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Paul Tagliabue: Saints' return to New Orleans 'No. 1' moment from his tenure

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Helping keep the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is the thing Paul Tagliabue is most proud of from this tenure as NFL Commissioner. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

METAIRIE, La. -- Paul Tagliabue became one of New Orleans’ greatest champions after Hurricane Katrina when the former NFL commissioner helped ensure that the New Orleans Saints didn’t become a casualty of the storm.

Ten years later, Tagliabue said the Saints’ successful homecoming ranks among his proudest accomplishments.

“When you talk about the NFL stands for two things, competition and community, I think this was the most significant thing that occurred during my years as commissioner, in terms of keeping faith with the community,” Tagliabue said.

Tagliabue, who served from 1989-2006, said other things like achieving labor peace rank near the top of his list, too.

“But in terms of community and something that has an enormous impact on the fans, I think [keeping the Saints in New Orleans has] gotta be ranked No. 1,” he said.

Tagliabue said he never knew for certain just how close the Saints came to attempting a permanent relocation to San Antonio (something the Saints deny they ever seriously pursued) or if Benson was just keeping his options open at a time when there was so much uncertainty surrounding the health of the Superdome and the New Orleans business community.

Either way, Tagliabue said he made it clear to Benson that he wouldn’t have enough support from his fellow owners if he tried to move.

Tagliabue and the NFL also played a huge role in making sure New Orleans was able to support the Saints. He worked with former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Superdome executive Doug Thornton to ensure that the Superdome would be rebuilt in time for the 2006 season. And Tagliabue helped arrange essential support from a group of local business leaders.

Tagliabue said he never offered Benson any financial incentive to move back to New Orleans, though he did assure Benson that the league would aid him if he lost money as a result of returning. That was never necessary since the fans and businesses responded in such an overwhelming fashion, selling out the seats and suites.

One thing remains undisputed: Once Benson became fully committed to returning in late December, the Saints were “all in,” and they’ve been a driving force in New Orleans’ recovery ever since.

“I think once he understood that this is what it was gonna be, once he bought into that decision himself, clearly he got out on his horse and signed Sean Payton and Drew Brees, and they didn’t let any grass grow under their feet,” said Tagliabue, who pointed out that Benson and his wife Gayle didn’t stop there, also going on to purchase the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans and a local FOX affiliate, among many other investments in the community.

Throw in the fact that the Saints have had an unprecedented run of success, including a Super Bowl championship in the 2009 season, and Tagliabue said it’s been “quite a remarkable story of success.”

“If you wrote the story for a movie, people would say it’s hyperbole and exaggeration,” Tagliabue said.