Greg Cote

Miami sports fans owe a whole lot of gratitude to the one man they too often vilify

Time to reset the legacy on Wayne Huizenga, the fomer Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers owner who gets too much derision and not enough love for all he has meant to South Florida sports.
Time to reset the legacy on Wayne Huizenga, the fomer Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers owner who gets too much derision and not enough love for all he has meant to South Florida sports. J. Pat Carter / AP

It has been a long time, but the sight and sound of it sticks. If you were there, you might remember, too. That is how strange the tableau was that night, in the midst of a massive celebration in his honor, to see Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino so angry and embarrassed.

The Dolphins owner then, H. Wayne Huizenga, had spent more than $500,000 to stage “A Tribute to Dan Marino” at then-Pro Player Stadium, with a $2 admission and all proceeds going to Marino’s charitable foundation. Some 52,000 Dolfans appeared for the emotional love-in that evening of Aug. 23, 2000. It was a joyous occasion of thanks and farewell, but with one persisting discordant note.

Fans kept loudly booing and jeering at every mention of Huizenga’s name. Not most fans, no, but enough that Marino finally had had enough and grabbed the mic.

“Hey, c’mon now,” he said, flustered. “That’s enough!”

The dismantling of the 1997 Marlins World Series champions, a gutting fire sale that turned the ’98 Marlins into 100-game losers, was still fresh enough and hurt enough that much of South Florida still had not forgiven Huizenga, who then owned the baseball team, too. Still others blame Huizenga for nudging Don Shula out the door.

Twenty years later, many still haven’t forgiven. Play word association with “Huizenga” and many still start with that fire sale. The man who once dominated Greater Miami’s sports landscape — simultaneously owning the Dolphins, Marlins and Florida Panthers — is thus often remembered derisively. To others he may not be remembered at all, 10 years removed from the headlines and local marquee.

His legacy deserves a reset.

Huizenga turned 80 three weeks ago, and is in failing health.

He deserves gratitude and thanks, not the echo of that vitriol he heard in 2000.

Joe Robbie founded the Dolphins, and the Miami Heat happened without his help, but Huizenga was the single most influential team owner in our history.

He is the father of us as major-league, a place with all of the Big Four team sports.

I recall being alongside Nick Buoniconti on a Dolphins sideline in the mid-’90s, a long snap from where Huizenga stood.

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Dan Marino stands with Marty and Wayne Huizenga during tribute retiring Marino’s No. 13 and the unveiling of a statue in the likeness of the former Miami Dolphin quarterback on Sept. 17, 2000. Al Diaz/Herald Staff

“It’s thanks to that man,” said Buoniconti, nodding, “that we’re big-league now.”

Huizenga, whose net worth has been estimated at $2.6 billion, is the first entrepreneur to have launched three Fortune 500 companies: Waste Management, Blockbuster Video and AutoNation. Philanthropy, and sports, are where the money went.

(Quick aside: Wayne and I met once for a breakfast interview at a small local deli. I picked up the check for a billionaire. Cheap thrill).

Huizenga was founding owner of both the Marlins and Panthers, introducing baseball and hockey to South Florida, and the man who rescued the Dolphins from financial calamity. He owned the Marlins six years (1993-98), the Panthers nine years (1993-2001) and the Dolphins 15 years (1994-2008). For five years in the ’90s he owned all three simultaneously — a first in American sports — after persuading the NFL to relax a long-standing rule against cross-ownership. Huizenga along with Marti — his wife of 45 years until her death from cancer one year ago at age 74 — also were pillars of generosity in South Florida.

The Panthers honored their founding father Friday night. Health issues had left his attendance in doubt, but Huizenga was there watching from the family's suite, though he did not speak with reporters. Three of his former players — Ed Jovanovski, Bill Lindsay and “the Beezer,” John Vanbiesbrouck — were there watching, joining the cheers, as Huizenga’s legacy rose to the rafters. He’d chosen his lucky number to be retired, the year he was born, and so the number 37 was lifted alongside the number 93 that represents the franchise’s birth year in honor of original president Bill Torrey.

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Wayne Huizenga walks with the Panther’s mascot on June 4, 1996. Miami Herald File photo

“I was honored to partner with Wayne in the founding years and I’m thrilled our names will now permanently fly side by side,” said Torrey, still with the team as adviser and alternate governor. “Our club will forever aspire to Wayne’s standard of excellence and community leadership.”

Said son Ray Huizenga: “The Panthers were always so important to my parents.”

Especially to superfan Marti, who during the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals was stopped by security at McNichols Arena in Denver for trying to sneak plastic rats — the Cats’ lucky charm then — into the building.

The family knew little about hockey before becoming owners. At the April 1993 event to reveal the team’s nickname there was a hockey-rink sheet cake, and Huizenga joked that the four faceoff circles reminded him of home plate and the three bases. He also revealed the nickname almost chosen for the hockey team.

“Flamingos!” he cried. “I couldn’t picture hockey players with pink legs!”

As Panthers owner Huizenga took the team from Miami to Sunrise and gave Broward County its first Big Four franchise, reached the Stanley Cup Finals in only the third season, and later brought prolific goal scorer Pavel Bure to town.

When hockey availed itself Huizenga already had been immersed in the Marlins. In July 1991 he unveiled the Marlins’ logo to an invitation-only crowd of 1,700 at Turnberry Isle Country Club, a throng that included baseball commissioner Fay Vincent and Florida governor Lawton Chiles. I recall meeting Harry Huizenga, his father, that day. He told a story about putting Wayne to work at age 14 hauling bulldozers in a semi-tractor in Chicago.

“When Wayne wants something, he really goes after it,” said his father proudly.

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Florida Marlins player Edgar Renteria, left, Gary Sheffield (Behind trophy), and Tony Saunders celebrate their 3-2 win in Game 7 of the World Series with owner Wayne Huizenga in 1997. RHONA WISE AFP/Getty Images

By ’97 his son was enjoying a championship celebration of his own creation, Livan Hernandez shouting, “I love you, Miami!”

The memory of the ensuing fire sale goes on. But it won’t last as long as that World Series trophy.

Huizenga’s interest in the Dolphins predated his involvement with baseball or hockey.

He had bought a small share of the Dolphins and larger piece of the stadium in 1990, soon after Joe Robbie had died, before taking over the entire enterprise in ’94.

“It was made as a fan and as a businessman,” he said then, of his newest purchase, “and because my wife told me she likes the Dolphins.”

Huizenga shrewdly had positioned himself to take advantage when Robbie’s heirs were forced to sell to pay $47 million in estate-tax debut. Hey, he was a businessman first, without apology, which in turn afforded him the altruism.

His Dolphins made the playoffs eight times and were the last Fins team to win a playoff game, by the way. The club has made the playoffs once in the nine seasons since he sold.

Postscript:

On Aug. 23, 2000, the same night of that stadium farewell he’d thrown for Marino, the night they booed the party’s host, Wayne and Marti Huizenga had earlier that day spent several hours elsewhere.

They’d been helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity.

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