As a sports fan you always hope to have a voice or at least a “say” in anything that happens, regarding the overall success of the team that you cheer for, and also about the players that represent that team. For fans of the New Orleans Saints, that is a fact which is multiplied to the infinite degree.
The New Orleans Saints franchise for the first 18 years of its existence, was notorious for NOT listening to its fans; thanks mostly in part to an inexperienced owner (then 27-year old billionaire Houston, Texas oil tycoon John Mecom Jr.) who thought running an NFL team would be just as easy as running the lucrative oil business that his rich Daddy had turned over and handed to him.
God knows was he ever wrong, and since their inaugural season in 1967 until he finally sold the team in May of 1985 to automobile empire businessman and New Orleans native Tom Benson, the Saints franchise under Mecom was a complete and utter travesty in the most extreme sense.
The Saints in those years (which I personally and jokingly like to refer to as “The Dark Ages”) were the laughingstock of the NFL, marred by idiotic decisions like bringing in a former NASA astronaut (Dick Gordon) to be the team’s new general manager — even though he had no previous experience in managing any kind of a sports team.
But perhaps even a bigger flaw for Mecom was that because of his own paranoia in which he worried that persons in both the oil business and then the business of professional sports were “out to get him” and sabotage him or do him personal harm (from a business perspective), he absolutely hated taking the advice of others —- even when it was really good advice that would have actually helped him and his franchise become successful.
And one thing you were to be certain of: he wasn’t EVER going to listen to the advice of some “fan”, whom he viewed on par with the way that a king or queen of royalty and nobility would look down upon a mere “commoner”.
Doing that would have been completely “beneath him”.
Now fast forward some 32 plus years give or take, and we see examples of time and time again, where the team’s owner since May of 1985, that same Tom Benson who was mentioned a few paragraphs above, has clearly heard the outpouring of emotions from fans when the Saints team needed change.
It’s ironic in a sense that both Mecom and Benson knew nothing about running a pro sports franchise when they first acquired ownership of the team.
But the difference between the two men was that Benson was WILLING to “listen” to the advice of not only people within the NFL who could help him make the team successful, but also to the team’s fans — who spent their hard-earned money on tickets and memorabilia (hats, jerseys, etc.) for the product that he was putting out to represent them, the city of New Orleans, and the surrounding Gulf Coast region.
Simply put: Benson immediately embraced the fans, instead of ignoring them as Mecom did.
Then in 1986, Benson — who had to first suffer through the final (5-11) 1985 season of the Bum Phillips Era that included the resignation from Phillips following a Week#12 road win against the Vikings — “listened” to the fans that he encountered during that time, who were openly begging for a team that they could be proud to cheer for and that could deliver the franchise its first EVER winning season and Playoff appearance.
Benson responded by hiring long-time NFL and former Bears and Vikings GM Jim Finks as his general manager, and Finks then hired the “hottest” name on the coaching market at that time — 2-time USFL Champion Phildelphia / Baltimore Stars head coach Jim Mora, who was available because the USFL had just went out of business — to be the new Saints head coach.
The next year (1987), the Saints had their first ever winning season and Playoff appearance; a precursor to the most successful period in franchise history (a total of 4 Playoff appearances and a Division Championship within a decade) until a “burned-out” Mora’s resignation in the middle of the 1996 season.
In early January of 2000, Benson listened to the Saints fans again and fired head coach / general manager Mike Ditka — though he didn’t have much choice, or else there would have been a lynch mob that would have gone down to the team headquarters on Airline Drive and physically removed Ditka.
In his dual role as the team’s head coach AND General Manager, Ditka tossed the Saints team right into the NFL’s ‘bottom barrel’ after trying (unsuccessfully) to recreate the “magic” that he had as a Super Bowl winning head coach with the Chicago Bears in the mid 1980’s; which featured a series of horrendous bad personnel decisions that also included the trading of the team’s entire collection of 1999 NFL Draft picks to the Washington Redskins for RB Ricky Williams.
Unfortunately for both Ditka and Saints fans, that “magic” was long gone.
Benson responded by hiring former Seattle Seahawks executive Randy Mueller to be his new general manager, and along with new head coach Jim Haslett, the brand new Saints front office that year attacked both NFL Free Agency and the 2000 Draft with a sense of urgency — resulting in a “worst to first” turnaround for New Orleans from 3-13 the year before, to a 10-6 record and a division championship, along with the team’s first ever Playoff victory after 33 years of existence.
Those are just a few examples of times that the “voice” of Saints fans have notably been heard by team brass.
And currently in 2017 with the recent advent / proliferation of technology that has significantly increased the powers of communication through the utilization of Social Media, there’s no way for them (even Benson himself) not to hear it in some way, shape, or form.
In this day and age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and SnapChat, it’s pretty much unavoidable.
And now in this past week and a half, we are seeing that — the “voices” of Saints fans being heard — happen once again.
There have been many who are openly wondering about just how much attention does Benson (who turns age 90 in July) still give to the operations and the goings-on of his favorite possession: his beloved NFL football team New Orleans Saints, when considering the team’s recent string of unsuccessful results that have kept them away for the NFL Playoffs for the past 3 seasons.
Based on this past week and a half, it’s pretty safe to say that Benson has heard them LOUD AND CLEAR; and has instructed the rest of the team brass (a.k.a. General Manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton) to be as aggressive in their approach as they feel they need to be, in order to return this Saints franchise back into the NFL’s “upper tier”.
New Orleans by far and away has been one of the most proactive teams in their approach to 2017 NFL Free Agency, by addressing team needs at several key positions including middle linebacker (A.J. Klein), offensive guard (Larry Warford), kick returner (Ted Ginn, Jr.), edge pass rusher (Alex Okafor) and defensive tackle (re-signing last year’s starter Nick Fairley to a new 4-year contract).
Then of course there’s been the “wheeling and dealing” that has seen the team trade away wide receiver Brandin Cooks to New England in exchange for the Patriots’ top pick (#32 overall) in next month’s 2017 NFL Draft, and the likely impending trade with those same Patriots that could potentially give them New England All-Pro CB Malcom Butler, to put on the Saints defense opposite of CB Delvin Breaux.
And with the Saints (as of right now) holding 5 of the first 103 picks in the Draft, it all adds up to perhaps becoming one of the most memorable and certainly the most aggressive off-seasons in the team’s 50 and a half year history.
If nothing else, the Saints brass will be remembered for “kicking ass” in the 2017 off-season.
Whether or not that eventually translates to success out on the football field itself sometime later this year however, remains to be seen.
But…….take heart, Saints fans.
Your voices are being heard.
Through their actions, this Saints team brass is actually listening to what you have to say.
Now let’s just hope that the resulting interaction is one that we can all be happy with, so that we don’t ever have to go back to re-living the miserable experiences of “The Dark Ages”………………..
Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 49-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports Editor and Columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of SportsTalk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, grew up as a long-time New Orleans Saints fan who followed and now covers the team for a span of over 40 plus years. Most importantly, he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......