73ºF

Public says goodbye to Wayne Huizenga

Family, friends, colleagues remember former Dolphins, Marlins, Panthers owner

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A public memorial was held Thursday for South Florida businessman Wayne Huizenga, who died last week at the age of 80.

Hundreds of mourners filled the Broward Center for the Performing Arts to remember the one-time owner of the Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers.

Among those who spoke at the memorial service were Huizenga's business partners, friends and family members, including his daughter, Pam Huizenga Alexander.

"Our father was kind and generous, irrervent and hilarious," she said. "He was a sensitive, loving and patient man. Up until his last days, he was a glorious example of humanity, humility and gratitude."

Huizenga is credited with bringing professional baseball and hockey to South Florida.

He was the original owner of the Florida Marlins, who began play in 1993 and won a World Series in the franchise's fifth year. But he fell out of favor with the fans when he orchestrated the Marlins "fire sale" the next year, dismantling the championship roster before selling the team.

Huizenga later lamented the decision to purge the payroll.

"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 in 2009. "If I had it to do over again, I'd say, 'OK, we'll go one more year.'"
Huizenga also lured the NHL to South Florida. The Florida Panthers began play during the 1993-94 season and three years later were playing for the Stanley Cup. 

The Panthers moved out of the aging Miami Arena in 1998 and into their current home at what is now known as the BB&T Center in Sunrise.

Huizenga sold the team in 2001, and the Panthers later retired the No. 37, Huizenga's favorite number, in his honor.

In 1993, Huizenga bought a majority stake in the Miami Dolphins from original owner Joe Robbie. He hired Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, to replace longtime head coach Don Shula after his retirement in 1996 and plucked Nick Saban away from LSU to replace Dave Wannstedt, who resigned after a 1-8 start to the 2004 season. 

Johnson's relationship with star quarterback Dan Marino soured in their four seasons together, ultimately ending with Johnson's resignation and Marino's retirement. Saban returned to college to become Alabama's coach after just two underwhelming seasons.

"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."

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.

"Wayne was the greatest mentor I ever had in business," AutoNation chairman Mike Jackson said. "I wouldn't be the executive I am today without him. His spirit lives on in our company. We will have many executives, but we will always only have had one founder."

There was laughter and tears, especially as John McWhinny, a friend from Ireland, sang "Danny Boy."