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ssmitty 03-29-2006 06:12 AM

benson interview
'That's all behind us'
Benson says people 'misunderstood' him
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
By Mike Triplett
Staff writer
ORLANDO, FLA. -- In 21 years as owner of the Saints, Tom Benson said he has never experienced anything like these past seven months.

First, the team went through "hell," Benson said, when Hurricane Katrina forced an abrupt move to San Antonio. The Saints suffered through a 3-13 collapse on the field and faced backlash and criticism from much of the fan base off the field.

For months, Benson stayed mostly silent while speculation grew that he might attempt to move his team to Texas full time. Then the Saints returned to New Orleans in January, starting an offseason filled with change, excitement and optimism about the team's future.

At the same time, however, the NFL's labor talks between owners and players began to heat up, leading to the most contentious and critical league meetings in almost two decades.

When peace was finally attained earlier this month, long-time commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced he would step down once a suitable replacement was found.

Benson took time to speak with The Times-Picayune about these issues and more between sessions at the annual league meetings Tuesday.

With the team returning to New Orleans and rebuilding with a new coach and new personnel, is this as important as any time period in your ownership of the team?

You know, it just seemed like everything sort of went against us since the hurricane. Everything, some of the media and some of the public misunderstanding (about) what our intentions were. As you know, the whole idea of staying in San Antonio. You know, we were in California when this thing happened and we didn't have any place to go, No. 1. We only had the shirts on our back. We were fortunate enough to have San Antonio to get to after we (considered) a lot of places. And it was impossible to get back there to play and people misunderstood a lot of things.

But anyway, that's all behind us. And I think we've gone to, I'll call it hell. And from everybody's standpoint whether that was coaches, players, staff, mentally it was very hard on everybody. But I think today what you look at, whether it's the new coach or the new administrative people, the attitude is so great and (so is) the response.

We've got a long way to go, because businesses generally are not there, the big businesses that we need for marketing purposes are not there yet. But there's a growing interest, and as you know we're now reaching out as far as Shreveport and Jackson, Mississippi, to try to get more and more people to support it. Let's call us the Green Bay of the South. Because New Orleans for a long time could be a small community, so we're going to have to broaden our interests or the interests for other people to be partners with us and develop with us.

Do you feel better now about New Orleans' chances to support an NFL team than you did just a few months ago?

Well, I think that we're going to make it work. Every day we feel a little bit better about what's happening. And that's really very important. I know in the Shreveport area they've got 15,000 tickets already sold, that certainly shows good interest there. Our season-ticket sales are going at a good rate. Suites and the marketing thing is a little slower than we would like, but we've got a lot of interest out there and I think there's a lot of people having a lot of problems themselves.

You said there was some misunderstanding of your intentions last season. Was there anything you regret or anything you wish you had done differently, such as the letter to FEMA (about the status of the team's Metairie practice facility) or the things you said after the first game in Baton Rouge?

The letter to FEMA, from the attorney? That wasn't me. What the misunderstanding was, you can't find anything in there that I ever said that I wasn't going to try to return to New Orleans. I never did say that. I did say I didn't think Baton Rouge was the ideal situation. And it worked out it wasn't, because LSU didn't want us, No. 1. They never did, I'm going back 20 years, and I don't blame them. If I were in the LSU athletic department, I wouldn't want us either. That's not a good thing. It was hard for them, their system and the things they have there are so different from what we need.

Do you have a strong opinion on who should be named the next commissioner?

No, I think we're going to hire a search company, let them come back, see what type of individuals there might be outside of the organization. I've always been one that likes people that you're bringing up all the time from within. But this thing is changing so much that we certainly ought to take a look and see what else is out there.

Do you anticipate being on the search committee appointed by Commissioner Tagliabue?

I don't know if that's a good idea, to tell you the truth. I would be on it if they asked me to be, but I really don't have a big interest in doing that. I'd rather sit on the outside and be able to comment to them more than to make the decision or help them make the decision.

What are your initial impressions of Sean Payton?

Well, I'm going to tell you, they're better today than when I interviewed him. He's got a great personality. I can see right now he's a great leader. You know, when a guy's been an assistant coach for a long time, you wonder how he's going to be when he takes over the top position and he has to make the decisions. But I am extremely satisfied that this guy is going to be a great coach in this league. I feel very, very positive about that.

You favored a more experienced coach going into the process?

No, no. I thought Mickey Loomis did a great process with coaches and it got down to two or three of them there. But this guy just kept standing out. I think we hired an outstanding coach. And I hear that from everybody in the league, too.

Were you happy with the results of the collective bargaining agreement and revenue-sharing plans?

You know there were some things I thought could have been a little better. But in something like that, you've got to sort of compromise a little bit, you know. They had to give a little bit, and we had to give a little bit.

Were you a part of that group of small-market owners, so to speak, that banded together?

Oh, I don't know. I think I was more in the middle of the pack. And being on the finance committee so long, you have to take everything into consideration. Those larger markets have more costs in some areas. But they have good opportunities to get more income than some others. But that's just part of the market. It's just like if you own a business here or you own a business in a city with just a couple hundred thousand people.

Were you a vocal participant?

Oh yeah, you know me. Very much so. You know, I've been a chairman of this finance committee so long (since 2003) that I told Paul, "I'm sure in the hell glad you're getting out of here because I'm not going to be chairman anymore after this."

Is that official?

As soon as we get a new commissioner, my time is up. It will be good for him to get somebody else, and it's time for me to move on. It just takes too much of my time. When I come to these meetings, it's early until late.

What was the one point that you wanted to stand up and get across during those CBA talks, from the perspective of being in a small market but also knowing the importance of labor peace having been in the league so long?

Well, that they had to take the revenue sharing thing in the proper sense. That some clubs like New Orleans and others, I'll even pick on Pittsburgh. You just don't have the same opportunity that you have if you were in New York or Philadelphia or Washington or even San Francisco and some areas like that. You're just kidding yourself. It's just not there. You don't have the large companies that are going to be there. Like in New Orleans, we don't have any large companies that can come in and underwrite a $10 million naming rights like they have in Houston. That's a big difference.

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LKelley67 03-29-2006 07:24 AM

1. at least he is talking instead of hiding
2. one of the few times I have ever read through a transcript or interview with him that there wasn't some outrageous foot in mouth statement.
3. I dunno if i can ever see him more than a used car salesman though. Something about the guy has always said "shyster" to me.
4. I did like the Green Bay of the south statement. Reaching out for a larger regional base is a good idea. Even one home game a year in a different location like Shreveport, Jackson, or Baton Rouge. Note: his bad BR experience was completely his fault IMO.

xan 03-29-2006 08:03 AM

I agree with you LK, his glossing over the negatives rather than saying,

"As owner and leader of the team, I take responsiblity for the unfortunate misunderstanding about our intentions. I can make excuses about how confusing and overwhelming our situation was, but in the end, perception is reality, and we didn't manage our perception very well. It was a fearful and frightening situation for almost 3 million of our amazingly loyal fans and we as the Saints may have been able to do more positive things to allay those fears. I'd like to think that we did the best we could, but we learn from our misfortunes and we will be better prepared to take the lead in the community that values us so highly."

Does anyone else see his "I can't wait to get away from this" attitude?

stockman311 03-29-2006 10:15 AM

Tom Benson is a lying sack of Sh*t. You hit it right on the head buddy. He is a used car salesman who start lying to people when they wake up in the morning to increase their commision. Is there any doubt in anyone's mind that this bastard would have OUR team in San Antonio permanantly right now and for good if Paul Tagliabue hadn't stepped in to intervene. He's a bald faced liar and the only reason "this is behind us now" is because he knows he is stuck here for a few more years and must sell tickets to line his already bloated pockets.

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