haslett would enter the picture in the 1990s and 2000s, with mixed results. Ditka was widely seen as a failure, though Haslett did take the team back to the playoffs, and their first-ever playoff win, against the Minnesota Vikings. Haslett was fired after the 2005 season, which would also mark a turning point for the team owner in the eyes of many fans.

In the spring of 2005, Benson entered contentious negotiations with the state over the team’s new lease agreement. Rumors began to circulate that he was interested in moving the team to San Antonio, where he also had extensive business holdings. Those rumors would only intensify when Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures devastated the city, putting the future of the Saints in New Orleans very much in doubt. Damage to the Louisiana Superdome was extensive. The team relocated its offices and training facilities to San Antonio, where it also played many of its home games. That city’s mayor and Texas Gov. Rick Perry made a hard push to try to bring the Saints to their state. LSU’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge was also in the mix as a site for home games during that post-Katrina season. It was also the site of an infamous confrontation between Benson and an angry fan, captured on WWL-TV news photographer Mike Bland’s camera. The image of Benson swatting at the camera to keep it from recording the encounter as he and his entourage left the stadium didn’t help calm the concerns of fans who felt the team was on its way out. Three days later, Benson issued a statement that he would no longer go to Baton Rouge for Saints home games because he felt he and his family were in danger.

That game at Tiger Stadium against the Miami Dolphins was also the site of a meeting among Benson, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Gov. Kathleen Blanco which foreshadowed the NFL’s commitment to keeping the team in New Orleans.

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“Our focus continues to be on having the Saints in Louisiana," Tagliabue said. Blanco, along with state and city officials and Superdome managers, expedited the construction work which reopened the Superdome on Sept. 25, 2006. Many credit that timetable with keeping the team here at a time when it appeared Benson was ready to leave.

During those tense months, Benson's actions widely drew outrage from Saints fans as well as local and state officials. Finally, Benson publicly stated that he had made no plans to move the Saints to San Antonio. "There are many factors that will affect the future location of our team,", Benson said in a statement which was also repeated in a full-page newspaper ad. "That is also true of many other New Orleans-based companies that are faced with deciding their future homes. … It is too early to determine, but my desire is to return to New Orleans."

Finally, in December 2005, two days before the Saints' final game of the 2005 season, Benson announced at a press conference that the Saints would return to their Metairie facility at the end of the 2005 season and that the team would play as many of their home games as possible during the 2006 season in the Superdome. Benson said he was committed to New Orleans "forever, as long as the community commits to me.”

That signal came the next season when, in September 2006 the Saints announced they had sold out on season tickets, a first for the club (and a fact to this day). Fans that year would watch the team play under a new coach – Sean Payton – who was hired on Jan. 17, 2006. That season, with Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and new quarterback Drew Brees at the helm, would bring the team their third division title and their first NFC South title in franchise history. To the delight of fans, the Saints even advanced to the NFC Championship game, but lost to the Chicago Bears on Jan. 21, 2007.

It would be more than two years before Saints fans experienced anything quite like that, and then it was the unthinkable – a NFC Championship game that sent the Saints to the Super Bowl. "You know, I hope I don't wake up from the dream," Benson said in Miami in the days before the Saints would face the Indianapolis Colts on Feb. 7, 2010 in Super Bowl XLIV. "Well, that's what it feels like. Every day, it seems to get more exciting. It was exciting for us to be in the playoff games, and for the idea that we were coming here. That in itself was just tremendous." The night of the win in Miami, Benson was even more exuberant: "New Orleans is back and we showed the whole world!" he exclaimed as the Vince Lombardi trophy was presented.

His team’s successes on the football field were overshadowed in ensuing years by the “bountygate” scandal which saw his head coach sidelined for a season and coaches, players and the team’s general manager suspended for a system that paid out bonuses or bounties for injuries to opposing team players.

That black eye was followed by the family feud which saw an acrimonious dispute play out in the media and in court. The fight stemmed from a fractious relationship between Benson’s wife, his daughter and grandchildren. In a deposition, Benson recalled a physical confrontation at a Saints game in late 2014 between his family members and wife. An attorney for the LeBlancs denied the allegations and said Benson’s comments (including where he had trouble remembering the names of his doctors and other key details) were proof his mental competency was in decline.

In a now famous Dec. 27, 2014, letter, which was apparently written at Tom Benson’s request by a longtime business adviser, the billionaire told his family: “During the 80 years of my life, I have built a rather large estate, which was intended to mainly be for you all as my family. Suddenly after I remarried you all became offensive and did not act in an appropriate manner and even had arguments among yourselves, which created a very unpleasant family situation, which I will not stand for. It made me very unhappy and uncomfortable. This situation cannot continue at my age.” Excerpts from a deposition taken in a battle over the family trust fund revealed just how explosive the situation was. When asked why he had made the decision to cut off his heirs, Benson said he believed his family “tried to kill me … by picking on my wife and when I wasn't feeling very good. They were very hostile.”

The heirs and their attorney maintained their decision to sue was proof of their love and concern for their father and grandfather’s well-being. They unsuccessfully challenged Benson’s mental status in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. Their lawsuit said Benson was not fit to handle his own affairs and had been manipulated by his wife and an inner circle of team executives into making the decision to cut them out of his life and business. Among the more damaging claims of their lawsuit, the heirs claimed that "Under the apparent supervision of Gayle, the diet of Tom Benson has drastically deteriorated, with him rarely consuming full, nutritious meals, but instead, for some reason, subsisting on candy, ice cream, sodas, and red wine.”

Though the trial was closed to the media and the public, the news made international headlines. There was testimony from Gayle Benson, a nurse who cared for Benson, a business associate and estate lawyer, as well as medical experts who evaluated Tom Benson. In the end, Judge Kern Reese ruled that Benson was mentally competent and capable of managing his own affairs. The heirs unsuccessfully tried to appeal the decision.

In September 2016, it was revealed that the National Football League had rejected Benson’s proposal to remove ownership of the teams from his heirs’ trust funds. As part of a settlement reached in federal court in June, Benson and his lawyers had agreed to personally guarantee promissory notes he offered in exchange for Saints ownership shares held in trust funds created for his daughter and grandchildren. “Operations for all Tom Benson business properties, including the New Orleans Saints, the New Orleans Pelicans, WVUE-Fox 8, automotive dealerships and Benson Tower, remain ‘business as usual,’” a Saints spokesman said at the time. But court filings showed the NFL’s finance rules would not allow Benson to use his personal wealth to back the promissory notes. The settlement was reached soon after the court ruled that Benson would have to reveal details of his finances at trial, along with those of the Saints and Pelicans. He would also likely be required to testify in court, something that no doubt influenced Benson’s decision to settle.

In 1998, Benson purchased the New Orleans VooDoo, an Arena Football League team. In 2012, Benson announced he would purchase the city’s National Basketball Association franchise, then called the New Orleans Hornets.

“We expect this club to be one of the most outstanding clubs in the league. Otherwise, I don't want to get involved with it,” Benson said at a news conference announcing the sale. NBA commissioner David Stern called him an ideal owner for the franchise.

“Tom's history of success in sports is well known and the fact he was born and raised in New Orleans and has done such a spectacular job with the Saints made him in my view the ideal owner for the NBA franchise in New Orleans,” Stern said. “We have been embraced by New Orleans in difficult times. The city is one of the country's treasures and we really have found the perfect owner.”

Benson purchased the team from the NBA for $338 million. At the end of the 2013 season, Benson renamed the team the Pelicans, saying it better reflected the culture and resolve of the Gulf Coast region. With the name change came new colors and logos. A practice facility for the team was built alongside Saints camp on Airline Drive.

Over the years, Benson was a hard and successful negotiator in his dealings with the state over the future of his teams in Louisiana. He and his representatives garnered millions in state subsidies, as well as renovations to the Saints new practice facility on Airline Drive, the New Orleans Arena (now Smoothie King Center) and Superdome. That facility was renamed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome thanks to a deal with the automaker that Tom and Gayle Benson helped broker. In 2009, Benson brokered a deal which put state offices into the blighted and vacant office building he had purchased next to the Superdome. The Dominion Tower on Poydras Street became Benson Tower, and an outdoor area near it was remade into Champions Square, a venue for both Saints tailgating as well as concerts and other outdoor festivals and events.

Benson’s leadership within the NFL was touted as one reason the city and Mercedes-Benz Superdome has hosted five Super Bowls since Benson bought the Saints in 1985. At league meetings, Benson and his wife became two of the driving forces behind campaigns to secure the game in recent years.

In addition to his sports teams and automotive businesses, Benson had expanded his empire in 2008 by purchasing WVUE-TV for $41 million. He sold a majority interest in the Fox affiliate, whose network carried most of the Saints televised games, in 2017.

A devout Roman Catholic, Benson and his wife shared some of their immense wealth with Catholic educational institutions in recent years including Brother Martin (Benson’s alma mater) and St. Mary’s Dominican High Schools and Loyola University. The two also served on numerous boards of Catholic institutions and led fundraising efforts for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Archbishop Gregory Aymond became a frequent guest at Saints games in the Bensons’ suite and made appearances alongside the couple. In recognition of their support for the Catholic Church, Benson was honored by the Catholic Church with an Oblate Doctor of Humane Letters. The honor is given to a person who “has achieved the human purpose for which Divine Providence placed him on Earth.” In 2012, Mr. and Mrs. Benson received from Pope Benedict XVI the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award for outstanding service to the Church and the Pontiff, the highest Papal award granted to a lay person. Mrs. Benson also received the Medal of the Order of St. Louis Award for her dedication to the Church.

A $25 million gift from the couple funded the Gayle and Tom Benson Cancer Center at Ochsner Medical Center, where Gayle Benson served on the board of directors and chaired fundraising efforts. A $7.5 million gift to Tulane University was recognized with the school renaming the field at its new Yulman Stadium in Benson’s honor. After Hurricane Katrina, the Bensons and the Saints established a relief fund, which raised more than $1 million. Another fund was established in 2010 following the Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Isaac and raised over $1.5 million. The Bensons also gave to Catholic institutions in San Antonio, including to a high school where Benson’s son Robert graduated. He died of cancer in 1985.

Benson also supported the efforts of former Saints safety Steve Gleason and his Team Gleason organization which helps provide people with ALS and other conditions. The Saints owner donated $5 million in 2014 to the Team Gleason House for Innovative Living at the New Orleans St. Margaret’s facility.

Benson and his wife also pledged $11 million to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for a renovated stadium in Canton, Ohio. The pledge stood as the largest individual gift in Hall history. "I was really honored to do this," Benson said at the time. "My wife and I talked about it, and because this represents football, and where it all started, we are pleased to be able to do this." The facility was renamed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in his honor. In August 2017, a life-sized statue of Benson was unveiled at the Hall of Fame.

In addition to football, in recent years, the Bensons also indulged an interest in horse racing, purchasing seven horses and forming GMB Racing, whose initials stood for Gayle Marie Benson. The Bensons ran horses Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready in the Kentucky Derby, Louisiana Derby and other races. The colors of the horses’ silks, blue and white, represented the Virgin Mary in tribute to the Benson’s Catholic faith.

Benson was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (2014), the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame (New Orleans Chapter-2013), the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame (2012), the San Antonio Business Hall of Fame (2011) and the Texas Business Hall of Fame (2007).

In 1945, Benson served in the Navy aboard the U.S.S. South Dakota. He became active in World War II and veterans causes, serving on the board of the Pensacola Naval Museum. He was honored with awards from the U.S. Army and Navy, including the crew of the submarine U.S.S. Louisiana. A leading advocate for the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C., Benson was a major contributor and past director of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Donations helped fund the Pacific Exhibit and the Midway Theater.

Benson's health made news as he advanced in age, undergoing quadruple bypass surgery in 2001 and later surgery to widen his spinal canal and relieve back pain. He also suffered from knee pain, underwent surgery and had difficulty walking, using a cane or relying on his wife or associates for support when walking.

Benson was married three times. His first wife, Shirley, died in 1980. His second wife, Grace, died in 2003. He married his current wife, the former Gayle Marie LaJaunie Bird in 2004.

Benson and his first wife Shirley adopted three children: Robert Carter Benson (who died in 1985), Jeanne Marie “Tootsie” Benson (who died after committing suicide in 1991) and Renee Benson. Renee Benson has two adult children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. Rita LeBlanc had been serving as an executive vice president of her grandfather’s sports franchises until the family split in 2014.

Benson also had five stepchildren from his marriage to Grace Benson. He is also survived by several nieces and nephews.

Funeral plans were not immediately released.