The Harris County – Houston Sports Authority Insider

Watt, Fertitta headline Houston honorees

Tilman Fertitta made the Fertitta Center a reality. Houston Cougars Men's Hoops Facebook

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One is Houston's Captain America. The other is a visionary businessman who makes things happen.

And, not coincidentally, they are two of the biggest names in Houston sports.

Yes, we're talking J.J. Watt and Tilman Fertitta – two men who make things happen; two men who are being honored with Legacy Awards February 6 at the Houston Sports Awards presented by Insperity.

Watt, the Houston Texans all-everything defensive end is being honored with the Sportsmanship Award for the second year, while Fertitta, the Houston Rockets owner, will receive the Executive of the Year Award presented by Mercedes-Benz Dealers of Greater Houston. They join the late President George H.W. and wife Barbara Bush as the three Legacy Award winners. The Bushes will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Watt, the Houston Texans all-everything defensive end, has captivated the nation and become as dominant off the field as he is on it with his commitment to giving back to the Houston area.

What started with a YouCaringFund that raised $41.6 million for Hurricane Harvey relief in 2017 and continued through 2018 when he offered to pay for the funerals of the 10 victims of the Santa Fe High school shooting has become a career-defining commitment for the NFL's 2018 Walter Payton Man of the Year. Watt's generosity and compassion set the tone for others to follow as the entire area – teams, athletes and individuals -- reached out to help and support the Santa Fe community.

Last year he cancelled his annual J.J. Watt Charity Classic to focus on hurricane relief efforts but announced it would return in May of 2019.

His charitable side is matched only by his relentlessness on the field. The 29-year-old Pro Bowler and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year played just eight games in two seasons because of a broken leg, a herniated disk and two surgeries. This year, he has has stepped back onto the field as the heart of the Texans defense and has been such a force, he's mentioned as a Player of the Year candidate.

He's the NFL's all-time leader in sacks per game, averaging 0.89 per contest, edging out the late Hall of Famer Reggie White (0.85).

Fertitta has been a force in real estate and restaurants for decades, but his vision and business savvy have also made a huge impact on Houston sports. In his first season as Rockets owner, Fertitta saw his team win a regular-season team record 65 games and advance to the Western Conference Finals where they lost in Game 7 to the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors. During the season, Fertitta worked to involve the entire community with the team and impacted the Houston sports scene.

As Chairman of the UH System Board of Regents, he has been instrumental in a campaign to modernize UH's athletic facilities. Fertitta's $20 million gift to the University of Houston – the single largest individual donation in UH history – helped transform Hofheinz Pavilion, now Fertitta Center, into a modern 7,100-seat arena. The opening of the Center was a two-night affair with an invitation-only ceremony November 29 followed by the UH-Oregon basketball game December 1. The Cougars upset then-18th-ranked Oregon 65-61. The opening is one of the nominees for Event of the Year.

The Harris County – Houston Sports Authority also announced the finalists for six other awards Thursday.

Olympic gold medalist and four-time World Champion Simone Biles, Rockets guard and 2018 MVP James Harden, Astros' third baseman Alex Bregman and Texans' wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins are the nominees for Athlete of the Year, while 2018 Outland Trophy winner Ed Oliver and UH teammate D'Eriq King, former UH guard Rob Gray and Texas A&M's Trayveon Williams are the nominees for College Athlete of the Year.

Coach of the Year nominees are Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, Astros manager A.J. Hinch, UH basketball coach Kelvin Sampson and Texans' coach Bill O'Brien. Moment of the year nominees are the Opening of Fertitta Center, Rodeo Houston, the Texans' Monday Night Football win over Tennessee/Celebration of late owner Bob McNair, and the NBA Western Conference Finals.

Hopkins' spin catch against the Dallas Cowboys, Biles' World Championship, Santa Fe High's first 2018 football game and the Houston Dynamo winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup are nominees for Moment of the Year.

St. Pius X quarterback Grant Gunnell, Woodlands track and field/football graduate Kesean Carter, Cy Ranch volleyball and wrestling star Kaitlyn Banas and Cy Woods Volleyball and basketball star Cate Reese are the High School Athlete of the Year nominees.

# # #

Looking for a Christmas gift for a Houston sports fan in your life? Consider buying him or her a ticket for the 2019 Houston Sports Awards Golden Ticket Raffle.

There are only 500 tickets available and the winner will take home a pair of season tickets to all Houston Astros, Houston Rockets, Houston Dynamo, Houston Dash and Rodeo Houston home games/events during the 2019-20 season. The winner will also receive tickets to two Texans home games and to the Academy Sports + Outdoors 2019 Texas Bowl.

Raffle tickets can be purchased for $100 per ticket and that enters you into the drawing for all the above-mentioned tickets.

All proceeds from Golden Ticket sales benefit Harris County – Houston Sports Authority Foundation and the winner of drawn at the Houston Sports Awards. Winners do not need to be present to win. To enter go to https://houstonsportsawards.com/golden-ticket-raffle/

Among Houston sports owners, there appears to be a clear power broker emerging.

Jim Crane brought a World Series to Houston, which will forever endear him to the Houston sports fan. Cal McNair has just recently taken over for his late father as the owner of the Texans, so he has yet to build a profile in the city.

That brings us to Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta. In a very short time, he has made an incredible impact on the Houston sports landscape. The Billion Dollar Buyer's Rockets damned near knocked off the Warriors in his first year as owner. If the team can stay healthy, maybe they make another run this year.

He also holds the keys to a potential NHL team in Houston, controlling Toyota Center.

But Fertitta's real impact has come as chairman of the board of regents at the University of Houston.

Fertitta was instrumental in the school raiding a power five program for head football coach Dana Holgorsen. He was responsible for the shiny new Fertitta Center, perhaps the best sports experience in the city. He is the kind of high profile, high energy personality that was sorely needed at UH. He is good with the media and not afraid to step into the spotlight.

Along with president Renu Khator, Fertitta has brought big ideas and a big vision to the school. And he has put his money where his mouth is by funding the renovation of the basketball arena.

The result? When it comes to the two biggest revenue sports, UH has become one of the most successful Group of Five programs, and is better situated than most of the non high profile Power Five programs.

He has also shown is he not willing to accept mediocrity. When Major Applewhite was hired to coach the football team, it made sense. It was an attempt to continue building on Tom Herman's success. It failed.

Rather than trying to ride it out, he went after Holgorsen, who should be a big winner at UH. Fertitta and company also appear to have made a strong hire in AD Chris Pezman.

Of course, the high profile sport at the moment is Kelvin Sampson's basketball team, ranked in the Top 10 with a 26-1 record, a projected No. 3 seed in the tournament and a dark horse candidate for the Final Four. They have turned the Fertitta Center into the place to be, with stars like Chris Paul and Alvin Kamara sitting courtside.

Not every move has worked out, but the school's bigtime vision has been fun to watch. The Cougars pursued the Big 12, but were rebuffed. Instead of folding up, they spent more money on facilities.

Keep winning, and at some point UH will be valuable to a bigger conference, perhaps the Pac-12, which is lagging behind the other Power Fives. It would bring a major market to help boost a flagging TV Network, as well as a high profile program that will only get better. Or they will simply help build the AAC into something even bigger.

The key is to keep winning and people will notice.

Fertitta gets that. His name recognition alone is helping to raise the profile of the school. But he continues to dream big, and push for more for UH.

Yes, a lot of other people are responsible for what is going on at UH. This is not to diminish their impact. But Fertitta's profile and money have been a driving force. His involvement has made them relevant.

So yes, Fertitta might be the biggest management name in Houston sports right now. Rockets owner. Perhaps soon to be NHL owner. But most importantly, the leadership face of UH athletics.

Oh yes, and Billion Dollar Buyer.

How far will UH go? That remains to be seen. But it would be silly to bet against the school or Fertitta.

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