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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

I witnessed Chapter 1 of the Tom Benson evolution

by J.W. Miller on 03/16/18

When I first met Tom Benson, I thought he was the janitor. It was January, 1986, at the Super Bowl in New Orleans, and I was in town to interview for a job with new Saints President and GM Jim Finks. I had been in the Saints’ Superdome offices many times in my position with the NFL Management Council, but I had not yet met the team’s new owner. I was waiting in the lobby when a rather rumpled gentleman walked from some back offices and extended his hand. “Tom Benson,” he said in a thick drawl. “Welcome to the Saints!” I did not realize it then, but my life had changed forever. 

Memories flooded back after news Thursday afternoon that Benson had passed away at age 90 from complications with the flu. You don’t have time to hear all my stories here, but I’ll share a few that I hope reflect the man I knew who became the most prominent individual in New Orleans sports history. The many different sides of Tom Benson could be encapsulated in a character study called “the evolution of an NFL owner.” I witnessed the first chapter between 1986-96 when the Saints went from zero winning seasons to a league power. 

First, I remember the images. There was the ebullient Tom, parasol high, second-lining around the Superdome field after a Saints win. There was the playful Tom, intent on winning a few bucks from his entourage in intense Saturday night bourré games during road trips. There was the Imperial Tom, striding through his dealerships among fawning employees who showed proper respect to “Mister Tom.” And there was the ruthless “bidness” Tom who would raise his voice, slam his palm on the table and use any other tactic to intimidate his target. 

I go back to the beginning and consider why Tom Benson got into a business he knew nothing about. The popular answer is that he wanted to preserve a community asset that was being courted by outside investors. That might have been true in the context of Chapter 2 of Benson’s evolution when he spent freely to buy the Pelicans, WVUE-TV and revive Dixie Beer. Add in his recent endeavors to endow the athletic programs at Tulane and Incarnate Word University in San Antonio and the numerous philanthropies of the Archdiocese and you have the current consensus. 

But the early Tom Benson realized that the preservation of a local asset could also enhance his automobile empire. In his first season as owner, Benson wanted to use a preseason game to showcase his vehicles, and he ordered cars from every dealership to be positioned around the Superdome playing field. Fortunately, Saints PR guy Greg Suit, a veteran NFL hand, rushed to Benson and informed him that NFL rules prohibited such  advertising. 

The early years with GM Jim Finks were part of a learning experience for Benson as he evolved from a hard-charging business man into an NFL owner. Finks was in control, and Benson deferred to the Hall of Fame GM, who affectionately called him “the tire kicker” behind his back. But Benson was the owner, and soon his fellow owners began to hear what he was saying and not how he said it. He was named chairman of the prestigious Finance Committee, whose authority extended to nearly every business aspect of the League and member clubs. His acumen was on display, and his reasoned judgment and sound recommendations were seldom opposed. 

During this time, the Saints went from a sideshow a few years earlier to one of the best operated franchise in the league and one that other owners wished to emulate. In 1989, Benson informed Finks that a new owner had asked if he could bring his top people to New Orleans and learn how to put together a winning franchise. That was my first meeting with Jerry Jones and his son Stephen, who listened and asked questions of us for a full day. After that, every time I saw Jones at League meetings or games, he would ask if I had any more advice for him. 

Chapter 2 in the Tom Benson evolution began in 1993 when Finks resigned to begin a futile battle against lung cancer. For seven years, Finks had served as the buffer between the owner and the rest of us, but now Benson was in full charge, and it became a learning experience for us. We saw parts of his personality that we had not seen before. I remember 1995 when the Saints started out 0-5, and Tom called Coach Jim Mora, VP of Personnel Billy Kuharich, and me, the Executive VP, into his office. He was agitated and told us in no uncertain terms: “This is unacceptable, and if you can’t fix it, I will!”

Benson proceeded to tell Mora to fire some players and coaches, Kuharich to fire some scouts and me to fire the least-seniority person in each department. Three hours later, we had talked him off the ceiling, but he was not convinced, telling us that he would think about it. Fortunately, the team started playing better and we got our reprieve. That was Typical Tom, who never would settle for mediocrity without using radical measures to try and fix it. Whether he was charming or abrupt, Tom Benson challenged his employees to rise to his own definition of success, and we bought in. We knew that behind every decision was integrity, facts and a passion to succeed. 

Sometimes things did not go the way we would have liked, particularly the morning of May 17, 1996, when Benson called me into his office and told me I was “terminated.” It was not a good time for us because two days later my wife Jean would give birth to our son, Charles Connor. But Tom honored the remaining months on my contract without question and even made calls to other owners that led to my next position as VP of Administration of the Buffalo Bills. In my first league meeting representing the Bills, in 1997, Benson took me aside and said he had something to say. “I made a mistake in letting you go, and I just wanted you to know that,” he said. I told him he didn’t have to say anything because I understood the business, but I appreciated it. I truly did.

Those are just some of my impressions and memories of Tom Benson during the early years. Buy me a beer sometime, and I’ll tell you a few more. And, oh by the way, thanks, Tom, for being a major influence in my life, a mentor, and a friend.

Brees signing would bring sanity to March Madness

by J.W. Miller on 03/12/18

I got my first taste of March Madness, 2018 style, Sunday while watching the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game. A couple of weeks ago, I probably would have spent the day playing golf or participating in another event tied to my mother-in-law’s 91st birthday festival. By the way, Happy Birthday, Nanny G! But noooo! My beloved Kentucky Wildcats, who have bedeviled Big Blue Nation most of the season, put together three inspiring performances and once again have its loyal legions by the short hairs, pulling us sadistically into another fog of hope that they can somehow play above their No. 5 seed and win their ninth NCAA title. 

So, in the context of knowing what lay ahead in the next excruciating weeks, I say thanks to Drew Brees! In the next 48 hours, Brees is expected to provide the pre-tournament respite that I need when he signs a new contract with the Saints. Brees has two days left to sign the contract or send the Saints into Salary Cap purgatory with an immediate $18 million hit. Of course, the local heroes have been there before, and may be forced to take the hit now rather than later if agent Tom Condon plays hardball. 

The good news is that Brees has sounded like Ghandi so far, spewing peace and love while declaring he wants to play out his career in New Orleans. That suggests a deal will get done before Wednesday, likely another multi-year contract that spreads the guaranteed money out over several seasons until a voidable option kicks in and creates another expensive deadline down the road. But that’s down the road, a mysterious place where NFL front offices are loathe to acknowledge. Their existence depends on the here and now, improving the team they have, which in the Saints’ case is a reasonable strategy. 

Saints brass could use that $18 mil to attract some free agents to bolster areas of concern, including tight end, defensive line and cornerback. The most discussed free agent is former Saints TE Jimmy Graham, who has spent the past three seasons in exile in Seattle, but whose return would be a fitting punctuation mark to his career. Other free agent names have been well documented, and I’m sure the Saints will bring in two or three before concentrating on the Draft.  But right now, it’s March, and after Brees re-ups,  I’ve got to get through the madness that torments basketball fans. 

You think I’m kidding? Sunday was a great example of what I mean. It was a day of conference tournaments whose purpose is known only to television moguls and moneychangers in conference offices. The title game is only a tune-up of sorts to the real thing. Win or lose, your team will play again, but it doesn’t matter. It’s March, and the spouse, children or pets you normally cherish know better than to be near you today. Here's why:

The game starts, and your television sits there, teasing you as your team looks great in the early going. Your team hits 16 of their first 19 shots and you fret about the three they missed. You know that leads are ephemeral, subject to inexplicable droughts that in the past have become 3 for 33 nightmares! Predictably, that fickle quality called "momentum" shifts and the opponent comes roaring back as if your team’s sneakers are nailed to the floor! 

Your stomach is tight. You are grinding your teeth. You are shouting at the TV as if your demands will waft through the ether and into the ears of these kids who hold your life in their feckless hands. You shout instructions, but the TV becomes the golf ball that you beg not to keep slicing toward the water. Like the dimpled sadist, the TV doesn’t listen, either. It taunts you when your team can’t hold a 17-point first-half lead any better than Germany could hold a first-half advantage in World War II. But at the end, it’s your mirror double in Knoxville who is tossing his 65-inch Samsung over the balcony as your team is victorious.

I sat there enjoying my Maker’s Mark on the rocks, knowing all along that this game didn’t really matter. The brackets were set, and my team was likely going to open the tournament in Boise  anyway. But I also know that the NCAA tournament is a plague of palpitating hearts and sweaty palms where a loss is the true meaning of  “one and done.” Does that make every game a “must” win? 

World War II was a “must” win. This is merely March Madness. 

Open NBA to prep stars, but don't pay the players!

by J.W. Miller on 03/05/18

Even Dick Vitale, the No. 1 ambassador for college basketball, is fed up with the sport after the recent scandal named players who accepted under-the-table money and coaches who lost their jobs. Vitale told the Tampa Bay Times Sunday that the sport is “broken” and needs a fix. “I don’t like what’s out there,” he said. “I don’t like the sleaziness, the corruption. I don’t like the fraud that college basketball has become.” 

Can’t disagree with that, but I have a problem with Dickie V’s solutions. Vitale would do away with the one-and-done rule, because “it’s a joke.” I don’t disagree and have said so in this space. If a high school player is good enough to play in the NBA, then he should be allowed to pursue that dream. But then the 78-year-old former coach joins the chorus who sing loudly to pay the players, and we fall out of bed. Vitale reasons that since college sports makes billions of dollars and  coaches make millions of dollars, some of the profit should go to the players. “The only ones who don’t (make money) are the ones we need the most for this sport. The players are really the only vital ones in this whole thing.” 

I believe that pairing the one-and-done rule with paying the players who are left raises too many insurmountable and conflicting issues. If a system is adopted to “pay the players,” and the exceptional prospects are in the NBA, why is a fair pay system required for the remainder of college athletes? And how would it work? Would only men’s basketball and football players get paid since their games generate the money to support the other 15-20 sports in a college program? Title IX advocates might have an issue with that. 

So where do you draw the line? I believe you draw it when you end the one-and-done rule and allow the best prospects - the ones susceptible to scandal and the cheaters - to go pro after they finish high school. That leaves the great majority of student\athletes who are in college to get a free education. 

I still believe in a free market society in which high school graduates can choose to enroll at any college that admits them. They work, study and practice their craft to obtain the skills that prepares them to go out into the marketplace – whether in professional sports or society. A small percentage of student-athletes who spent at least three years in college will go on to professional careers, while the great majority will join their classmates and use the education and skills they have learned as a platform to becoming productive citizens. The difference is that in the athlete’s case, most if not all of their tuition, room and board and fees are paid. If you don’t believe that a free education counts, just ask the 44 million college graduates who are carrying an average of nearly $40,000 in debt, according to today’s Wall Street Journal. 

What makes anybody think that paying the athletes will change anything? Payment might even perpetuate the greater problems, calming the critics and freeing the system from the constraints that have lately tarnished the excitement and wholesome nature of competition. I agree with Dickie V. that something needs to be done, and ending the one-and-done rule is the first step. But paying the players en masse would do little but increase the financial burden on low-revenue schools like UNO that see their state aid cut every year.

That puckering you hear is the sound of scandal!

by J.W. Miller on 02/27/18

Wait. Listen. Hear it? That squeaky, puckering sound you hear is the tightening sphincters of college basketball coaches around the land after last week’s revelations released by Yahoo Sports. One head coach has been fired, another is as good as done, dark clouds surround others and several assistant coaches have already walked the plank. The remainder, mostly innocent, are scrambling to make certain they know what their assistants are or are not doing.

Indeed, coaches at mid-majors might be leaking their own programs to the feds, knowing they did nothing impermissible, but it might be their only chance in a lifetime to be mentioned in the same sentence with Arizona, Louisville, Kentucky and Duke. Just kidding on that one. It’s not a laughing matter. Have you checked your mailbox today? You might do it and be quick about it, because as fast as schools, coaches and players are being linked to the FBI’s investigation of shoe deals and rogue agents, you might be next! 

When Yahoo Sports released details of the FBI investigation of agents Andy Miller (no relation!) and Christian Dawkins, it named names and included amounts that high school and college players and their families allegedly received for everything from lunches to five-figure “loans.” The report fingered all the usual suspects among college basketball’s elite programs. Some of whom  – including Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State – conducted in-house investigations, and, satisfied that at least their current players were not guilty, allowed them to play on Saturday. 

However, Texas sat one player who was named, while Arizona did everybody one better, allowing their named player, DeAndre Ayton, to suit up but benching Coach Sean Miller (no relation!). The cloud around Miller’s head grew a little darker since he also was mentioned a couple months ago along with Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Auburn’s Bruce “Nothing up my Sleeve” Pearl in the scandal where Adidas funneled money to players, possibly through coaches. Pitino was fired as were assistant coaches at Auburn and Arizona. Another coach named in the Yahoo Sports exposé was Chuck Martin, who served on Tom Crean’s staff at Indiana. Current IU coach Archie Miller (no relation!) has said he has “no reason to think that Indiana is involved in anything right now.”

The latest news, at least around here, is that LSU’s first-year coach Will Wade was also investigated for his “recruiting practices” and that former Tiger stars Tim Quarterman and Jarell Martin received illegal payments from agent Miller prior to Wade’s arrival. Yahoo Sports reported Sunday that members of the NCAA enforcement staff have spent "parts of the last six months looking into the recruiting tactics" of Wade. LSU AD Joe Alleva countered by saying that neither federal, NCAA nor SEC officials have contacted LSU. 

I saw an example of how bad things are on Saturday night when I stayed up to watch the opening tip between Arizona and Oregon. Former UCLA star Bill Walton condemned Sean Miller in the strongest tones. Walton first said he would rather be anywhere else than calling an Arizona game and then declared that Miller should never coach again. Basketball is now eating its own!

Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy waded into the cess pool on Sunday, saying coaches are receiving unfair scrutiny, and he blamed the NCAA. “The NCAA is one of the worst organizations, maybe the worst organization, in sports,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “They certainly don’t care about the athlete. They’re going to act like they’re appalled by all these things going on in college basketball. Please, it’s ridiculous and it’s all coming down on the coaches.” 

What frightens me is what will the NCAA do to clean up the mess? Van Gundy suggested that an organization made up of academics who exist outside the real world is prone to knee-jerk new rules and regulations without really understanding the root causes of the problem. But maybe all the bad news is really good news in disguise. Just maybe it’s how a dirty sport cleans up. 

Maybe it’s time shoe companies quit funneling money to recruits so they pick the right school or agents stop courting, and paying, players and their families in high schools or AAU coaches coach with their hands in their pockets? One can only hope that the current bad news, while making head coaches very uncomfortable, is a harbinger of good news to come. 

The Winter Olympics weren't made for guys like me!

by J.W. Miller on 02/19/18

We’re halfway through the Winter Olympics, and I’m throwing in the frozen towel. The Winter Games weren’t meant for a guy like me. It probably hasn’t helped that the USA athletes have not fared as well as hoped, but whether my disinterest is because I am a front-runner, a patriotic elitist or just somebody who likes sports I can understand, the past week might as well have been titled the Quadrennial International Spandex Championships. 

It’s not from a lack of trying. I have watched, or tried to watch, events nearly every evening, and I am convinced that most of the ten medals the USA has won so far all were in sports televised between 3 and 4:30 a.m. I tried to watch one of America’s gold-medal figure skating favorites, Nathan Chen, twice and twice ice chips flew off the seat of his pants. I missed Mikaela Shiffrin’s downhill gold, but I did see her barf-hampered fourth-place finish in the slalom.

Apologies to my cousins Ken and Becca Purnell, whose son and daughter are accomplished skaters, but why does TV have to show figure skating every night? Yes, I understand the beauty and athleticism of the skaters, but I need some education before I can experience the thrill of a properly executed catch-foot camel spin, or wax poetic while watching a one-foot double Salchow or a triple twist lift or inside axel or a double toe loop. And when I saw a European skater fall then finish higher than an American who remained upright, I stared blankly at the screen and went “Huh? I don’t like to watch sports where I feel like a dumbass

Honestly, the most entertaining performance I’ve seen in the rink was the sumo figure skater in the Geico commercial! Maybe it’s because my idea of competition is when an individual or team show their skills in the vicinity of a ball. I understand when one team tries to put a football over the goal line while the other team tries to intercept it. I get it when a pitcher throws a baseball that a batter tries to knock out of the park. It makes sense when two basketball teams fight to put one ball in their basket. I don’t get the same sense of competition when one team member slides a stone across the ice and the other sweeps a path toward other stones. Curling reminds me of shuffleboard. And luge rekindled nightmares of the slippy-slide that propelled my kids across the yard and into the neighbor’s alligator pool. 

I admit that downhill skiing is exciting, but I prefer the summer games when sprinters race against each other on the same track. Maybe downhill skiing needs to change its format to where all the skiers come out of the chute at the same time and whip their ski poles at one another all the way down the hill. First one across the goal standing wins! 

Joe Queenan of the Wall Street Journal is a kindred spirit, because his column Saturday offered other suggestions on how the Winter Olympics could appeal more to guys like us. One suggestion was the Biathlon Backstroke where instead of shooting while cross-country skiing, the athlete shoots while swimming on their back, preferably in a large shark tank. Slalom Volleyball would combine a popular summer sport with a downhill race as two teams try to keep the ball in the air while zig-zagging downhill. My personal favorite is Nordic Swimming which is a 1,500-meter freestyle in a glacial mountain lake. Queenan suggests that even hockey would be more exciting if the players had to dodge a polar bear on the ice. 

Those suggestions are not unlike my long-time proposal for full-contact golf, but it’s not just me who is losing interest. Viewership numbers are down 10% from the most recent winter games, 2014 at Sochi, which is intoned by Olympics announcers with the implied understanding that viewers know where the hell Sochi is. Defenders will argue that NFL ratings are also down about the same percentage, but give us 17 weeks of Winter Games and see how low the numbers go. On second thought, let’s not extend the Winter Games. Two weeks is more than enough!

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Benson learned from Al Davis!
Tom Benson put together an investor group to buy the Saints in 1985 for $72 million, but he invested only 9% of the total. In crafting the partnership agreement, Benson took a cue from Al Davis and became "managing general partner," which meant he had total control, despite his stake.