The New Orleans Saints have finally proved a political deal that got their home city a professional football team in 1966 was a wise decision by the National Football League. However, it took over 40 years for the dream of winning a Super Bowl to become a reality.
New Orleans became the 16th member of the NFL on Nov. 1, 1966. The city had been pursuing a franchise since 1960, but it took U.S. Sen. Russell Long, D-La., and U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs, D-New Orleans, to make it happen.
The NFL was getting ready to merge with the American Football League and wanted Congress to give the larger league an exemption from anti-trust laws before the 1970 merger date. Long and Boggs steered the necessary legislation through the waning days of the congressional session, and New Orleans got its franchise.
“New Orleans has the population (just over 1 million), it has the sports interest, it has the weather,” said NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. “Geographically, it fits into our plans and, more important at this time, has the very attractive stadium available for the 1967 season.”
The Saints would play their first games in the 82,500-seat Sugar Bowl stadium at Tulane University. And events at Tulane figured prominently in the motivation for securing a pro franchise.
The Associated Press reported that David Dixon, the prime mover in seeking the pro team, said New Orleans was ripe for the sport after watching Tommy Mason pack fans into Tulane’s stadium while playing for the Green Wave. Mason, a Lake Charles native, was drafted as a running back by the Minnesota Vikings, an expansion team, in 1961.
Another piece of the Saints puzzle fell into place when Louisiana voters in 1966 approved a state constitutional amendment paving the way for construction of a domed stadium in the heart of New Orleans.
NFL owners decided to award the Saints franchise to John W. Mecom Jr., 27, a Houston millionaire sportsman. Mecom and his associates had to pay $8.5 million for 42 players that 14 league teams didn’t want. One of the minority stockholders was New Orleans jazz trumpeter Al Hirt.
Tom Fears became the first of 14 coaches to guide the Saints over the next 45 years. He was confident after the expansion team won three straight exhibition games.
“I think we can beat anybody,” Fears said.
The confidence didn’t last long. The Los Angeles Rams defeated the Saints 27-13 in the 1967 opener for both teams. The Saints were in the same division as the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins. New Orleans finished the season last in the division at 3-11, but defeated the favored Redskins 30-14 to end the season.
Construction of the Superdome in New Orleans wasn’t completed until 1975, and the projected cost of $35 million had climbed to $165 million. The Saints began playing their games there in 1975.
The Saints would experience their first non-losing season in 1979 when they finished 8-8. They were members of the West Division of the National Football Conference. Other teams in the division were the Rams, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers.
Tom Benson, an automobile dealer in New Orleans and San Antonio, purchased the Saints from Mecom in 1985 after there were rumors the team might be sold to other new owners who would move it to Jacksonville, Fla. Benson bought the team for $70 million. Its current value is estimated by Forbes magazine to be $738 million, which ranks it 22nd among the league’s 32 teams.
The Saints made the playoffs for the first time in 1987 after their first ever winning season at 12-3. However, the Vikings defeated the Saints, 44-10.
It would be 2000 before the Saints won a playoff game, defeating the St. Louis Rams, 31-28, after a 10-6 season. A realignment in 2002 put the Saints in the NFC South, along with Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay.
The arrival of Sean Payton as coach and Drew Brees as quarterback in 2006 marked the beginning of a new era for the Saints. They would quickly become one of the elite members of the NFL. Payton had previously coached at Philadelphia, with the New York Giants and at Dallas. Brees had a serious shoulder injury while playing for the San Diego Chargers, but the Saints took a gamble by signing him that has paid tremendous dividends.
The Saints went 13-3 in 2009, their best record ever, and went on to win their first Super Bowl. New Orleans defeated the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17, and Brees was named the game’s most valuable player.
The deal that Long and Boggs made with Rozelle 45 years ago has given this state a pro football team that has the citizens of New Orleans and Louisiana feeling a great sense of pride and accomplishment. I saw paper bags on the heads of some Colts and Tampa Bay fans this year, and recalled what life was like in the losing days of the “Aints.”
Fans hope the winning trend continues as the Saints face the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football in hopes of making another run at the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, have a Merry Christmas while waiting for the kickoff.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].