Mr. Benson bought the Saints 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,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “He purchased a team that had never had a winning season; by the third year of his ownership, the Saints were in the playoffs. 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.”
Mr. Benson’s business acumen helped turn the Saints from a perennial also-ran into a contender — and the 2009 NFL champion. Yet his ownership also was less flatteringly marked by a 2012 bounty scandal and reports that Mr. 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 permanent owner, Mr. Benson finally stepped in and bought the club for $338 million. The club is now known as the Pelicans, and its estimated value exceeds $1 billion.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver praised Mr. Benson for hosting two all-star weekends in New Orleans, the second after the game had been moved from Charlotte following state legislation deemed discriminatory by the NBA.
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Mr. Benson also became a leading New Orleans philanthropist. He helped fund Tulane University’s on-campus football stadium and the cancer treatment center at Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson. The home of the NFL’s Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, also was renamed for Mr. Benson after an $11 million gift, the largest in the hall’s history.
Mr. Benson’s death came on the heels of an acrimonious family split that has caused some uncertainty about the future of his professional teams.
He made it known in January 2015 that he wanted his third wife, Gayle, to inherit complete control of the Saints and Pelicans. Greg Bensel, the senior vice president of communications for both clubs, said the NFL and NBA have both approved Mr. Benson’s succession plan.
However, Mr. Benson’s disowned daughter, Renee LeBlanc, 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. They lost a 2015 legal struggle for control of the teams but could still contest Mr. Benson’s will.
Fans, however, will remember his heavy New Orleans accent and parasol dances along the sideline after victories, called the “Benson Boogie.” His jovial game-day persona turned hardheaded, however, when it came to business.
In 2001, he negotiated an unprecedented $187 million in concessions and state subsidies to keep his team playing in the Superdome through 2010 — a deal he said was necessary to succeed in small-market New Orleans.
Until recent years, fans often questioned whether Mr. Benson’s desire for profit outweighed his loyalty to his native city. With the Superdome and much of the city wrecked by Katrina, the Saints temporarily relocated to San Antonio, where Mr. Benson had many business holdings.
When officials there said they were talking to Mr. Benson about what it would take to keep the team, Katrina-weary residents in New Orleans reacted angrily.
But the NFL would not allow Mr. Benson to abandon the Big Easy, and the region’s fans responded with more than a decade of consecutive sellouts.
The Saints became a source of inspiration during the tough early days of post-Katrina rebuilding. They improved from 3-13 in 2005 to 10-6 under new coach Sean Payton, and then advanced to the franchise’s first NFC championship game. A Super Bowl title came in February 2010.
Scandal followed two years later when the NFL uncovered a bounty system in which Saints players earned improper, off-the-books cash bonuses for hits that hurt or sidelined opponents.
Payton wound up serving an unprecedented full-season suspension in 2012 and the Saints were fined $500,000.
Thomas Milton Benson was born July 12, 1927, and grew up in the hardscrabble 7th Ward of New Orleans.
He served in the Navy during World War II, then studied business and accounting at Loyola University in New Orleans. He worked as a bookkeeper for a Chevrolet dealer and later established his own dealership.
He built his fortune primarily in the automobile business, as well as in banking and real estate. More recently, he got involved in thoroughbred horse racing and took over Dixie Beer.
But his passion later in life was the Saints. He kept an office at the training facility and was frequently seen there and at training camp in a golf cart watching practices.
He and his first wife, the former Shirley Landry, had three children, two of whom preceded their father in death. She died in 1980.
His second wife, the former Grace Trudeau, died in 2003. He had been married to Gayle LaJaunie Bird since 2004.
In addition to his wife, survivors include his estranged daughter; several stepchildren; and several grandchildren.
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