Saints, Pelicans owner Tom Benson dies at age 90

ABS-CBN Sports on Mar 16, 2018 07:38 AM
Saints, Pelicans owner Tom Benson dies at age 90
FILE - This Dec. 19, 2009, file photo shows New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson walking on the field before the NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in New Orleans. Benson, a successful auto dealer who brought the New Orleans Saints their only winning seasons and the "Benson Boogie," has died. Benson, who has also owned the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans since 2012, was 90. The NFL and NBA teams announced Benson’s death on Thursday, March 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Dave Martin, File)

By Brett Martel, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Tom Benson, a successful auto dealer who brought the New Orleans Saints their only winning seasons, has died. Benson, who has also owned the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans since 2012, was 90.

The NFL and NBA teams announced Benson's death on Thursday. He had been hospitalized since Feb. 16 with flu symptoms.

Benson made his mark in pro sports with the Saints, which he bought in 1985 when it appeared the club would be sold to out-of-state interests and perhaps moved out of Louisiana. He paid $70 million for the team, which is now worth close to $2 billion.

"Tom Benson's contributions to New Orleans and the National Football League were legendary. He purchased a team that had never had a winning season; by the third year of his ownership, the Saints were in the playoffs," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. "Tom kept the Saints together through the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and his decision to bring the team back to New Orleans gave the entire region hope and confidence that they would recover."

Benson's business acumen helped turn the Saints from a perennial also-ran into a contender — and the 2009 NFL champions. Yet his ownership also was less flatteringly marked by the 2012 bounty scandal and by rumors Benson did not want to bring the team back to New Orleans from San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.

When the NBA took over the financially troubled New Orleans Hornets in late 2010 and spent more than a year trying to find a suitable, permanent owner, Benson finally stepped in and bought the club, now called the Pelicans, for $338 million. The estimated value of the Pelicans now exceeds $1 billion.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he'd remembered Benson as big-hearted a gracious, and praised the way he not only ran the Pelicans, but also hosted two All-Star weekends in New Orleans, the second after it had been moved from Charlotte following state legislation deemed discriminatory by the NBA.

"He was a dear friend to me and so many others in the sports world," Silver said. "The loss of his authentic and unique presence will leave an enormous void."

Benson also became a leading New Orleans philanthropist. He helped fun Tulane's on-campus football stadium and the cancer treatment center at Ochsner Medical Center. The home of the NFL's Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, also was renamed for Tom Benson after an $11 million gift, the largest in the hall's history.

Benson's death comes on the heels of an acrimonious family split that has caused some uncertainty about the future of his clubs.

Benson made it known in January 2015 that he wants his third wife, Gayle, to inherit complete control of the Saints and Pelicans, and Greg Bensel, the senior vice president of communications for both clubs, said the NFL and NBA have both approved Benson's succession plan.

However, Benson's disowned daughter, Renee, and her two children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc — who had long been in line to take over the Benson business empire — have vowed to prove their patriarch was manipulated against them while in a mentally enfeebled state. The estranged heirs, who still inherited hundreds of millions of dollars from irrevocable trusts set up before the family split, sued after their ouster from family businesses to have Benson declared mentally incompetent to run his own affairs and have a receiver other than Gayle Benson appointed to oversee them. The heirs lost that case, but still could contest the will.

In the meantime, the clubs will be run by Gayle Benson — who married Tom Benson in 2004 — and a trusted circle of long-time executives including Dennis Lauscha, the president of business operations for both clubs, and Mickey Loomis, an executive vice president overseeing football and basketball operations, and also serving as general manager for the Saints.

With his heavy New Orleans accent and parasol dances along the sideline after victories, Benson cut quite the figure among NFL owners when he first joined the league.

One of four children, Benson grew up in the tough Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

In 1945, Benson served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS South Dakota. Then he studied business and accounting at Loyola University in New Orleans and was sent to San Antonio as a 29-year-old in 1956 to manage a Chevrolet dealership as a junior partner. Six years later, he took full control of the company and established his own dealership.

He built his fortune primarily in the automobile business, as well as in banking and real estate.

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The late AP Sports Writer Mary Foster contributed to this report.

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