H. Wayne Huizenga, Billionaire Businessman and Former South Florida Sports Owner, Dies at 80

Huizenga owned the Miami Dolphins, Florida Marlins and Florida Panthers

H. Wayne Huizenga, the billionaire businessman who owned three major South Florida sports franchises including the Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers, has died, his family confirmed Friday.

Huizenga, who was born in Evergreen Park, Illinois, but became a fixture in Fort Lauderdale, was 80. His family didn't give any other details on his death.

Huizenga made his fortune through Blockbuster Video, AutoNation and Waste Management - all Fortune 500 companies - but became known for his passion for sports and local philanthropy.

Huizenga's wife, Marti, died last year at age 74. He and Marti were generous with their fortune, donating millions of dollars to South Florida organizations including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, the Humane Society of Broward County, Nova Southeastern University and Holy Cross Hospital.

Huizenga's family moved to Fort Lauderdale in the early 1950s, where he attended Pine Crest School. He later attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but dropped out before graduating.

After making his fortune with Waste Management and Blockbuster, Huizenga got into sports, at one point owning the Miami Dolphins, the then Florida Marlins and the Florida Panthers.

Huizenga was founding owner of the Marlins and the Panthers — expansion teams that played their first games in 1993. He bought the Dolphins and their stadium for $168 million in 1994 from the children of founder Joe Robbie, but had sold all three teams by 2009.

"We mourn the loss of a beloved member of the Dolphins family. Your kindness and generosity can be felt throughout South Florida. We will miss you Mr. H." the Dolphins tweeted Friday.

Panthers owner Vincent Viola said the organization was "heartbroken" to learn of his passing.

"Mr. Huizenga’s lifelong commitment to our community, his philanthropy and his entrepreneurial spirit ensure that the Huizenga family legacy will live on in South Florida," Viola said in a statement. "I’m continually inspired by Wayne’s example, from his vision and his civic-minded leadership, to his success fostering an environment of on-ice excellence, which continues to have a shaping influence on every step we take in the South Florida community. He will be remembered always by our Panthers family."

"Today, we mourn the passing of the original Florida Marlin, Mr. H. Wayne Huizenga, who will be remembered as much for his contributions to South Florida professional sports as he was for his many charitable endeavors in the surrounding community," the Marlins said in a statement Friday.

The Marlins won the 1997 World Series, and the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996, but Huizenga's beloved Dolphins never reached a Super Bowl while he owned the team.

"If I have one disappointment, the disappointment would be that we did not bring a championship home," Huizenga said shortly after he sold the Dolphins to New York real estate billionaire Stephen Ross. "It's something we failed to do."

For a time, Huizenga was a favorite with South Florida sports fans, drawing cheers and autograph seekers in public. The crowd roared when he danced the hokey pokey on the field during an early Marlins game. He went on a spending spree to build a veteran team that won the World Series in the franchise's fifth year.

But his popularity plummeted when he ordered the roster dismantled after that season. He was frustrated by poor attendance and his failure to swing a deal for a new ballpark built with taxpayer money.

Many South Florida fans never forgave him for breaking up the championship team. Huizenga drew boos when introduced at Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino's retirement celebration in 2000, and kept a lower public profile after that.

"Saddened to hear about the passing of my long-time friend Wayne Huizenga. My thoughts and prayers are with the entire Huizenga family! #RIP" Marino tweeted.

In 2009, Huizenga said he regretted ordering the Marlins' payroll purge.

"We lost $34 million the year we won the World Series, and I just said, 'You know what, I'm not going to do that,'" Huizenga said. "If I had it to do over again, I'd say, 'OK, we'll go one more year.'"

He sold the Marlins in 1999 to John Henry, and sold the Panthers in 2001, unhappy with rising NHL player salaries and the stock price for the team's public company.

The Panthers recently retired his lucky number, 37, in his honor.

Huizenga's first sports love was the Dolphins — he had been a season-ticket holder since their first season in 1966. But he fared better in the NFL as a businessman than as a sports fan.

He turned a nifty profit by selling the Dolphins and their stadium for $1.1 billion, nearly seven times what he paid to become sole owner. But he knew the bottom line in the NFL is championships, and his Dolphins perennially came up short.

Huizenga earned a reputation as a hands-off owner and won raves from many loyal employees, even though he made six coaching changes. He eased Pro Football Hall of Famer Don Shula into retirement in early 1996, and Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, interim coach Jim Bates, Nick Saban, Cam Cameron and Tony Sporano followed as coach.

Tributes to Huizenga started to pour in after the news of his death.

"Wayne Huizenga has died. Love him or not, two facts are undeniable: his charitable character and his role in bringing major sports to South Florida," former Marlins president David Samson tweeted.

"Wayne Huizenga was an entrepreneurial visionary who possessed boundless energy, drive and imagination, a devotion to his community in South Florida and a passion for sports. Those all were vividly reflected in his founding of the Florida Panthers, the construction of a world-class arena in Sunrise and his leadership of the franchise to an appearance in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final in just its third year in existence," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "While Wayne established South Florida as a hockey market, he devoted as much time and effort to education-focused philanthropic efforts that benefited his beloved community in many ways."

"Today I lost both my mentor and my best friend, H. Wayne Huizenga. Alice and I will miss the sparkle in his eye we came to love," AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson tweeted.

"Wayne Huizenga was not only a consummate entrepreneur, but a humanitarian. And as trustee Emeritus, he will always be loved by the NSU community," Nova Southeastern University President Dr. George L. Hanbury said in a statement.

"We were deeply saddened to hear the news of Wayne Huizenga’s passing today. As a founder of our company, he was greatly admired for his visionary spirit, entrepreneurial leadership, and 'roll up your sleeves work ethic," Jim Fish, president and CEO of Waste Management, said in a statement. "While he and I never met, Wayne is a true legend at Waste Management, known for waking up at 2:30 in the morning to drive a truck and then knocking on doors in the afternoon to introduce himself to current and new customers. His legacy is a gift to us all. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Huizenga family on the passing of their patriarch and our friend and founder, Wayne Huizenga."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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