GUILBEAU: Peter Finney was New Orleans, but he was LSU, too

By GLENN GUILBEAU
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist

BATON ROUGE – One of the best jobs I ever had was as a waiter in the late 1970s and early ‘80s in high school and college at Morning Call, a café au lait and beignets landmark in Metairie. The joint, and that’s what it was and is, originated on Decatur Street in the French Quarter in 1870 before moving in 1974 near the Lakeside Mall, where it remains today.

Quick orders, no BS, high volume, great tips and awesome coffee on the side. There was also a great newsstand next door that only recently shut down and was replaced by a cigar store, which softened the blow. In between tables and to go orders back in the day, I’d grab the Times-Picayune, States-Item (the wonderful afternoon paper in New Orleans that died in 1980 when it merged with the Picayune) and the Baton Rouge Advocate.

It was 10 or 15 minutes from the City, but Morning Call felt like New Orleans more than any other place in Metairie. It attracted New Orleanians from the Fair Grounds horse track that opened in 1852 and the diehards who were mad that the original place left Decatur. They also came from everywhere for the coffee, which was and is better than the similar brew at Café du Monde on Decatur since 1862.

Peter Finney came from his home in the French Quarter for the coffee and the out of town newspapers next door most week day mornings between 9 and 10, and then he headed back to the city to the building with the UFO-like spinning top off I-10 East on Howard Avenue where he worked at the States-Item and then Times-Picayune. Finney, one of the greatest sports columnists in America, died on Saturday morning, August 13 at age 88. He started writing in 1945 at the States-Item and was at the Picayune from 1980 to 2013.

I waited on Edwin Edwards at Morning Call while he was Louisiana’s governor, actress June Allyson and Seattle point guard Gus Williams just days after the Supersonics beat the Washington Bullets for the 1979 NBA title. But my favorite customer was Finney because I wanted to be a sportswriter. He was always nice and would answer my questions about the Saints and LSU, and the usual, “What are you going to write about for tomorrow?”

Ever since I was a kid watching sportscaster Buddy Diliberto’s “From the Pressbox” Saints show before Monday Night Football in the mid-1970s, I loved to hear Finney talk. A frequent guest and best friend of Diliberto, he explained Saints and LSU football so well – much better than the coaches. And he wasn’t blowing BS. The Saints did not have a winning season until 1987, so most of the time he was explaining why the Saints were so awful. But in a nice way.

He also knew a lot about LSU, which he covered regularly in the 1950s and ‘60s. In fact, no sportswriter since has been an LSU and Saints expert at the same time for as long as Finney was. When both teams won big games, the victory could not be fully enjoyed or understood by fans and even other writers until Finney was read the next morning. He was New Orleans, and he was LSU.

He could have written at much larger papers around the country, but he was a New Orleanian. There was nowhere else. Thirty years or more BEFORE he retired he was already a legend, universally liked and basically bowed to out of respect.

“That’s something Finney would write,” writers would tell writers when they liked someone’s idea for a column or one they had just written. One of my favorite Finney pieces was done on President’s Day in the 1980s. He opined what position certain presidents would be by their personality and looks. John F. Kennedy was a quarterback, for example.

Finney was the man – the silver fox. LSU beat writers would step in front of one another to answer an inside question Finney may have about the team. He rarely took notes. Maybe a word here or there. But he watched. He didn’t Tweet during games. His questions were quick without BS. They weren’t so long so he could hear himself talk. He listened. Then he wrote, made it look and read easy and basically kicked everyone else’s words.

“Hey, Peter what are your writing on,” Picayune LSU beat writers would ask him at deadline on late Saturday nights in the Tiger Stadium press box.

“Eh, a little of this, little of that,” he’d say. In other words, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter what direction you’re going, he’s going this way. You can too, if you want, but chances are, his will be better. The Picayune once had a great sports editor who really made the pages sing and packaged major events extremely well. Then he wanted to be the columnist, and he was good. But he wasn’t Finney. He wasn’t New Orleans. And he left.

Finney did New Orleans proudest at its worst moment in history – the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on August 29, 2005. At the time, Saints owner Tom Benson basically stepped over dead bodies and shamelessly tried to move the team to San Antonio when the city had little else to cherish.

-On September 5, 2005, as Benson was already planning a permanent move to San Antonio along with home games in that season with the Superdome too damaged, Finney wrote: “Benson should tell his season-ticket holders, who may have already lost everything but FAITH, that the Saints will play as many, if not all, of their home games in LSU’s Tiger Stadium, not in San Antonio’s Alamodome.”

Tagliabue took Finney’s advice, but just went halfway, getting Benson to split the Saints home games between San Antonio and Baton Rouge.

-On December 4, 2005, Finney kept hammering Benson and explained exactly what Benson wanted to do before Katrina had even dissipated when he wrote: “Once Katrina laid a haymaker on the Big Easy, Benson told the organization it was finished in New Orleans forever, it would move to San Antonio, and play all of its 2005 home games there. Anyone who disagreed could leave. NFL commissioner Tagliabue raised his hand. “I disagree,” he said. But the owner could not fire the commissioner as he would sack his top front-office executive (Arnold Fielkow for saying he wanted the Saints stay in New Orleans).”

In the end, Tagliabue made Benson stay in New Orleans, and Superdome director Doug Thornton made sure the Superdome would be ready and better than ever for the Saints in 2006. The rest – Sean Payton, Drew Brees, the 2006 NFC championship game appearance and the Super Bowl title in the 2009 season – are history. Thank you, Peter, Paul and Doug.

Finney wisely never trusted Benson and some of his henchmen.

Less than a year before Katrina when Benson was trying to swindle the state into paying most of the $600 million for a new stadium, the Saints distributed to media and governmental figures a glossy, power point presentation booklet detailing the team’s economic impact on New Orleans and the state. The figures proved to be grossly exaggerated and were concocted by an economist paid by the Saints. “This is BS,” Finney said to me after the meeting as he flipped through the document. “BS.”

The booklet was a masterful work of fiction and excluded the fact that the Saints made Benson richer – not the other way around for the “benefit” of the state. In that same September 5 column, he wrote: “In the pre-Katrina days, when he was beating the drums for a new stadium, Tom Benson did his best to trash the Superdome as obsolete, light years behind the state of the art facilities springing up around the NFL. Of course, he was trashing a facility good enough to hold six Super Bowls, one as recently as three years ago. He was trashing a facility he inherited, debt free, one that allowed his franchise to keep its bottom line among the top half of a 32-team league.

At this same time in 2004, Daniel Barrett of the Barrett Sports Group that planed, financed, built and refurbished NFL stadia around the country, talked with amazement at the amount of money Louisiana had been paying the Saints since 2001 and would be through 2010 according to the contract dubiously agreed to in ’01 by then-Governor Mike Foster. The state paid a historically losing team $12.5 million in 2001, again in 2002 and 2003 and $15 million in 2004 after having to borrow $7 million from its own economic development fund. By 2010, the total would be roughly $186.5 million of this inducement money – also known as corporate welfare. Yet, the Saints would never open their books to justify such gifts.

“No other NFL team has any deal like that,” Barrett said. “Others are tied to incentives and call for some revenue producing avenues from the team. But no team just has state money handed over.”

Like in a stick-up. Governor Bobby Jindal wisely altered the agreement when he took over in 2008, making the Saints actually make some of their own money through state agreements. But Benson still gets more free money consistently from a government entity than any sports team owner in history. Yet, this isn’t mentioned when he makes the annual Forbes’ lists. Finney took this on when his own paper’s large staff of political and editorial writers rarely gave it a second look.

That booklet, though, was not nearly the work of fiction that was the club’s updated biography of Benson in the 2006 media guide.

“The Saints evacuated in 2005 to San Antonio, an involuntary, sudden move to keep pace with an NFL season that was set to kick off just days later,” it said. “In this time of duress, Benson’s resiliency maintained the franchise as a viable entity.”

Shortly before the 2006 regular season opener against Atlanta on September 25 – that magical night when Steve Gleason blocked a punt to ignite a 23-3 win and the Saints’ dramatic return to their home in New Orleans, not the one in San Antonio – I showed that excerpt to Finney. He laughed incredulously.

“BS,” he said.

Finney knew how to tell a story because he knew how to keep the BS out of it – or attack it if need be.

 

 

 

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