Greg Cote

Often underappreciated, Huizenga’s legacy in South Florida sports is indelible

Wayne Huizenga left his mark on South Florida

Wayne Huizenga, seen here in 1995, became the first entrepreneur to launch three Fortune 500 companies and owned the major South Florida sports franchises in football, baseball and hockey. Photo by Bob Eighmie/Miami Herald file; Video by Erc Garla
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Wayne Huizenga, seen here in 1995, became the first entrepreneur to launch three Fortune 500 companies and owned the major South Florida sports franchises in football, baseball and hockey. Photo by Bob Eighmie/Miami Herald file; Video by Erc Garla

Somebody has to be first.

A friend argues with me to this day that Jackie Robinson gets too much historical credit for breaking baseball’s color line because if he hadn’t, someone else eventually would have. But that logic always sounds off-key to me, because it was one man who did front that seismic change, and who bore all of the burden of it. All of the pressure and threats and racial taunts.

Somebody has to be first, always.

In South Florida sports, the Florida Panthers are skating hard to make the Stanley Cup playoffs today as the hockey season nears a crescendo, and the Miami Marlins are in the midst of their spring training. Would we have had these two major professional teams eventually, anyway? Maybe. But we do have them because of one man’s initiative, and drive, and passion for South Florida.

Somebody has to be first.

For us, it was Wayne Huizenga.

Harry Wayne Huizenga, “H. Wayne” for so long, passed away on Thursday at age 80, and thus ends an epoch and an epic life.

Huizenga is first remembered for sports, as the founding owner of the Marlins and Panthers who later bought the Miami Dolphins. For five years in the ’90s he owned all three teams concurrently, a first in American sports. But he was a civic giant beyond games, of course, as the first businessman to found three Fortune 500 companies, and, along with wife Marti, as a major philanthropist who gave hundreds of millions to causes such as Junior Achievement, Boys & Girls Clubs, Humane Society and education. Nova Southeastern University’s School of Business and Entrepreneurship is named in his honor.

In 2011 Fort Lauderdale named Huizenga its Man Of the Century.

It speaks of the breadth of Huizenga’s impact that his towering accomplishments in business and and magnitude of his generosity stand even greater than his involvement in sports — and that was unprecedented.

Joe Robbie founded the Dolphins, and Micky Arison has been our most successful team owner with the Miami Heat, but no team owner has been more influential or important overall in Greater Miami’s history than the one we lost Thursday.

Huizenga introduced baseball and hockey to South Florida and rescued the Dolphins from financial calamity. He owned the Marlins for six years (1993-98), the Panthers nine years (1993-2001) and the Dolphins 15 years (1994-2008).

Ironically, and unfairly, the word association with “Wayne Huizenga” has too often been too negative. Many resent that it was he who nudged Don Shula into retirement. Far more harbored anger that Huizenga broke up those ’97 champion Marlins with a dismantling fire sale. (I always said a World Series trophy chased by a fire sale beats not having either).

The anger was still raw on Aug. 23, 2000, the night Huizenga spent $500,000 to stage a tribute to the newly retired Dan Marino at the stadium. It was an upbeat occasion of appreciation and thanks. But fans kept booing at every mention of Huizenga’s name — to the point an embarrassed Marino finally took the mic and said, “Hey, c’mon now. That’s enough!”

The Panthers’ honored their founding father in January, retiring his lucky number (37, the year he was born), and raising it to the rafters. It would be his last public appearance. He had been in failing health for months. Those around him say he had gone downhill since his beloved wife of 45 years, Marti, died in 2017.

As I wrote then of Huizenga, his legacy deserves a reset.

Beyond founding two franchises and saving a third (as if that wasn’t enough), Huizenga was a successful, active, spending owner well-liked by players. Under his aegis the Marlins won their first World Series in 1997. The Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the only time in ’96. And his Dolphins teams were the last to win in the postseason and made the playoffs eight times. (They have made the playoffs once in the nine seasons since he sold to Stephen Ross).

This was an owner who thought big and moved aggressively. He signed superstar Pavel Bure to the Panthers. Signed Gary Sheffield and others stars to the Marlins. The coaching hires book-ending his Dolphins era were Jimmy Johnson and Nick Saban.

Huizenga is the father of us as major league, a metropolis with all of the Big Four pro teams.

We booed his name in 2000.

Now, our memory should be filled with only appreciation, and thanks.

This man’s legacy in South Florida is positively indelible, in sports and way beyond.

H. Wayne Huizenga talks about getting started in business at the Huizenga College of Business and Entrepreneurship at Nova Southeastern University.

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