A Small Miracle In New Orleans

For Jim Finks, it was the road trip from hell, and he wasn't even headed for a football game. In the spring of 1986, he and other representatives of the New Orleans Saints toured the Deep South to drum up support for the team. At each stop, General Manager Finks would vow that the Saints were finally going to make their fans proud. The usual response: Yeah, right. "There was a certain cynicism because they had heard so many times that 'This is the year.' Then it was the same old Saints, so no one believed us," says Finks.

These days, they believe. The team that once looked more like a Mardi Gras troupe than a professional football team has Bourbon Street rocking. Anchored by one of the best defensive units in the league, the Saints haven't had a losing season since 1986. And with a combination of on-field success and savvy management, New Orleans is one of the five most profitable franchises in the National Football League. Revenues have jumped nearly tenfold since 1985, to an estimated $50 million in 1991 (table). Net profits this year are expected to hit $10 million.

The muscle behind the team's transformation is the blunt, chain-smoking Finks, who became president and general manager in January, 1986. Over three decades in front offices, the former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback has built five winning teams in two countries and three leagues, including the Canadian Football League and baseball's National League. But Finks, 64, is best known for his accomplishments in the NFL, where he made Super Bowl contenders out of the Minnesota Vikings in the late 1960s and early 1970s and drafted the key players of the 1985 Chicago Bears, who won Super Bowl XX.

LOW-COST TALENT. The Saints, though, may be his crowning achievement. When Tom Benson, a New Orleans car dealer, acquired the franchise for $70.2 million in 1985, the Saints were better known among their few fans as the Aints. Now, they're a league power, with two playoff appearances in the past three years. And despite three straight losses, the club is still a strong favorite to win its first-ever National Conference Western Div. title.

Finks and his head coach, Jim Mora, have managed all this while maintaining one of the lowest player payrolls in the league. Finks's tightfistedness has angered players -- and last year, it may have hurt the team. Starting quarterback Bobby Hebert sat out all of last season because Finks wouldn't meet his $2 million-a-year asking price. The Saints slipped to 8-8 and missed the playoffs, and even Finks admits the team would have won a few more games with Hebert in the lineup. But Finks refused to let the quarterback, who returned this year to a $1 million-a-year contract, throw his payroll numbers out of whack. "I recognize the importance of players being paid fairly," he says. "But I also recognize that this is a business where people have their money invested. And they don't expect me to run it like a charity house," says Finks.

TOUGH GUY. That's Finks all over: tough, stubborn, and fiercely attentive to the owners' interests. He has seen NFL life from all sides: as player, coach, general manager, and owner. He owns 3% of the Saints and had ownership stakes in both the Vikings and the Bears. "If you're going to study someone in the league, you start with Jim," says Ernie Accorsi, executive vice-president for football operations at the Cleveland Browns. That's one reason several NFL owners backed Finks as NFL commissioner two years ago to replace Pete Rozelle, who was retiring. Paul Tagliabue got the nod instead, but Finks now sits on the league's competition committee, which oversees rule changes, scheduling, and the like.

Finks may be Mr. Tough Guy with the players, but to the fans, he's Mr. Nice Guy. Before his arrival, the Saints had no marketing department. Now, the team's fan club, which Finks started, has 15,000 dues-paying members. The team throws an indoor tailgate party before each home game and stages an annual festival to give fans a chance to meet the stars.

The fans like the attention. Season-ticket sales have swelled 28%, to 51,000, since 1985, and this year the Saints have sold out every game but one at the 69,095-seat Superdome. Regular-season attendance this year is up by almost 20,000 a game from 1985.

Like the NFL's owners, Saints fans hold Finks in high regard. "Jim Finks and the front office are the reason for the team's success. Tom Benson brought a real professional in who knew what he wanted to do and has stuck with it," says Richard LeCorgne, who has missed only two Saints home games in 25 years. To Finks, who can't forget that hellish spring of 1986, those words must sound sweet indeed.

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