At 85, Tom Benson is a busy man. He owns both the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Hornets plus his other varied business interests. But he recently took time to sit down with The Advocate’s Ted Lewis to talk about matters great and small:
You’re at an age when most men are well into retirement. But in the past few years, you’ve taken ownership of an NBA team, a TV station, an office building and an entertainment complex. Are you one of those people who are afraid that if you slow down it’s going to kill you?
(Laughing) No. A lot of my friends are looking forward to retiring so they could play more golf and do this, that and the other. My enjoyment is coming to the office every day. The challenge of business really keeps me active and young. It’s not work to me. It’s really an enjoyment to come here. It’s like with the Hornets. Making sure they’re going to stay here in our community is great, because we’re going to have both the Saints and the Hornets here for a long time.
What’s the difference between owning the Saints and owning the Hornets?
There really isn’t that much. There are a lot more games in the NBA. But the main thing is people. You have to have the right people. We have a good general manager and a good coach. And I think that the feeling we’ve given them and with Mickey Loomis working with them is that, “Hey, we want to win. And we’re going to do what’s necessary to get a winning club.” We don’t want to be a club that wins one year and then loses the next. I think that with the Saints the last 10 years or so we’ve shown that. It’s not going to happen overnight, even though we’d like it to happen tomorrow. But we’re going to work into that.
Along that line, in the NFL, every team enters the season knowing it has a decent chance for the championship or is no more than a year away from contending. That’s not the case in the NBA, where there are only few elite teams. Does that bother you?
Well, we’re going to change that. If there are going to be just a few elite teams, then we’re going to be an elite team then. That’s our goal. The Spurs have shown that it’s possible. So has Oklahoma City. We’re going to be there. We might not win the whole thing this year, even though we’d like to. But we’re going to working hard to get there. People are going to be proud of us, and they’re going to want to be with us.
There’s been so much this year between the purchase of the Hornets and the bounty situation. But you seem at your best when things are hopping, positively or negatively. Why do you think that is?
Nobody likes bad things. But I’m the type of person who doesn’t run from it. If something comes up that’s bad, I attack it. I don’t like it. But I don’t run from it.
On the bounty issue, if Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith win their appeals, do you plan to petition the league to reinstate Sean Payton?
If they win their appeals, certainly I would not hesitate to ask the commissioner to do something.
How do you feel Sean and Mickey Loomis have handled their suspensions?
I’m very proud of them. You’ve got to know that some people thought we should have fired them. But these are two great individuals. When you have people you can work with like I’ve been able to work with those people or they’ve been able to work with me, you keep them. We communicate well, and Mickey and Sean will never try to do anything they know I wouldn’t like. They keep me informed. That’s what’s important to me besides their being a good general manager and a good coach. What happened was unfortunate, but we’re living with it and we’re going to have a good season.
As the host team owner for the Super Bowl, are you going to have Roger Goodell over for dinner?
Yeah. My wife is planning a real super dinner for all of the owners and people like Roger Goodell in the league office.
While he’s in the city that week, how do you want any local residents to react to him?
I want them to be positive, because we want to put this thing behind us. So by the time we get to the Super Bowl, and we’re in it, we want everything to be positive. Forget about that other stuff. Let’s go on about our business. And whether we agree with him or not, let’s go forward.
New Orleans is seeking another Super Bowl in 2018. Given that it’s been 11 years since the last one here, do you think that’s going to happen?
We’re going to get it. The last time we had the hurricane and a bunch of things in there where we couldn’t hardly ask for a Super Bowl. But now, people like New Orleans as a place to visit. We’re going to show them a great Super Bowl, and they’re going to want to come back.
You seem to be more popular now than at any time since the old Benson Boogie days. Why do you think that is and is it gratifying?
We got into a better mode after the hurricane when we brought in new coaches and so forth. We were working on it before that. The nucleus had been there for 10 or 15 years, and we never stopped working to develop a good club. I think though in 2006 when people were misreading that I wanted to move the club out of town and this sort of stuff, naturally they didn’t like it. But once they found out what we were really trying to do in developing into a great club, that turned everybody. Everybody’s feeling got better. Nobody likes to lose, but when we lost those first four games this season, they accepted it. And they’re still with us. Now, we’re going to keep on winning.
Speaking of the Benson Boogie, now that you are on the front row at Hornets games, when the music plays, do you ever feel the urge to get up and show your moves again?
No. Those days are gone, over, forever. I used to love to dance and still like to, but it has to be a slow piece now.
Who is your all-time favorite Saints player and why?
Aw, jeez. There have been so many of them. Deuce McAllister certainly has been one of them. We’ve got Willie Roaf and Ricky Jackson in the Hall of Fame. What outstanding individuals. When you look back, whether Joe Horn in his time or the players we have now, I’m telling you it’s one of the finest groups I’ve ever been around.
In your time as an NFL and now NBA owner, who is the most impressive person you’ve ever dealt with?
Unfortunately, a lot of the people I started with 20-something years ago aren’t around any more. So, it’s hard for me to come up with somebody.
Do you see Anthony Davis becoming as big a star in New Orleans as Drew Brees?
It’s going to be different stars. People who love football are going to have Drew, and the people who love basketball are going to have Anthony Davis. Both of them are really fine people. They’re two outstanding stars.
Whatever happened to the name change for the Hornets and do you have a favorite?
We’re working on it, but we can’t do it this year, because the NBA has turned us down. We’re working on names and will change it as soon as possible. We’ve got to get the NBA’s approval. It’s got to be something that the public is going like, because it’s related to Louisiana.
What is your proudest sports-related accomplishment?
It would have to be wining the Super Bowl. When you think about that, it was just about like walking on clouds or something. It’s hard for me to describe what happened that night. We’re up in the suite and everybody is laughing and crying and hugging me and saying, “We’re winning this game; were winning this game!” Then, my wife grabbed me and started taking off my jacket. Then, she has puts another jacket on. This one has stripes and says “Super Bowl Champs” on it.
Speaking of your wife, she’s always at your side at games. Have you turned her into a sports fan or is that something that first attracted you to her?
She never went to the games before we met. But we sort of met at a game, and we just along really very well. Eight years later, it’s been wonderful.
Do you want the ownership of the Saints and Hornets to stay within your family or do you see them being sold?
It’s going to stay. Both my daughter and (granddaughter) Rita and my grandson are really very active in the sports field. They enjoy coming to as many games as they can make. I was just in San Antonio, and we were talking about some of the things you just mentioned. So I feel like they will continue to be real active. Rita will run the football. The rest we haven’t decided yet. Ryan is in the automotive group, and my daughter really likes the banking and real estate more than anything. They’re working together pretty good, and I think they’ll continue that way.
According to Forbes, you’re a billionaire. Do you have a hard time believing that a guy who grew up in St. Roch Park and started out selling cars has accomplished all you have in life?
I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. That’s the good thing. The memories of what we’ve accomplished are very enjoyable. My mother and father lived for a long time. They didn’t see us in the Super Bowl, but they did get to see a lot of games. Unfortunately, two of my children died. But this business has sort of been my life. I get up every morning about 6 o’clock. Sometimes, I move faster than others, but I like to sit there, drink coffee and read the newspaper. And then I get ready and go to the office.
Finally, the most important question of all: Obviously, you had looked for the team to do be better than 2-4. But do you still assure the fans that they’re going to wind up winning the Super Bowl in the Superdome?
Tom Benson feels like that’s going to happen. Now, a lot of circumstances have to fall right. But we’ve got a good team, a really good team. I think that beating Tampa Bay showed what kind of team we have. We just weren’t settled in those first four games. But we’re settled now. There’s no telling what’s going to happen. It’s just like with the Hornets. We’re going to surprise some people.
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