The Saints Issue

The Buddy System

We didn’t often go to Saints games when I was a kid, but when we did, the Saints usually lost. I don’t think it was our fault, and there was a good stretch there in 1991 where the Dome Patrol and the Cha-Ching guy helped us finish first in the NFC West. (I remember that season as clearly as the year we won the Super Bowl, down to the front pages of The Times-Picayune and the morning issue of The Advocate. Quarterback Bobby Hebert even made the cover of Sports Illustrated that year.)

What I recall most vividly after a game in those days was sitting with my family for what seemed like hours in Superdome parking lot traffic, while on the car radio on WWL 870 AM, commenting on the spectacle we’d just witnessed, was a nearly unintelligible man named Bernard Diliberto — better known throughout the state as simply Buddy D.

“When Buddy came, he just elevated the whole ‘sports talk’ thing,” says De Paul Smith, the director of Saints Radio Sales at WWL Radio. “Back then, talk radio didn’t have those kinds of great big personalities doing sports. But Buddy changed that, and coming from newspapers first, and television second, radio was the best medium for him. He could really elaborate on his opinions and have fun — and man, he was good at it.”

For 50 years, Diliberto reported on sports in New Orleans across all media. His opinions were deeply informed by a lifetime of sports reporting — and opinions he had, especially about the New Orleans Saints. He started in print in 1950, at The Times-Picayune, ultimately becoming the paper’s daily sports columnist. From there, he moved to television on WVUE-TV and WDSU-TV, becoming sports director for the latter; and landed finally on radio, with a daily show.

Everyone knew Buddy D. He was a Louisiana fixture with a voice that simply defied imitation, or even description. After wading through his almost impenetrable New Orleans accent, you still had to contend with a melodic cadence that seemed always to zig where you thought it might zag. He spoke in a kind of jovial bark that men of his generation had, but sadly no longer do. His voice was to the ears what your grandmother’s kitchen was to your sense of smell; you can recall it immediately and precisely. As Jim Henderson, the former play-by-play announcer on Saints Radio, observed at a roast of Buddy D in 2003: “It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who once said, ‘To be great is to be misunderstood.’ We haven’t been able to understand Buddy Diliberto for 50 years.”

While writing this piece, I found old clips of his show, including one from 1995, when Morgus the Magnificent called in to Diliberto’s show to discuss Jim Mora, and the sheer New Orleans nostalgia of it all nearly unraveled the space-time continuum. (If someone had sung the Rosenberg’s Furniture Store address jingle aloud at that moment, we would have been done for.) But hearing that voice again made me 30 years younger, a kid in the back seat of my mom’s car.

The genius of Buddy D was that he made it fun to listen to sports talk even when the Saints were routed on the field — which they frequently were in those days, hard as it might be to remember in a post-Brees world. (Although, the 2022 season was a bleak reminder of those Bad Old Days.) During particularly grim stretches, Diliberto called his show “Saints Anonymous,” and callers would begin with such lines as, “Hey Buddy, my name is Carl. I live in Slidell and I am a 20-year Saints fan.”

Buddy D was, to put it mildly, a fierce and mocking critic of the way the New Orleans Saints front office and coaching staff ran the team, and of a great many plays called on the field. (My mom once quipped that the Saints could win the Super Bowl and Buddy D would still spend half his show criticizing some play in the second quarter.)

Forget reporting live from the Superdome. On television, Buddy D sometimes reported on the Saints from funeral homes and cemeteries, arguing that the interred were more alive than the New Orleans team. During the 1980 season, he wore a paper bag over his head on the air to maintain anonymity as a Saints fan, and vowed to do so until the “Aints” — which he helpfully printed on the bag — won a game. They finally did, in December, going 1-15 for the season. The paper bag tradition caught fire, with Monday Night Football viewers from across the country noticing the distraught Saints fans in the audience with their Schwegmann’s grocery store attire adorned with eyeholes, beads and pithy messages to the team. Today, distressed fans from every losing franchise have since adopted the tradition.

His uncompromising attitude sometimes led to a misconception that Buddy D hated the Saints. And because of how withering (and accurate) his criticisms could be, Saints management even kicked him off the team plane. The ban wasn’t for a single season, though — it was for life, plus 10 years “in case you are Lazarus,” said management.

Diliberto took it in stride. He was just doing his job.

“For journalists back then,” says Smith, “you were never supposed to be a fan. Buddy would never wear Saints gear. Ever. They always wanted to be unbiased. Buddy’s take on the team was for them to create change so that they would win.” And he desperately wanted them to win. In many ways, Buddy D was the ultimate Saints fan.

“I work for the guy that sits up in Section 635 that has no voice to make change on the team,” Smith recalls Buddy saying. “The people that have been given an opportunity to create change have a tremendous responsibility, because they have to do it. And I’ve been given the chance to make some change, to speak for the masses.” Diliberto even quoted the Book of Matthew as a way of describing his charge: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”

Buddy D was more than a football fan and journalist. He was a father and husband, and served in the Korean War, earning a Purple Heart after taking shrapnel. He was deeply religious — a daily communicant, attending Mass every day. He was an avid gambler (“He’d bet on anything,” one friend of his told me with a laugh.) He was a native New Orleanian, attending Jesuit High School and later graduating from Loyola. But there are a lot of native New Orleanians. Buddy D would become the voice of the city — and a very unique voice at that, in a city of very unique voices.

He did not offer commentary maliciously, and was not driven by ego. This is perhaps best reflected in the name of the radio show he hosted during the apex of his career, “Hap’s Point After.” Diliberto inherited the show from Lloyd “Hap” Glaudi — known as the “dean of New Orleans sportscasters” — after Glaudi died. Diliberto kept the name. He also was glad to share his airtime with the city.

“Buddy allowed his callers to be genuine characters on his show,” says Smith. “And New Orleans is full of characters. Buddy had this innate ability to really understand New Orleans, and knew how to make it stir. But he wasn’t always fun and games. Really, 95% of Buddy’s content was rich with serious insight, and he was somebody who was always making a point. But that 5% when Buddy was funny — it was like, you’d think he was funny all the time.”

He wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. In the 1996 season, the Saints went 3-13, and Tom Benson, then the team’s owner, did not have a post-season press conference. Diliberto took umbrage. “So, Buddy started saying, ‘Where’s the emperor? The emperor has not come out to talk to us yet. Until the emperor comes out and talks to us, let’s boycott tickets!’” says Smith.

I called Bobby Hebert, famed former quarterback of the Saints, and asked what it was like on the other side of Buddy D’s unflinching commentaries on the state of New Orleans football. “Not all the players liked Buddy,” he told me, “and I don’t think Coach Mora liked him being so honest all the time. I never had a problem with him, though — he was speaking the truth. And I think he liked that when he asked me something, I gave him an honest opinion.”

When Buddy D moved to WWL Radio, everyone seems to agree that he hit his stride. I think the reason for his success, aside from his colorful antics and distinct New Orleanian charm, is that he spoke to listeners on a much deeper level than we realized. Long before he sat in a studio, Buddy D sat behind a typewriter. He was a writer.

We think of sports as a visual medium — I mean, there’s a reason they charge so much for those seats — but take away the play-by-play announcements, the referee appearing on the Gumbotron declaring with stentorian authority, “Pass interference,10-yard penalty,” and the cheers and jeers of the crowd, and even the most gripping of sporting events could be jaw-clenchingly boring. Sports is more than a spectacle. On every gridiron in every stadium, what you are experiencing is a story being told.

Football especially fits the classical “hero’s journey” as if by design, which makes every visit to the Superdome a kind of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars experience. The pregame show on radio is the “call to adventure,” in which we learn a little about our heroes (the New Orleans Saints, naturally — all others are villains). Our heroes “cross the threshold” when they walk out onto the field, and then experience their challenges and temptations, and an abyss and a rebirth, and (if we are lucky) a triumph. Talk radio after the game is the “road the hero takes back to the ordinary world.”

Buddy D helped us understand the story we had just experienced. He brought order to chaos. He made it all make sense, the good and the bad.

And sometimes, that story was a comic tragedy. In light of that, Diliberto once made a famous vow on the air: “If the Saints ever make it to the Super Bowl, I’m going to wear a dress and dance through the streets.” He made this promise secure in the knowledge that he would never have to make good on it. (He did, however, comfort younger callers and listeners, telling them: “You’ve got time. You might see a Super Bowl.”)

Buddy D died on January 7, 2005 of a heart attack. Hebert was WWL’s first choice to inherit Diliberto’s show. Maybe it was the voice, he joked. “Buddy had his own speech issues and can’t say certain words, and then they get Hebert, a Cajun, and I had a thicker accent than him!” Before his unexpected death, Buddy D played a big role in bringing Hebert to WWL.

“I was doing some radio in Atlanta, things like shows on the Falcons draft, and Falcons pregame and postgame shows, and Buddy called me up,” Hebert recalls. “He and WWL had me come to do the Saints draft show in 2004. I thought that was a one-time thing, and then as Buddy got older, he wanted some help for a lot of shows as a duo instead of him by himself.” Hebert agreed to do that for the 2005 season, but then Diliberto died, and WWL asked the Saints’ former star quarterback to take the job officially.

“Buddy had taught us how it was done,” Hebert says. “You have to feel like you are a mouthpiece for the fans. That’s how Buddy did it, and that’s the approach I take day in and day out. You have to separate yourself from the team, and be on the common man’s side.”

Five years after the city lost Diliberto, the New Orleans Saints beat the Minnesota Vikings in overtime to clinch the NFC Championship, securing their place in Super Bowl XLIV. One week before the final matchup against the Colts, Saints fans, led by Hebert, made good on Buddy D’s promise. Hebert and the crowd wore dresses and paraded from the Superdome to the French Quarter.

“We got in a little bit of trouble with the city,” Hebert says, “because we got a last-minute permit. We thought there would be a few thousand people, maybe.” Instead, he says, 80,000 people showed up: a crowd of men in dresses stretching from the Dome to Oceana Grill on Bourbon St. at Conti. There was barely room to stand, let alone move, and it took five hours to get from start to finish.

“It was so cold that day,” he remembers. “We were feeling so good. It could have been in the teens and I don’t think we would have felt the pain. And they were all there for Buddy. The fans demanded we do that parade for him, and they turned up. It was a such a great day, but man, the next morning was hard.”

As for his radio show, Hebert still recognizes that he’s filling big shoes of perhaps the best-loved football commentator the city ever saw. “I didn’t go to school for journalism, but I have the gift of gab,” Hebert says. “You just go with the ebb and flow, and you have to respect the fans and callers. They know their football. And Buddy D understood that.”

He continues, “And like Buddy, I bring my own special experiences to the show. Someone can give their opinion, and I will respect it, but I will also disagree and tell them, ‘No, you don’t understand. It’s not like that on the field.’ Buddy D could educate fans from a perspective of 50 years covering sports. When they were wrong, he’d call them a squirrel. And I can educate them from my own experiences.”

New Orleans is a city of the world. I travel extensively for my job, and not once in all these years, when asked, have I said that I live in New Orleans and the person’s eyes not lit up. “Really?” they invariably say, as though I lived in Oz or on the international space station. New Orleanians know the day-to-day headaches of life here — every city has them (though probably with better roads). What we offer to the world, though, is something no one else can: a distinct and beautiful culture of art, spirit and cuisine, forged across a sometimes painful and ugly history, but one that is recognized the world over as the best humanity has to offer. Buddy D was a product and emissary of this city. He was born of it, he added to it, and he shared it with all the world. He gave voice to the voiceless and laughter to downtrodden sports fans — those at home, and those trapped in the Superdome parking lot.

But to get his message across, sometimes it required that he do so wearing a paper bag on his head.