TOM BENSON INTERVIEW!
Saints and VooDoo owner Tom Benson says that despite of the Saints' 8-8 season, and in light of the VooDoo's 3-1 start, his ultimate goal for his franchises is to win -- but he says patience is the key
Sunday March 07, 2004
"I think Jim Haslett is as good a coach as there is in the National Football League. He works at it. He thinks about it. He breathes and sleeps it."
"When you lose some key players to injuries, it's kinda hard to blame the coach. . . . Don't get me wrong. I'm with the fans. Winning is what counts."
"Rita (LeBlanc) is only 27 years old. It would concern me if she had to take over tomorrow. But I think down the road. . . . Hopefully I can live long enough that she'll get enough education in this business that she will take it over. That would be my wish."
"We've got the oldest stadium in the league now, not counting the ones that are building new ones. We used to be the brand-new guy. Now we're the oldest guy."
"Nobody likes to be criticized. I don't care who they are, whether it's the president of the United States or Tom Benson or anybody . . . I understand that's part of being the owner of this club. People want winners."
TOM BENSON, Saints/VooDoo owner
2003 will go down as one of the busiest and most eventful in Tom Benson's 19-year tenure as Saints owner. In February, he was appointed the chairman of the powerful NFL finance committee. From May to December, he oversaw the launch of a new Arena Football League franchise, the New Orleans VooDoo. In July, he celebrated the opening of a sparkling new $15.25 million indoor practice facility and renovated training complex. And in November, he endured the death of his wife, Grace. In between, he watched the Saints fall short of the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
In his first in-depth interview since the end of the disappointing 8-8 campaign, Benson talked with Saints beat writer Jeff Duncan about a wide range of subjects.
Let's start by looking back at the 2003 Saints season. What was your reaction to the 8-8 finish?
I'll answer that in two ways. All of the so-called experts out there didn't think we were going to be 8-8. They put us on the bottom of the totem pole. Certainly 8-8 isn't what Tom Benson or Mickey Loomis or Jim Haslett or Rick Mueller or anybody wanted. We started off very poorly, 1-4, and I thought we were going to have a disaster. We picked up some steam and had some coulda, woulda, shoulda stuff. I think we had an opportunity to do better than we did, and we just messed up, for whatever reason. Maybe you could blame it on some of the injuries. Or you could blame it on this or that. I was disappointed in 8-8, because even though the so-called experts didn't think we were going to be very good, I thought we were going to be very good. I thought we were going to be better than 8-8. Mickey Loomis thought we were going to be better than 8-8. And Jim Haslett did, too. But we didn't. It was disappointing. But hey, I think it's going to make us a better club this year. We'll see what happens.
You've invested a lot of money in this league the last couple of years, and the team had the second-highest payroll in the league last season. Do you feel like you need to get more out of that investment?
The investment that you make is really for a long-term deal, and you can't just look at it like you've got a million dollars and you're putting it in the stock market and you expect it to return. You've got to look at it as a little bit more of a long-term investment. Don't get me wrong. We want to win today. But we've also go to invest. The state help and the amount of money that we've put into all these improvements is an investment in the future. I think we did a good job last year in going out and getting players. I think we're pretty solid along the offensive line and throughout the offense. On defense, we broke down. The defensive line, we had problems all year. We couldn't stop the run. Our linebackers, I thought could have done better. Some of our corners certainly stepped up a little bit. I think our defense needs some improvement. Don't get me wrong, I think we can improve on offense, too. We're not going to be satisfied. But I think we've got a pretty solid club there. I think we're going to have an opportunity right now to plug in some things. We don't have to be in a free agency market like we were before, because we have filled some gaps. I think we can fill some holes in the draft and some of the players we have drafted the last couple of years certainly are going to be a lot better. With that in mind, this ought to be an exciting year. I can't hardly wait to get going. It's going to be a good year for us. We're pretty solid across the board from a personnel standpoint.
How do you evaluate the job Mickey Loomis has done?
Mickey has been here for four years now, and I think he is doing a good job as the general manager. Certainly we're not satisfied at 8-8. But he's got good communication going between football operations, marketing and financial (departments). And I think he and the coach have a good relationship. To clarify, the coach reports to Mickey Loomis. He doesn't report to me. We have four key people: Mickey Loomis, Jim Haslett, Arnold Fielkow and Dennis Lauschia.
The fans here are outstanding. You couldn't ask for better fans. The season wasn't even over, and they were already involved in '04. Financially, we can't compete with Washington. They've got an 80,000-seat stadium. They sell it out on a per-season basis. They've got 50,000-60,000 people waiting to buy season tickets. We don't have the income factor (in our market) to support anything like that. I realize that. So we're always working in a little bit different direction. It takes a little more effort and a little more work. So we need a good marketing department. And we need a good guy with financials so we don't get out of whack and keeps thing straight. Since Jim Finks' death, we've got the best communication going between departments that we've ever had. That's really a great step in this business. A lot of clubs don't have that. I see it. I see how they are working together. When you start looking at those different things, it's like any business or any person in life, whether it's a family and a father and mother are supervising their kids right. You've got to have good communication. The breakdown in society today is they don't talk to each other. They don't understand each other. They don't communicate right. I'm saying that's what we've got today. With that in mind, I think we're building a great organization, and I'm looking forward to many great years.
How do evaluate the job Jim Haslett has done?
I think Jim Haslett is a good coach. He works very hard at his job. He's very intelligent. He played the game. He worked his way up the ladder. He wasn't just thrown in there as a head coach. I think Jim Haslett can be as good a coach as there is in the National Football League. There are some things that can happen to any coach. Injuries certainly are devastating to coaches. That aside, I think Jim Haslett is as good a coach as there is in the National Football League. He works at it. He thinks about it. He breathes and sleeps it. I'm looking forward to the day that he can be recognized as one of the best coaches in the National Football League.
When evaluating a head coach or any other high-ranking front office manager at the end of the season, how do you weigh the value of stability and continuity when making a decision, especially in today's "what have you done for me lately" climate?
You don't wait until the end of the season. When the season is over, we've already started to evaluate for this year. Haslett and Mickey Loomis, I watch to see how they handle the situation. Are they holding up their hands? Do they know the answers? Are they making excuses? Are they evaluating things on a stable basis? I think Jim made a couple of coaching changes that he thought were necessary, in his opinion and Mickey's opinion. They felt that that was a good move to make, that that was going to help the club. The ball bounced the wrong way in about three games or else we could have been in the playoffs. I'm a little more, not tolerant, that's not a good word. . . . What I look for in a coach is . . . Is he a good coach? How does he work with people? How does he communicate with people? Is he a dictator? Does he make all the decisions? Does he listen? Why do we have 18 coaches if he doesn't listen to them? If the players respect him, that's important. How's his work habits? He's got good work habits. What's his knowledge of the game? He has got great knowledge of the game and understands it. One thing maybe he could improve on, and I could feel like him if I was his age again, he gets maybe a little bit overly excited during a game. If he could curtail that, it would help. But the good thing about Jim is he realizes that. I rate Jim very high in comparison with all the coaches in the league.
That said, after three consecutive seasons without the playoffs, does he have to make the postseason this year to keep his job?
I don't think myself and the fans that support this club should look at it like that. When you lose some key players to injuries, it's kinda hard to blame the coach. I understand what it's about, too. Don't get me wrong. I'm with the fans. Winning is what counts. There's more pressure to win today than there was 20 years ago. It's fantastic. We're working harder today than ever to turn out winning seasons and get in the playoffs.
You danced on the sidelines at the end of the win against Dallas in the season finale. Can you understand why some people took that the wrong way?
You were at the game. You felt the tempo at that game. Our fans were into the game. It was unbelievable. Everybody was cheering from the time it started to the time it ended. I got a little excited about what was going on. I could see our club was performing a little bit better than they had in the games before that. It wasn't that we were 8-8. It was that we were performing better. I got excited like everybody else. I went down on the field, and I looked up there, and there's 60,000 people and they're hollering like mad and jumping up and down. It was exciting to them, too. It wasn't that we were 8-8 or that we were beating Dallas. It could have been anybody.
What did you think when you watched Jake Delhomme lead Carolina to the Super Bowl? Were you as frustrated as many Saints fans were?
Jake is certainly a fine person. The whole time he was here we all loved him. He was a good person. He's from Louisiana. He's a hard worker. And we certainly tried to keep him here. But it was an opportunity for him to be a starter. And he fits into their program quite well. I think that he's done a good job with them, and they've done a good job with him. I don't have any ill feelings toward him. I wish him the best of luck until they play us. He's a good quarterback. If he wouldn't have been a fine person and good quarterback, we'd have run him off a long time ago instead of sending him to Europe two times trying to help him develop into what he wanted to be. I look back, and if you were Jake right now, I would say, "Boy, I made a good quarterback out of you."
In light of the 8-8 season, do you think you can match last year's record-setting season ticket total?
Season tickets aren't as brisk as they were last year at this time. Last year we came out with a $15 ticket. It was something new. We didn't raise ticket prices on purpose. We felt like the economy in our area was not conducive to do that. And unfortunately, in New Orleans, we put things off to the last minute. A lot of that is because financially they can't afford it, and they have to put it off. We feel very confident in our ticket sales, that we're going to sell out every game. That's our goal. We'd like to sell out on a season basis. We're just not going to do that here. We're not Washington or Dallas. People don't have the funds (in this market) to have 60,000 people buy season tickets. A lot of people that are not renewing are terrace tickets. All of your better seats are pretty well renewed, plaza and club seats. But our terrace seating is a bad situation. And some people feel like they would just like to go to three games instead of eight or nine games. I think that's part of it.
Let's talk about the contract the Saints have with the state. It has been reported that the state might have a shortfall in its $15 million annual payment to the club. Is that the case? And if so, are you concerned about it?
I can tell you this: The state and us have a contract. We're going to live up to our contract. I have no reason to think that they're not going to live up to their contract. The state of Louisiana, as far as I know in their contracts like that, whether it's the Hornets or with us, they have never defaulted on those type contracts. The state has problems, like we talked about season-ticket holders have problems. I understand that. I have no reason to think -- and there has been no indication with me -- that they would default of their contract.
What is your relationship with Gov. Kathleen Blanco? And in light of the fact that you supported Bobby Jindal in the election, are you concerned about that affecting your relationship with her administration?
Even though I didn't back her, I been knowing the governor for a long time. She's a great Saints fan. She's come to many of our football games. I've been to Lafayette many times and visited with her. She worked very hard for us to get the training camp there. And we decided that it was a little bit too far, and we went to Thibodaux. She was disappointed, but she wasn't mad at us at the time because of that decision. I think she's good person, and we've got a good relationship.
Have you talked with her about a new long-term deal with the state?
No. We've got a contract with eight more years. I think they've got more pressing matters than that at this point. At some proper time, we will sit down and talk, but that might be next year at this time.
Do you think you need to have a long-term deal in place before the NFL will award New Orleans a Super Bowl in 2009?
They have not expressed that to me.
What is your opinion on that? Do you think you need a renovated Superdome or long-term deal with the state to land another Super Bowl?
Certainly we are going to pitch hard for the '09 Super Bowl. I wanted to go for '08. But with the new stadiums coming on board. . . . Houston has that. Phoenix is going to have that. Detroit is going to have that. We've got a lot more competition than we had many years ago when the Superdome was the new stadium. New Orleans is a great place to visit, a great place to have a Super Bowl with everything close by, and people love it. But you were in Houston and saw the outstanding job they did. And their stadium, my God, it's unbelievable what they can do with it. There is a lot more competition than it used to be. When I first got involved, we got it (the Super Bowl) every four years. I don't think it's in the cards for that to happen again. I don't care if it's Tampa or Miami or California or even the northern cities, New York or Washington, they are really pumping to bring in a Super Bowl. It just means so much to the community in the long run.
Have you backed off the idea of a new stadium?
I haven't backed off. I think that what we need eventually is a new stadium. We've got the oldest stadium in the league now, not counting the ones that are building new ones. We used to be the brand new guy. Now we're the oldest guy. Look at Houston, and you can see what a new stadium can offer against what we have today. . . . I didn't back off. I tell everyone, "we need a new stadium." It's just like Mr. X, Y, Z needs a new car, but he can't afford it right now, and he has to put it off until next year. And maybe we have to put off pushing things real hard 'til next year. Whether we can afford a new stadium or not, I'm not sure about that. I think we need one. Whether we can afford one, I don't know. If you start it today, you're talking about four years and everything is getting a lot older.
If you're talking about bonding out a new stadium, wouldn't it make sense to get that started as soon as possible?
I think we can bond out at the right time enough money at the state level and with the Saints' contribution. In a few years, the money that we spent to build the arena and the other expenses in there will be liquidating down quite a bit. That's all Superdome bonds. When we've got that liquidated down pretty good, then we ought to have enough funds to go out and bond it. We've got to be realistic about it. We can't put our heads in the sand. It's just like I hated to spend all this money on these facilities. But we needed to do that. It's going to make us a better football club. I really feel that way. That's the way it will be with a new stadium. It's going to help us be a better football club. It's going to help us get more Super Bowls. It's going to open another economic factor in our community. The mayor is talking about the Canal Street (revitalization). I think we can fit into those plans perfectly. We've got to work together and look at it realistically. It's not for Tom. Hey, I've got a nice seat in the Superdome. It's not me.
Are you surprised at the success, both on and off the field, of the VooDoo?
One of the reasons we first got involved in this was we knew how people love football in our area. They want to talk football 12 months a year. We thought this could be a perfect niche if we could work this in some way. . . . It's just a great thing for New Orleans. It's a lower cost to the fans. The one game that was here, the fans were just unbelievable. They really enjoyed it. Our TV ratings are the highest in the league. There's a lot of great interest everywhere I go. It's feeding into the New Orleans Saints. Pretty soon, the Saints will start coming around, and the minicamps will start, and soon it will be time for the (Saints regular) season to start. I think that's what New Orleans wants. And that's why we're doing it.
How does starting up the VooDoo operation affect the Saints? Does it alter the bottom line?
This is a separate company altogether. I invested the money into this outside of the Saints. They operate totally separate from the Saints. Mickey and Dennis and Arnold naturally are involved, but otherwise they are totally separate.
Talk about the role of your granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc, in the operation.
Of everybody in my family . . . I have a grandson who is a rancher, and that's what he loves and wants to do. He likes coming to the football games. He'll be at the game Sunday. I've got another one that's still in college. But his main interest is the automobile business. Rita is the only one that showed a real interest. As she went through college, every break she worked with us or with the NFL. And she liked it. And when she graduated and came to work for us full time, I said "we're going to make or break her." We put her in a crappy job. She was just typing information into a computer all day. I thought for sure at any time she would come to me and say, "I've had enough of this." But then we moved her into other positions. She's been in financing and the football operations. She's got a very genuine interest, and I'm very glad. We have a very good relationship. She's intelligent. I hope it works out for her. She's got a boyfriend right now. I tease her a little bit about that. He's going to be in New York with this company that he's with, and I tell her, "You can't operate the Saints from New York, honey."
Will she one day be the future owner of the Saints?
It's set for that. I hope that she will be. It won't be easy for her, because financially it's going to take a lot, state taxes and stuff. But we can probably work those things out. But, hey, if she can end up with the control, her and her family, her mother, my daughter and brother. I think someday down the line she'll be a good operator. She'll be good for the National Football League. She's being well-received at that level. They just put her on a committee in the Arena League. I see it at the meetings now. Whether she's talking to the commissioner or the other owners, she's being well received.
Are there certain procedures that have to be executed to transfer future ownership, and have you already started the ball rolling in that area?
Yeah, they do. Rita is only 27 years old. It would concern me if she had to take over tomorrow. But I think down the road. I've kept the league abreast of what my plans are. Hopefully I can live long enough that she'll get enough education in this business that she will take it over. That would be my wish.
Your wife, Grace, passed away this fall, and I know it was a difficult time for you. Was there one thing that touched you more than others in the support you received from the community and the NFL?
I don't know how to get into that. That's an unfortunate thing that happens to you in life. Certainly it hurts a great deal. Grace and I had a wonderful relationship. I don't know what more I could tell you about it.
Has being with the team and the day-to-day operations helped you cope?
Thank God we started this Arena thing, because it has kept me busy the last few months. I find myself trying to stay busy. The worst thing you can do is go home by yourself. That's not a very good feeling. It might be the offseason, but behind the scenes there's still 12 months of activity going on. Mickey and Jim and Rick, I meet more with these guys now than I do during the season. There are a lot of decisions being made that will affect the season. That part's been good for me, to stay very busy and that's what I've tried to do. I go to (his ranch in San Antonio) Texas a lot, because I don't want to stay home.
NFL owners are easy targets. You get criticized a lot. Do you think you are misunderstood? And does the criticism hurt?
Nobody likes to be criticized. I don't care who they are, whether it's the president of the United States or Tom Benson or anybody. A lot of times, the criticism might be due to a lack of knowledge by the person doing the criticizing. I understand that's part of being the owner of this club. People want winners. When you don't give them that, they are going to criticize you, they are going to find a reason to criticize. My job is give them a winner so they don't criticize you.
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TOM BENSON INTERVIEW!
Could someone ask Benson to pass out some of what he\'s smoking?
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