NEW ORLEANS: The inaugural season for the New Orleans Saints was 1967. Once the news was official that New Orleans was getting their own NFL team, some feared that the local area may not be able to sustain enough revenue with ticket sales. That fear was quickly dispelled once ticket sales were made public.
The Saints first home game, in Tulane Stadium (with a seating capacity of over 80,000) was sold out in less than a week.
The team’s principal owner was oil tycoon John W. Mecom Jr., who chose the official Saints’ team colors to be Black and Gold because his commodity “OIL,” was widely referred to as Black Gold. New Orleans and Gulf Coast region of New Orleans embraced the franchise and had high hopes.
Although the expansion team was very competitive, it failed to produce a winning record for the first 20 years.
The team came close achieving its first winning season after Mecom personally recruited and brought in coach Owid Allen (O.A.) “Bum” Phillips as Head Coach. Bum instilled a winning culture in the team, and also built the team to be more competitive through solid choices in the NFL draft. The team was on the cusp of a winning season AND the NFL playoffs as it entered the final week of the 1984 season.
The Saints had a lead late in the 4th quarter, but could not hold off a comeback by the Los Angeles Rams, fell short, and missed the playoffs.
Owner John Mecom was so discouraged that he opted to sell the team the following year, in 1985 after that disappointing loss.
When Mecom put the team up for sale, New Orleans faced the real possibility of losing its team. In fact, businessman Abram Nicholas Pritzker (from Chicago) attempted to purchase the team but was unable to meet Mecom’s asking price. That’s when local automotive businessman and New Orleans native Tom Benson stepped in to purchase the New Orleans Saints.
Mr. Benson made a couple of key moves that helped propel the Saints more competitive level:
- Jim Mora (former USFL Head Coach) was hired, and key USFL players such like Bobby Hebert, Sam Mills, and Vaughan Johnson joined Rickey Jackson, Eric Martin, and others to make the team a formidable force. The defense, particularly the linebackers, came to be known as the “Dome Patrol.” The Saints linebackers (Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling) became the only linebackers from the same team to start in a Pro Bowl.
- Jim Finks was hired as the Saints General Manager. Finks, who helped build the dynamic Chicago Bears teams of the early 1980’s brought shrewd professionalism to the Saints’ front office that helped the Saints become one of the winningest teams from 1987 – 1993. The Saints mustered their first winning season in 1987 and made the playoffs that same year. The only downside was that the Saints had to compete in the same division (NFC West) during the glory years of the San Francisco 49’ers.
With that as a key factor, the Saints made the playoffs 4 times but did not win a playoff game under Mora.
Later, during a painful 3 years under Mike Ditka (1997-1999), the team won only an average of 5 wins per season. The Saints, under new Head Coach Jim Haslett, won their first playoff game in 2000. But Haslett could not take the Saints to the next level. As the Saints entered their 38th season (in 2005), it unwittingly adopted a theme “You Gotta Have Faith!” Little did those associated with the franchise realize that this theme was somewhat prophetic.
Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana and Mississippi gulf coast on August 29, 2005
With a storm surge, flooding that overwhelmed New Orleans’ intricate levee system, and widespread devastation. As catastrophic as the aftermath of Katrina was, the prospect of losing the Saints would have compounded the devastation and possibly brought on added emotional heartache and angst. Since Katrina’s hit was so close to the start of the 2005 NFL season, the Saints were without a home because of the damage that was done to the Superdome.
The damage spawned by Hurricane Katrina was not only a national story, but it also garnered worldwide attention. Many were wondering whether or not this tremendous hit would be too much for the City of New Orleans to overcome.
The 900 lb. gorilla in the room was: “What would happen to Saints?”
The team scrambled and weighed its options. Owner Tom Benson, who had strong ties to the City of San Antonio TX, began giving serious consideration to moving the Saints there.
The fan base resisted strongly.
In the interim, home games for the Saints were played in Baton Rouge, LA. Members of a fan base at SaintsReport.com organized an effort called: “Save Our Saints” (S.O.S.). The effort, while focusing on actions to keep the Saints in New Orleans, also worked in concert with a community outreach called the “Hammer ‘N Nails” project. The latter initiative organized volunteers that helped refurbish homes that were severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Fundraisers were organized by volunteers and the Saints teamed up with the Drew Brees Foundation to help in the recovery efforts across the area. Volunteers from as far away as New Jersey and Pennsylvania made the trek down to the Bayou region for refurbishment projects as well as in efforts to save the Saints.
Ironically, and somewhat providentially, two significant events/situations happened during the 2005 NFL season that worked in favor of the Saints’ fan base’s efforts to keep the team in New Orleans:
There was an impetus for the Saints to relocate to San Antonio, TX. San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger became vocal in undermining the Saints’ efforts to support the team in Baton Rouge, LA. When he learned that ticket sales to Saints games in (LSU) Tiger Stadium were sluggish, Mayor Hardberger was quoted to have said the following: “Baton Rouge is a disaster. We will outsell them (here in San Antonio) 2 to 1.”
Owner Tom Benson allegedly got in an argument with a Saints fan during a game in Baton Rouge. As the argument got more heated, Benson shoved the fan and cameraman in frustration. These incidents garnered widespread empathy for the Saints fan base, and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue notified owner Tom Benson that the team WILL NOT be allowed to relocate from Louisiana. Tagliabue later reflected on his action to keep the Saints in New Orleans and felt that it was his greatest accomplishment.
It is significant to note that although the incident of Benson’s attempt to relocate the Saints did happen. No need to pretend that it didn’t happen. But the ties that bind families is often far greater than any rift that happened in the past. So is the case here.
Tom Benson moved forward to ensure the success of the Saints franchise in New Orleans. His first move, hiring Sean Payton as Head Coach, was a good one. The next move was signing Drew Brees as the Saints’ quarterback.
In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, the NFL Commissioner Tagliabue, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, along with a determined cadre of architects and construction teams made the reopening of the Louisiana Superdome a reality in 2006, just 1 year after Katrina.
Tom Benson moved forward to ensure the success of the Saints franchise in New Orleans. His first move was a good one: Hiring Sean Payton as Head Coach. The next move was to support the signing of Drew Brees as the Saints’ quarterback.
From the 2006 season until his death in 2018, the legacy of Tom Benson (along with support from his wife Gayle) yielded positive results. Winning Super Bowl 44 (XLIV) is, of course, the crowning jewel, with the team going for yet another one the 2018/19 season.
There are a multitude of examples to illustrate the tremendous level of mutual respect the Saints’ team, management, coaching staff, fan base and organization are considered to have symbiosis that elevates the entire community into what’s come to be known as the “Who Dat Nation” (a phrase originally coined by former Saints QB Bobby Hebert). You be the judge of whether or not the following are noteworthy:
- The Saints are only one of two NFL franchises that created and maintains its own (team) Hall of Fame museum. The Steelers also maintain their own.
- Win or lose, Saints fans can be counted on to greet the team at the airport following a road trip, no matter how late the arrival of their road warriors.
- This past regular season, Defensive End Alex Okafor missed a (performance incentive) monetary bonus of $400K because he fell short by one QB sack this season. At the recommendation of the coaching staff, team owner, Ms. Gayle Benson, decided to award him the bonus anyway because of his work ethic, attitude and contributions to the team.
- The late Tom Benson donated a sizeable amount of revenue to refurbish and restore the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Canton, OH) because he saw a need, and stepped in to make a difference. The Hall of Fame Committee reciprocated by renaming the adjacent stadium in Benson’s honor.
“My donation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was an easy decision,
it was a right decision and it was a decision that I believe will have
great impact on the current game and help foster a better game in
the future while also having direct and tangible impacts on the
Legends of our game with the Legends Landing.” – Tom Benson
- Before Christmas (2018) Owner Gayle Benson made a surprise visit to a New Orleans area Walmart, and paid off the remaining balance of 20 customers’ layaways.
- Camaraderie within the Saints’ locker room is readily noticed and appreciated by other players. When recent acquisition Dez Bryant suffered an untimely season-ending injury, Saints players made the “X” symbol during their next game in tribute to Dez. Even though he’ll be a free agent, Bryant was so moved by the gestures that he has already gone on record saying that his plan is to return for the 2019 season as a New Orleans Saint.
Losing a sports franchise can be traumatic for a fan base.
The following lists NFL Franchises that relocated since the Great Depression (late 1920’s):
1934: Portsmouth Spartans moved to Detroit and became the Lions.
1937: Boston Redskins moved to Washington, D.C. as the Washington Redskins.
1946: Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles.
1960: Chicago Cardinals moved to St. Louis.
1961: The AFL’s Los Angeles Chargers moved to San Diego after spending their first season in Los Angeles.
1963: The AFL Dallas Texans moved to Kansas City, Missouri and became the Kansas City Chiefs.
1982: Oakland Raiders moved to Los Angeles.
1984: Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis and became the Indianapolis Colts.
1988: St. Louis Cardinals moved to Phoenix, becoming the Phoenix Cardinals; later renamed Arizona Cardinals in ’94.
1995: Los Angeles Raiders moved back to Oakland after 13 previous seasons.
1995: Los Angeles Rams moved to St. Louis.
1996: Cleveland Browns players and coaching staff moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens; city retained the Browns’ name.
1997: Houston Oilers moved to Memphis and became the Tennessee Oilers; renamed the Titans in ’99. NFL granted Houston an expansion team in ’02.
2016: St. Louis Rams moved back to Los Angeles after 21 seasons in St. Louis; scheduled to move to nearby Inglewood in 2020.
2017: San Diego Chargers returned to their original home of Los Angeles after 56 seasons in San Diego; team will share Rams’ stadium in 2020.
2019–20: Oakland Raiders approved to move to Las Vegas. Team will remain in Oakland area in 2019, then moves to Las Vegas in 2020.
New Orleans Saints Fans
When the chips were down, and New Orleans’ loss of the Saints loomed as a distinct possibility, the grassroots actions taken by everyday fans became the catalyst for ensuring that the Saints remained in in the area. Fans’ participation in Save Our Saints (S.O.S.) efforts garnered significant media attention.
Fans used their own revenue, sweat and tears to create fliers, magnets on vehicles, local commercial radio & TV spots, petitioned lawmakers, hired private aircraft to trail a banner over the stadium during the Saints game, and organized fundraisers.
All of this worked effectively to rally community support for keeping the Saints in Louisiana.
Steve Gleason (#37) blocked a punt in the “Return to the Dome” game to celebrate the reopening of the Superdome in a nationally televised Monday Night Football game. Notice the banner in the background which reminded the national audience that the Saints are New Orleans’ team.
As we look back on that uncertain period (following Katrina) for the Saints franchise, we see in retrospect that when ordinary people in a community dare to make a stand, work and fight in a focused and purposeful manner, great things can happen. They never gave up! The profound significance of their selfless actions cannot be overstated. Their involvement to help make all of this a reality is something other communities would do well to emulate.
Bill Randall is a retired 27-year U.S. Navy veteran, and contributing writer for COMMDIGINEWS.