Saints, Pelicans owner Tom Benson dies at 90 years old after bout with flu

Tom Benson, a New Orleans native who would go on to own both the city’s NFL franchise and its NBA franchise, died on Thursday. He was 90 years old.

The Saints and Pelicans announced the news on social media.

An obituary on the Saints’ website said Benson “passed away peacefully at Ochsner Medical Center with his wife Gayle Marie Benson at his side.”

Tom Benson had been hospitalized with the flu since Feb. 16.

New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, shown here with his wife Gayle, died on Thursday. He was 90 years old. (AP)
New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, shown here with his wife Gayle, died on Thursday. He was 90 years old. (AP)

In recent years, the Benson family has been in the headlines due to a fight over the line of ownership succession for the Saints and Pelicans; the affair was finally ended last year with a settlement. The Saints, via social media, made it clear that Gayle Benson is the Saints’ owner.

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Benson bought the Saints in 1985 for $70 million, after learning that the team could be sold to another party, that wanted to relocate the team. In the Saints’ first 18 years of existence, they not only had never made the playoffs, they’d never been above .500.

In Benson’s third season, 1987, New Orleans went 12-3 and got its first playoff berth. Ten more postseason appearances followed under his stewardship, including an unexpected 11-5 record, NFC South title and thrilling – though ultimately losing – divisional-round game against Minnesota.

New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV in 2009.

Six years ago, Benson bought the New Orleans Hornets for a reported $338 million; a year later, the team was rebranded as the Pelicans. The team has made one playoff appearance since Benson became owner, and is in position for a second this season.

Condolences poured in from all over the NFL once news came of Benson’s passing, including this statement released by the league from commissioner Roger Goodell:

“Tom Benson’s contributions to New Orleans and the National Football League were legendary,” it read. “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. The Saints rewarded their fans with tremendous football and a Super Bowl championship.

“Tom loved New Orleans, where he was a generous and caring philanthropist. Within the NFL, he was a true leader among NFL owners. He served as the chairman of the League’s Finance Committee for many years, was a key advisor to my predecessors, and was someone whom I frequently turned to since becoming commissioner. I know that the entire NFL family joins me in extending our most heartfelt condolences to Gayle Benson and the entire Saints organization.”

Born July 12, 1927, Thomas Milton Benson Jr. was raised in New Orleans’ 7th Ward, graduating from what was then known as St. Aloysius High School. After graduating from high school, he began studying business and accounting at Loyola University New Orleans, but interrupted his studies to enlist in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Benson served on the U.S.S. South Dakota.

When he returned home after the war, Benson resumed his studies at Loyola New Orleans and began working at Cathey Chevrolet Co.; at 35, he took full control of that company, growing it into a company with dealerships in greater New Orleans and South Texas. He would later enter the banking business, buying several small banks in the South.

Tom and Gayle Benson have made millions of dollars in charitable donations; in the football world, they gave $7.5 million toward the construction of Tulane’s Yulman Stadium; the field at the stadium is named after Benson. In November 2014, the stadium at the Pro Football Hall of Fame was renamed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in recognition of an $10 million donation Benson made toward its refurbishment.

In a release, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced flags at the facility will be flown at half-staff as a tribute to Benson.

Details regarding public visitation and funeral for Benson have not yet been announced.

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