Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Honoring the Architect of New Orleans' "House of Dave"

Dave Dixon isn’t a household name, even in a community where he would ultimately have a longer and a more positive legacy than most of its mayors.

Until his recent passing, Dixon’s name might be recalled by attendees whose eyes wandered during boring moments at Saints games from the 2008 season (there were no boring moments in the Superdome during the 2009 Saints season).

There up in rafters hangs the most least known name of the handful of banners honoring Louisiana’s greatest sports figures: the Jazz’s “Pistol Pete”, Grambling’s “Coach Eddie”, the Saints’ “Archie Who” and the Black and Gold’s two inductees to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In lieu of a team logo, there is a picture of the Superdome is near Dixon’s name. It’s an appropriate symbol of the late sports promoter’s greatest affiliation.

Oddly enough, his name came up in a conversation I had with some Lake Charles sports reporters at Saints training camp when one of them asked for a good reference on Saints history aside from the latest edition of the team’s media guide. I suggested that they pick up a copy of The Saints The Superdome and The Scandal, which is as much a biography of the stadium as it is an autobiography of its author.

I had only met Dixon once. Again oddly enough, it was at a funeral.

While waiting in line to pay my respects to the deceased (a person of prominence in the area), I saw a bald, elderly man working the line as if he was running for office. At first I thought he was a relative of the “man of the hour” but from three mourners away I learned that he was indeed THE Dave Dixon. He confirmed it upon reaching out to shake this stranger’s hand to introduce himself.

I don’t pass this anecdote along as a slight on the most recently deceased: I assume such habits are those of a natural born promoter.

And when considering his greatest achievement and what it took to make the concept into a reality, a natural introvert would not have gotten the job done.

While it was political arm twisting by Congressman Hale Boggs and US Senator Russell Long in the corridors of the Capitol that helped secure New Orleans an expansion franchise, it was Dixon’s ground work in advance of the congressional hustling of then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle that proved that the city could/would support a professional football team and the construction of a state-of-the-art facility to compensate for the city’s relatively small media market.

Dixon had the burden of selling the concept of an expensive domed stadium to a governor who was elected to his position not because of New Orleans but in spite of the state’s largest city and at the expense of its former mayor.

Back in the old days, New Orleanians were rarely elected governor. Catholics never. The rule was someone from north Louisiana would run against someone from the southern part of the state, with the former promising just enough patronage (AKA the governmental equivalent of pirate booty) to a city machine in return for delivering just enough votes (not necessarily a majority) in New Orleans.

This formula had produced governors from such cosmopolitan locales like Jackson Parish, Minden, Columbia and, of course, Winnfield. These folksy rural pols would play the New Orleans card and the Catholic card in a similar way that later white and then black politicians would play the race card.

With New Orleans demonized on the campaign trail and the victor’s margin coming from the sticks, the state’s largest city was treated like the rebellious colony it was in the 1760s.

Fortunately for Dixon and New Orleans, an extraordinary individual had won the 1964 gubernatorial race, a man who abandoned the old way of doing business after it had benefited him politically.

McKeithen was as much as a visionary as Dixon with the governor declaring to the latter “that Superdome you just described to me will be the greatest building in history, and, by God, we’ll build that sucker!”

After selling the state on the benefits of investing in such a grandiose undertaking and fending off political opportunists’ crass attempts to make the domed stadium stillborn to advance their own ambitions, Dixon and McKeithen indeed “built that sucker”.

And to prove that no bad deed goes unrewarded, one of the “dome demagogues” was later elected US Senator.

Dixon was also visionary in another way. In his book, he predicted that under the triumvirate of owner Tom Benson, general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton that the Saints would win a Super Bowl before, as he so eloquently put it, “moved across the street to Metairie Cemetery”. He witnessed it by six months.

The Superdome wasn’t Dixon’s only accomplishment- it was just his greatest. He had his finger in many pots at one time or another including Tulane athletics, the USFL, professional tennis, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, politics (he made a bid for Congress in 1976 in one of the most controversial elections in Louisiana history- a description that speaks much) and art and antique dealing.

But his life will be forever linked to the Superdome. And an effort should be made to further solidify that connection.

After his partner in this bold endeavor passed away, there was a move to rename the Superdome after Governor McKeithen. However, this act was quashed over concerns that the dedication would close a potential naming-right revenue stream and a statue of the governor was erected on the Superdome’s grounds.

What I propose is not that the Superdome be named for Dixon permanently but for a period of seven days. Actually one week in particular, October 26th through November 1st.

On Halloween night the Saints will face the Pittsburgh Steelers in a nationally televised Sunday night football game on NBC. As most Saints fans are aware, All Hallow’s Eve is the day prior to the team’s birthday: November 1, 1966- All Saints Day.

For that week, the Louisiana Superdome should be referred to as the “Dave Dixon Superdome”. The cost of this gesture would be relatively negligible through the placement of banners and the distribution at the stadium’s gates of promotional items bearing the stadium’s temporary name. The game’s broadcasters would also refer to the stadium as such.

This simple act would raise awareness of Dixon’s crucial role in the creation of the Superdome to locals and the national audience watching at home.

The importance of the Superdome to New Orleans and Louisiana cannot be stressed enough. It was a catalyst that transformed blocks of warehouses into the city’s primary avenue of commerce; it has hosted musical performances, conventions and sporting events that have brought millions of tourists and billions of dollars to the area. It even hosted the Holy Father.

The Superdome is one of two most recognizable and important buildings in New Orleans, the other being Saint Louis Cathedral. However one of the reasons why the cathedral has enjoyed so much limelight is in no small part to the Superdome hosting a major event that brought the cameras down to the city in the first place.

Since its construction, the Superdome has outlasted as a functional facility many of the large domed stadiums that were built before or after it: Seattle’s King Dome is no more; the Astrodome sits unoccupied and likely has a date with a wrecking ball; Detroit’s Silver Dome was sold for less than a half-million and on good days hosts monster truck shows; and word on the street is that the Atlanta Falcons are trying to fly out of the Georgia Dome.

Yet despite suffering damage from Hurricane Katrina, the Superdome is as much a symbol of New Orleans’ recovery and perseverance as it is an economic engine.

Just as Rickey Jackson finally got his due from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so should Dave Dixon get a final salute for his instrumental role in leaving a tremendous inheritance for New Orleans.

Considering the four decades of benefits the Superdome has brought to the area, the least that could be done is for the famed-stadium to be “loaned” to Dave Dixon for a week.

I suspect the bespectacled gentleman I met at a funeral five years ago would have appreciated it.

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