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This organization will remain as dedicated to serving the community as we are to winning championships. We vow to make the most of this opportunity to make a difference as a good corporate citizen.
The New Orleans Saints LP, a professional football franchise, came into existence in 1966, when the National Football League's president, Pete Rozelle, authorized the league's expansion. A private enterprise, the Saints organization, first owned by John Mecom, Jr., is now owned by Tom Benson, a colorful New Orleans businessman who built his fortune through a network of automobile dealerships. A solid core of die-hard fans and cooperative politicians have managed to keep the franchise in New Orleans, despite some lean years and unimpressive record early in its history. After some tough negotiations, in 2002 the Saints renewed the lease on their home facility, the New Orleans Superdome, for ten additional years. Owner Benson has been able to use the team's solid core of fans to gain various concessions from Louisiana and may get more if the team can shake off its persistent image of being a playoff loser. An important step in that direction was taken in 2000, when the team won its first ever playoff game. Hopes in New Orleans still run high that the team will soon make it into the Superbowl.
Tough Beginnings: 1966-70
Although the New Orleans Saints did not become an NFL (National Football League) franchise until All Saints Day (November 1) in 1966, there had been earlier efforts to bring a pro football team to New Orleans. One who believed the city was ready to host such a team was New Orleans businessman Dave Dixon. Beginning in 1961, Dixon and his associates tried to attract an existing team to the city and build a domed stadium for them. In 1963, they tried to acquire the Oakland Raiders, but the deal died when the investors could not muster up enough funds for the purchase.
When a new team franchise was granted by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, it was John Mecom, Jr., who put up the $8 million and became both owner and president. On January 9, 1967, the organization was officially named the New Orleans Saints, which immediately led to a merchandising windfall for local department stores. Clearly, the Saints had hungry fans ready to support; the trick would be to field a team that could inspire and hold their loyalty.
Initially, the organization cadged together a squad of veterans from among unprotected players from other NFL teams, then used the college draft and trades to fill up its roster. Among the veterans was quarterback Billy Kilmer, who would lead the team through the first four years of its history. The Saints also had to used Tulane University's stadium as a home field. In its first pre-season play there and on the road, the team compiled a surprising 5-1 record, which helped draw large crowds to the regular season games, and despite a 0-7 start in the regular season, the Saints went on to set a first-year home attendance record, averaging over 75,000 tickets sold per game.
The fans knew a strong team could not be built in a single season, so they took losses in their stride, waiting for the day when the Saints would "come marching in." The team tried their patience, though, and it took them 20 years to record their first winning season. It was not that the franchise lacked good players in the early years. Some were, in fact, exceptional, including wide receiver Danny Abramowicz, place kicker Tom Dempsey, running back Jim Taylor, and defensive end Doug Atkins. The problems were skill and depth at all key positions, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The club, through a string of head coaches, just could not seem to cadge enough talent together to field "complete" teams.
The Archie Manning Era: 1971-80
Maybe the all-time favorite player of New Orleans fans with long memories was quarterback Archie Manning, the Ole Miss star who joined the team in 1971. Although plagued by injuries that kept him off the field many times, when he played, he played with both style and great skill. In 1972, he took every quarterback snap and led the league in completions, setting teams records that 30 years later had still not been broken. Still, Manning had injury-related problems that hampered his performance. In 1974, he was benched as the starter after the Saints had compiled a 1-4 record and rumors were flying that Manning was heading either to the World Football League or to the Saints' arch enemy, the Atlanta Falcons, and Manning had to win back his starting job with a 14-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
In 1976, a year after the Saints started playing in New Orleans' new Superdome, Mecom hired Hank Stram as head coach. Stram's task, of course, was to turn around the fortunes of a team that until then had only won a total of 32 games, an average of less than four games per season. Before taking the job with the Saints, Stram had compiled a good record as a head coach, having guided various franchise teams to 124 wins over 15 seasons. Mecom and fans hoped he could work a similar magic at New Orleans, but despite Stram's overhauling efforts, the Saints compiled only a 7-21 record under his direction. Most disconcerting was the fact that ten of the team's losses were by a touchdown or less.
Stram lasted just two years. He had wanted to exploit Manning's big-play skills, but injuries kept Manning out for most of the 1976 season. Even after Manning returned to form in 1977, the team compiled a dismal 3-11 record. As a legacy, Stram did leave behind "Thunder and Lightning," backs Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath, whose explosive running gave fans hope that the Saints might yet field a solid offense.
Under the new head coach, Dick Nolan, the team acquired another exciting offensive player, wide receiver Wes Chandler. With Galbreath and Muncie, Chandler helped lead the team to a more respectable record. It first had the franchise's best season, in 1978, when it went to 7-9, followed by an 8-8 season in 1979, when it hit the .500 mark for the first time in its history. The team had finally earned a bit of respectability in the NFL. In those two years, Manning started every game, and his performance got him into the Pro Bowl each season. In 1978, he was also awarded the NFC (National Football Conference) Player of the Year Award.
High hopes were frustrated in 1980, when nothing seem to jell for the Saints. Picked to win their NFC division, the team fell to a dismal 1-15 season, despite the fact that Manning, statistically, had the best season of his career. Nothing seem to go right for the team, and Nolan took the heat. He was fired after the Saints' had logged their 12th straight loss and replaced by O.A. "Bum" Philips, who himself had just been fired by the Houston Oilers.
The "Ain'ts" Make No Progress under Bum Philips: 1981-85
Ever hopeful fans still filled the Superdome for Saints' home games, but many of them, the "Bagheads," took to wearing paper sacks over their heads. The team, which was demonstrating an uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, had finally become "the Ain'ts." Philips' job was to turn things around and get the team on a winning track. He believed it would take a major overhaul and the acquisition of some new talent. Among others, he brought on board the great, Heisman Trophy-winning running back George Rogers, LSU fullback "Hokie" Gajan, veteran Pro Bowl linebacker Ricky Jackson, and the great place kicker Morten Andersen. In the 1982 pre-season, he also acquired the veteran quarterback Ken Stabler, who was at the time a free agent, and thereafter traded the ever-popular Archie Manning to the Houston Oilers, leaving many fans disgruntled. Yet, despite brilliant performances by Rogers and Gajan and flashes of brilliance by "the Snake" Stabler, Philips could not put together a consistent, winning team. His best season was 1983, when the Saints compiled an 8-8 record, failing to have a winning year and make the playoffs when a last-second field goal by the Los Angeles Rams put them out of the running. Philips held on for two more years, then, towards the end of the 1985 season, resigned.
A New Owner and New Coach: 1986-89
In 1986, the Saints had both a new owner, Tom Benson, and new coach, Jim Mora. Benson, a New Orleans businessman who made his fortune through multiple automobile dealerships, purchased the franchise from Mecom and immediately hired Jim Finks as president and general manager. Then he hired Mora, who had coached in the moribund United States Football League and brought an impressive record of 48 wins and 14 losses to his new job. Mora, the Saints' tenth head coach, quickly infused the team with new talent, including, from the USFL, quarterback Bobby Hebert, linebackers Vaughan Johnson and Sam Mills, and running back Buford Jordan. In addition, he acquired running backs Dalton Hilliard and Rueben Mayes and linebacker Pat Swilling from the college draft.
Under Mora, in 1987, a strike-shortened season, the Saints, using several replacement players, won 12 games and lost three, compiling not only their first winning season but their best effort in franchise history. They also got into the playoffs for the first time, though in their first post-season effort were routed by the Minnesota Vikings, 44-10. Even that loss could not dampen the owner Benson and the fans' belief that the franchise had finally emerged a force to be reckoned with in the NFL. After all, the team had broken its losing hex with a vengeance
A few of the replacement players impressed Mora, including quarterback John Fourcade, and he retained them in 1988. That year the Saints got off to a 7-1 start, but thereafter managed wins in only three of its last eight games. Still, it was a second winning season for the Saints, and fan enthusiasm, fueled by the ebullient Benson, was still at a peak. The following year, with Fourcade filling in at quarterback in the last three games after Hebert, the "Cajun Cannon," fell into a slump, the Saints finished their third straight winning season with a 9-7 record but again missed the playoffs, a record they repeated in 1989, when they had their third straight winning season, thanks in part to the record-breaking efforts of running back Dalton Hilliard.
A Roller Coaster Decade: 1990-2000
Early in 1990, quarterback Bobby Hebert, benched because of a sub par performance, asked to be traded. As a result, in the 1990 season the Saints struggled to find a quarterback who could help keep them on a winning track. Fourcade held the job initially, backed up first by Dave Wilson and then Tommy Kramer, an older veteran. The season did not start out well, however, and New Orleans traded some draft picks to the Dallas Cowboys to pick up Steve Walsh, who soon won the starting job away from Fourcade. Despite the quarterback problems, good defense, a solid running game, and Andersen's foot netted the Saints an 8-8 and a wildcard playoff berth.
The following year, 1991, the Saints, with an 11-5 season, won the NFC West title for the first time. It was a solid year, but once again the club was eliminated in the first playoff game, losing 27-20 to its old nemesis, the Atlanta Falcons. The next season, 1992, the Saints had, at 12-4, a better win-loss record, but ended up in second place in the NFC West and once again lost in the first playoff game, this time to the Philadelphia Eagles, 36-20. Hopes still ran high, though, as the Saints were annually proving they had the right stuff to earn NFL Superbowl rings.
In 1993, the Saints faltered somewhat, ending the season at the .500 mark with an 8-8 record, then, in the next season, slipped down yet another notch to a 7-9 record, which they repeated the following season. During those three years, general manager Finks, a guiding spirit of the organization, had to be replaced after he was diagnosed with cancer and had to resign. Benson then took his place. Also, in 1994, the Louisiana legislature authorized renovations to the Superdome and a new practice facility for the Saints, a move that would stir some controversy over the next several years as Benson negotiated for further concessions as the price of keeping the Saints in New Orleans. In 1995, a fire badly damaged the team's old practice facility and forced the franchise to move its operations out of the building.
The Saints slumped badly in 1996, falling to a 3-13 record. As a result, Mora resigned midway through the season, leaving Rick Venturi as an interim head coach. On the positive side, for the first time in the franchise history the whole operation was housed under one roof when it moved into its new facility in Metairie.
In 1997, two important organizational changes where made when Bill Kuharich was promoted to president, general manager, and COO, and Mike Ditka was hired as head coach. The season brought an improvement, a 6-10 season, but not the hoped-for turnaround. The Saints sputtered to the exact same record the next season, 1998, and the following year was even a bigger disappointment. The team had a dismal 3-13 season, and Benson, bent on returning the franchise to serious NFL contention, took some draconian steps when, early in 2000, he fired 22 employees, including Kuharich and Ditka. He then hired Jim Haslett as the 13th head coach in the Saints' history. In 2000, though injuries plagued the team all season, the Saints, with a 10-6 record, won its second division title and once more got in the playoffs. Led offensively by its new quarterback, Aaron Brooks, the team also won its first ever playoff game when it beat the St. Louis Rams, 31-28. In the second round, however, it once more the fell to the Minnesota Vikings, 34-16.
Keeping the Saints in New Orleans: 2001-03
In 2001, the Saints sputtered again, falling to the familiar 7-9 mark. The next year, however, saw the team back on the winning side with a 9-7 record. Confidence in Haslett remained solid. Meanwhile, Benson continued to negotiate with the State of Louisiana to his and the Saints' advantage, despite some rumblings from taxpayers outside the New Orleans area. Benson, with a promise to keep the franchise in Louisiana for the next several years, got most of what he wanted. The Saints agreed to a ten-year lease of the Superdome, while Louisiana, under the administration of Governor Mike Foster, agreed to pay Benson $180.5 million in the form of annual cash payments, build a new practice facility, grant various concession revenues, and give the Saints part of the local hotel-motel tax receipts. It remained to be seen whether or not Benson had drawn from the coffers of Louisiana taxpayers once too often.
Principal Competitors: New Orleans Zephyrs.