FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Wayne Huizenga, South Florida businessman and one-time team owner of the Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers, died Thursday at the age of 80 after a battle with cancer.
Despite starting and operating successful businesses throughout the country, Huizenga is most remembered in South Florida for his sports teams and philanthropy.
In 1993, Huizenga bought a majority stake in the Miami Dolphins after having purchased 15 percent of the team from owner Joe Robbie in 1990.
He had been a season-ticket holder since their first season in 1966, but Huizenga fared better in the NFL as a businessman than as a sports fan.
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.
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.
"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."
Huizenga was the original owner of the Florida Marlins, bringing baseball to South Florida in 1993.
For a time, Huizenga was also a favorite with Marlins 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.
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.'"
The Marlins released a statement Friday on their former owner.
“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.”
When the NHL was looking to expand south, Huizenga started the Florida Panthers and saw them find instant success with a run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996. The team later retired the No. 37, Huizenga's favorite number, in his honor.
"The Florida Panthers organization is heartbroken by the news of H. Wayne Huizenga's passing," said current Panthers owner Vincent Viola. "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. 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."
Long before making headlines as a sports owner, Huizenga had built an enviable reputation as a businessman and entrepreneur.
Harry Wayne Huizenga was born in the Chicago suburbs on Dec. 29, 1937, to a family of garbage haulers. He began his business career in Pompano Beach in 1962, driving a garbage truck from 2 a.m. to noon each day for $500 a month.
One customer successfully sued Huizenga, saying that in an argument over a delinquent account, Huizenga injured him by grabbing his testicles - an allegation Huizenga always denied.
"I never did that. The guy was a deputy cop. It was his word against mine, a young kid," he told Fortune magazine in 1996.
Saying he always felt Fort Lauderdale had unlimited potential for growing new business, Huizenga's first venture, Southern Sanitation, got its start in South Florida in 1968. He grew Southern Sanitation into Waste Management, which became the largest waste disposal company in the United States.
Huizenga earned an almost cult-like following among business investors who watched him build Blockbuster Entertainment into the leading video rental chain by snapping up competitors. He cracked Forbes' list of the 100 richest Americans, becoming chairman of Republic Services, one of the nation's top waste management companies, and AutoNation, the nation's largest automotive retailer. In 2013, Forbes estimated his wealth at $2.5 billion.
Through it all, Huizenga's Midas touch brought billions of dollars and international attention to South Florida, putting Fort Lauderdale on the map.
"He had a magic ability to create a business that was unmatched," said AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson, who confirmed the death. "Ideas were exploding in his head. He was bound and determined to out entrepreneur every other entrepreneur."
More than a businessman, Huizenga and his wife Marti were major philanthropists in South Florida. The couple donated hundreds of millions to charities like the Boys & Girls Club, Humane Society and Junior Achievement World.
Marti Huizenga died in 2017.
In 2011, Huizenga was designated Fort Lauderdale's "Man of the Century," and a year later the city renamed Southeast Ninth Street to "Wayne Huizenga Boulevard."
A great man, one of the nicest individuals I have ever known, Wayne Huizenga passed away. RIP— Jimmy Johnson (@JimmyJohnson) March 23, 2018
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. pic.twitter.com/HOVxXEAU5Q— Miami Marlins (@Marlins) March 23, 2018
We mourn the loss of a beloved member of the Dolphins family.— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) March 23, 2018
Your kindness and generosity can be felt throughout South Florida.
We will miss you Mr. H. pic.twitter.com/bWrNjbU17q
Saddened to hear about the passing of my long-time friend Wayne Huizenga. My thoughts and prayers are with the entire Huizenga family! #RIP— Dan Marino (@DanMarino) March 23, 2018