NORMAN, Okla. -- We sit and wait at a private air strip just a few miles from Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
I’m sitting in a black SUV on the blacktop watching planes land with a University of Houston administrator and a Houston police officer, who will also serve as our driver and escort for the day. We’re waiting for Tilman Fertitta.
The name Fertitta has become almost synonymous with the city of Houston. He owns restaurants and hotel properties all around the city. Forbes ranks him as the sixth-richest figure in Houston with a net worth of $4.5 billion, most invested through his business conglomerate, Landry’s Inc. He’s the lone owner. Two years ago, Fertitta bought the Houston Rockets for a record fee of more than $2 billion.
But most relevant to us, Fertitta is the chairman of the board of regents of the University of Houston system, where he attended college in the 1970s. He also attended Texas Tech for a while before transferring. The bad news for Tech? Fertitta is as Houston as Houston gets.
“I’ll tell you what, since he got his hands on this program, we’re headed in the right direction,” the Houston PD officer said.
We’re waiting for Fertitta’s plane to land, but this day has to be one of the busiest for the small private airport. Houston faces off against No. 4 Oklahoma in a few hours. If you have a private jet and you’re not flying in to watch the Sooners play a night game on national television, when the heck else will you fly into Norman?
A few minutes later, a plane lands on the runway. It’s noticeably bigger than the others. There’s a big, black Houston Rockets logo on the tail. Out steps Fertitta, accompanied by his two sons and a business partner. He’s greeted with a drink and then gets into the car.
“Oh yeah, I forgot that I agreed to do this,” Fertitta said with a laugh. “Fire away.”
'He's raised the bar'
Fertitta’s love of the University of Houston run deep, all the way to his childhood growing up working in his dad’s restaurant in Galveston.
“Even as a little kid, it was the name of the school. It was a very athletic-focused school,” Fertitta said, pulling names like Elmo Wright and Elvin Hayes from his childhood as we drive to Oklahoma’s historic venue.
After dropping out of Houston and becoming an overwhelmingly successful businessman, Fertitta stayed involved. He went to New York with Andre Ware to receive the Heisman, watched Phi Slama Jama and fraternized with Carl Lewis, “the best athlete ever.”
In 2014, Fertitta made his love of the school official. He was elected chairman of the board of regents for the University of Houston system.
“I feel like I can do more when you’re actually an official of the university,” Fertitta said. “It kind of shows that I’m not just out there supporting the athletic program, but I’m willing to do the legwork to make the whole university great.”
Since then, Fertitta dished out $20 million, the largest donation in school history, to help rebuild the Fertitta Center as an elite college basketball venue. The team rewarded him with a 33-4 record, No. 11 final ranking and trip to the Sweet 16.
He was chairman during the construction of TDECU Stadium, a $128 million football venue that ranks among the best in college football. And of course, he dished out big money to keep basketball coach Kelvin Sampson in town.
“Every sport seems to be taking off once again,” said Clyde Drexler, NBA hall of famer and Houston alum, in a statement. “It’s all about leadership. Under Tilman Fertitta’s leadership, we have good people once again. He’s raised the bar.”
For his comprehensive efforts, Fertitta was inducted into the UH Hall of Honor last November. Still, his investment in the athletic department came with a plan.
“Remember this, this is a fact: when you have winning athletic programs – especially football and basketball – it makes the alumni get closer to the university,” Fertitta said. “Everybody likes a winner. All of a sudden, there’s money given to your liberal arts school, your business school, hotel and restaurant management school, your law school. That’s just a fact. It creates an energy you’ll never get otherwise.”
That brings us to the main reason we're having this conversation on a 90-degree day in Oklahoma.
Not a stepping stone
Days after Houston lost the Armed Forces Bowl against Army by an embarrassing 70-14 score, athletic director Chris Pezman came to Fertitta and proposed making a change. It didn’t take long for one name to rise above the rest: Dana Holgorsen.
Fertitta said that Houston reached out to Holgorsen back in 2016, when his West Virginia team was fresh off a 10-win season in the Big 12. He wasn’t ready to leave a Mountaineer team that looked to be on the cusp of Big 12 championship contention. Instead, Houston promoted offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to head coach to try and continue the success the university saw under Tom Herman.
Clearly, that didn’t happen. Applewhite won 15 games in two seasons, well below the 21 Herman achieved in the two years prior. That was disappointing. The unforgivable number? Attendance dropped from 38,953 fans per game in 2016 down to 29,838 fans under Applewhite in just two years.
With major college realignment on the horizon, Fertitta only had one real focus.
“I wanted and [athletic director] Chris Pezman wanted a coach that did not want us to be a stepping stone,” Fertitta said firmly.
He has a point. Since the Southwest Conference broke up, Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin and Herman have leveraged head coaching jobs into Power Five opportunities. The other four coaches won a combined 45 percent of their games. Only one coach since the turn of the millennium has stayed at the school more than four years – one recruiting cycle.
“We wanted a coach who was not going to leave and Dana was the guy – a big-time coach that’s not going to leave,” Fertitta said. “Somebody who’s young comes in, wins nine or 10 games, they get hired again. It would have happened again.”
Holgorsen isn’t a Texan. He’s a native Iowan who didn’t coach in the state until eight years after he finished college at Iowa Wesleyan. But after a long stint at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, Holgorsen spent two years as offensive coordinator in Houston. It was a special connection right away.
"I just loved this city and university so much,” Holgorsen said when he was introduced as head football coach. “I always came back. I came back two, three, four or five times a year. I enjoyed what this wonderful city has to offer. [Fertitta is] a big part of why this city is what it is.”
Houston had heard that before. He didn’t want to take chances. Holgorsen is the highest-paid coach in the Group of Five – by a lot – but it comes with a big catch. Holgorsen would owe the university $12.9 million if he left before the end of the year. He’d owe it $9.1 million after two years, and $7.1 million after three.
For comparison, Houston received $2.5 million after two years when former coach Tom Herman left for Texas. Houston offered to reduce the buyout in exchange for a scheduling deal in football and basketball; Texas didn’t budge.
“After Tom left, I said this isn’t going to happen anymore,” Fertitta said. “A lot of a people have followed my lead and don’t have the cheap buyouts anymore. It’s just not fair. Why if I fire you I have to pay that, but if you leave, you can pay me a million dollars? So if Dana wants to leave, it’s going to cost somebody a lot of money.”
Fertitta sits back in his chair and laughs.
“But he isn’t going.”
'We belong in the Big 12'
There’s a good reason that Fertitta is skeptical of talk. He, and the University of Houston, have been screwed before.
In 1996, the Southwest Conference folded. When the Big 12 was formed, some political maneuvering kept Houston out. It sent interest in the athletic department into a tailspin that the program is still recovering from in many ways. Three years ago, the Big 12 talked about expanding. Houston was considered a lead contender. It all ended up just being talk.
“It’s a shame. We belong in the Big 12,” Fertitta said. “All those people a couple years ago said they were going to help us and it was all talk and it was all bullshit. We want to be in one of the major Power Five conferences.
“We start the season out $30 million less than all the big schools have to play just on TV, just that alone. Give us that $30 million, we’re on a much fairer playing level.”
The common thought is that the Texas schools are holding Houston out to try and prevent Houston from competing on an equal playing field with them. Fertitta buys into that theory.
“It appears that way,” Fertitta said. “It’s disappointing but simple facts speak for themselves. Why would you want another school that can compete for that athlete? You can tell a kid in Houston, hey, you have the ability to go home and have dinner with your family on Sunday. Friends and relatives can all come out and see you. I understand.”
Fertitta leans back in the car and looks out the window while acknowledging that Houston might have look outside the Big 12 to join a Power Five conference because of the politics. He also mentions that conference doesn’t matter too much; Houston can still make a playoff case down the road. “You just can’t stumble at all.”
Regardless of the conference, realignment is on the horizon. The Big 12’s Grant of Rights expires in 2025, and no one knows what will happen after that. Other conferences could shift even sooner. Just this year, UConn announced that it was leaving the American Athletic Conference. Other moves will happen down the road.
That makes finding people who want to be part of the long-term vision of the university even more critical. The university has made major strides with Fertitta on the board and Renu Khator as an 11-year president. The plan is to get the athletic program there too.
“Well, obviously I made a bad judgement when I took Hunter Yurachek and made him athletic director,” Fertitta said. “I wasn’t even going to interview him, but I really liked him and he said, ‘I have no desire to go anywhere else, I want to raise my kids in Houston.’ In 18 months, he goes to Arkansas.”
With Holgorsen in the fold and both an athletic director and basketball coach locked up, Fertitta believes he has his triumvirate for the future of Houston athletics.
“We’ve got people in place who want to be there,” Fertitta said. “Kelvin Sampson wants to be there in basketball. You have [athletic director] Chris Pezman who went to the University of Houston and was an all-conference linebacker. He doesn’t have any desire to go anywhere. You have Dana, who has no desire to go anywhere. None. He wants to coach at Houston the next 10-15 years.”
Into the future
We arrive at Oklahoma’s stadium slightly behind schedule because of the traffic. Fertitta still insists on going to the tailgate. These are the moments when you realize that you’re spending time with Houston royalty.
Cougars and Sooners fans alike stop and stare as the iconic billionaire walks around the stadium with his entourage. Some throw him the Coogs hand sign, holding their ring finger down with their thumb with their other three fingers up. Fertitta signals back at them. Others whisper that this man casually walking with a pair of black jeans and a polo is the owner of the Houston Rockets. A few probably even remembered him from his former reality show, “Billion Dollar Buyer.” There had to be a few CNBC fans in the house.
At the alumni tailgate, Fertitta poses for every picture and shakes every hand. Everyone who speaks to him leaves the interaction smiling.
“I just appreciate that people appreciate me,” Fertitta said. “This is how it is all around Houston between Rockets, Houston and all my businesses...I’m a normal guy. I’ll go back to Houston tonight, I’ll go out and I’ll have a drink at a little bar. Just because you’re worth a few billion dollars, why does that make me any different? I love being with the people.”
“Thank you for everything you do!” one Houston alum exclaimed while taking a picture.
“I’m just doing my part,” Fertitta said.
We spend about half an hour at the tailgate, mingling with the Coogs, and then walk through the gates of Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. The magnitude of the moment is not lost on anyone.
“Just the opportunity to come up here and do this is unbelievable,” Fertitta said. “It’s huge. Oklahoma is Oklahoma. I wish we played them every year.”
We move to the sideline. Fertitta walks out on the field to talk to Holgorsen and a few players pregame. After a few minutes, he moves to the sideline and sits on the air conditioned football benches to avoid the sweltering heat.
“We want to be a 9-win, 10-win team every year and playing in a major bowl,” Fertitta said. “There’s going to be conference realignment and you need to win. If our basketball program is strong and our football program is strong…
“We’ve done a tremendous job of raising the school from an academic standpoint to Tier 1. There’s 6,000 colleges in America and I think we’re now ranked like No. 172. It’s not just about athletics, it’s everything. You want to be a top notch school, you’ve got to be strong in academics, you’ve got to be strong in athletics.”
I ask him about how significant a game like this is, one on national television against a team that played in the College Football Playoff in three of the past four seasons.
“You’re starting tradition where Dana is coach, and we’re expecting a lot,” Fertitta said. “I hope we play well.”
With that, Fertitta went up to his private box and I meandered over to the Oklahoma press box. Houston did play well, but not well enough to beat the No. 4 team in the nation. The Cougars lost 49-31 in Holgorsen’s debut.
Two weeks later, Houston prepares to face Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars, another one of the top teams in the nation, but this time at NRG Stadium in Houston. There will be more opportunities. It’s just how the University of Houston schedules.
But this game – this season – isn’t about now. It’s about building, just like Fertitta did when he created a $5 billion business empire out of virtually thin air. Houston hopes he can do the same.
“He knows a little something about building an organization, he knows a thing or two about building a sports franchise,” Holgorsen said. “His expertise and his knowledge are awesome. We’ve got great leadership at the University of Houston.”
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