NEW ORLEANS — Tom Benson, a successful auto dealer who brought the New Orleans Saints their only winning season 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. He had been hospitalized since Feb. 16 with flu symptoms.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) March 15, 2018
Benson made his mark in pro sports with the Saints, which he bought in 1985 when it appeared that 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.
Benson’s business acumen helped turn the Saints from a perennial also-ran into a contender — and the 2009 Super Bowl champion.
Yet his ownership also was less flatteringly marked by the 2012 bounty scandal, in which players were paid illegal bonuses for deliberately injuring opposing players, and by rumors that Benson that did not want to bring the team back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.
But when he brought the Saints back to a still-reeling New Orleans in early 2006 — or was forced to by the league, which would not allow Benson to abandon the Big Easy — the region’s fans rewarded him with more than a decade of consecutive sellouts.
Fans cheered the “Benson Boogie,” his parasol dances along the sideline after victories.
Only months after the Saints came back to New Orleans, Benson was greeted like a conquering hero at a team-sponsored fan event when the club drafted University of Southern California star Reggie Bush.
The Saints became a source of inspiration during the tough early days of post-Katrina rebuilding. In storybook style, they improved from 3-13 in 2005 to 10-6 under new coach Sean Payton, then advanced to the franchise’s first NFC championship game.
One of four children, Benson grew up in the hardscrabble 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, went to work as a bookkeeper for Cathey Chevrolet Co., 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 in the automobile business. He also built a banking empire, Benson Financial World.
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.