Who are the people who own the teams that compete in the NFL, and strive each year to make it to the Super Bowl? What kinds of people are they? Are they all rich? Are they all self-made? Do they own teams because they love the sport, or because the teams are good investments? The Times assigned staff writers Bob Oates and Earl Gustkey to research and write about the NFL owners with these, and other, questions in mind. Their stories appear in the adjoining columns. Oates writes about the AFC's owners, Gustkey the NFC's. TOM BENSON, New Orleans Saints
Tom Benson, the 59-year-old managing general partner of the New Orleans Saints, was talking about his boyhood on the streets of New Orleans.
"My dad used to preach the virtues of physical fitness to me, and made me and my brothers walk two miles to school--each way--rather than take the bus," he said. "It wasn't until we were older that I figured out we couldn't afford the bus fare."
Today, Thomas Benson Sr., 85, and his wife, Carmen, 82, avidly watch their son's football team play from their private Superdome suite, and they don't take the bus. Sometimes, they're driven to the games by their son in his Chevy Caprice.
Benson doesn't come across as a typical NFL owner. There is no glitz, no gold, no driver. What you have here is a guy who's supposed to be worth something like $100 million, yet drives a Chevrolet, wears a Bulova watch and rumpled, ill-fitting suits obviously off the rack.
Yet, this is the guy some Louisianians call St. Thomas. He kept the Saints from moving to Phoenix. Or Jacksonville. Or Oakland. Or Baltimore.
He had never been much of a football fan. He says he had attended only a few Saint games before he put together the group that bought the franchise from John Mecom for $70.2 million in 1985.
Benson owns 24 car dealerships in Louisiana and Texas with estimated yearly sales of $400 million, controls six banks in Louisiana and Texas with deposits totaling $400 million, and owns 2.7 million square feet of commercial real estate, much of it in San Antonio.
Benson and his wife, Grace, have seven grown children. They have a home in San Antonio, a condominium in New Orleans and a 2,000-acre ranch in Pedernales River country near Johnson City, Tex.
Benson, who as a boy sold copies of the New Orleans Times-Picayune to earn spending money, said he became involved in the Saints purchase when it became apparent that the city was in danger of losing the team.
"Even though I wasn't a rabid football fan, I thought it would be a terrible blow to the city to lose the Saints," he said. "I saw it as an opportunity to do something for my hometown, where I got my start."
In the early stages of the negotiations, Benson pledged $20 million of his own money for a 31% share of the deal. "I couldn't afford to write a check for $70 million," he explained recently. Now, Benson and younger brothers Jerome and Larry own 50% of the stock.
Benson has New Orleans roots that go deeper than his boyhood neighborhood around north Johnson Street in the Eighth Ward. A granduncle, Herbert Benson, was a founder of the Sugar Bowl game and the architect of Tulane Stadium, where the game was played before the Superdome was built.
In business, after serving a Navy hitch and getting an accounting degree at Loyola University of New Orleans, he started out in 1948 selling cars at Cathey Chevrolet in New Orleans. After eight years, the dealership's owner asked Benson to go to San Antonio to turn around an ailing dealership he owned there.
When Benson agreed, the owner made Benson a 25% owner. Then, in 1962, he became full owner of Tom Benson Chevrolet. More dealerships followed.
But the deal that put him on the road to real wealth was one in 1966 involving 25 acres of open land in north San Antonio. After studying a demographics report of the area, Benson was convinced that San Antonio's commercial growth was headed for that area.
While contemplating the merits of going deeply into debt, Benson went back to New Orleans and asked the old family priest, Father John Sokolski, to get to work.
"Pray for me, padre," he said to Father Sokolski, who remembers the incident well. "If this works, we're in clover."
Father Sokolski also reports that Benson has never forgotten his promise to help St. Anthony's Seminary with contributions.
Benson borrowed $1 million and bought the land, where today there are shopping centers, fast-food restaurants, office buildings, a string of six Tom Benson auto dealerships and two Tom Benson banks. Real estate analysts appraise the property at $25 million.
Benson remains active in the running of all his businesses, and says they suffered in his early days of owning the Saints.
"I was spending about 80% of my time with the Saints, and that was way too much," he said. "I was throwing a lot of responsibility of my other businesses onto my brothers. But I've got dedicated, competent people from top to bottom running the Saints now, and we're on the right track."