THE INSIDER

A weekly look at all things Houston sports from the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority: Alexander, Luhnow and Watt honored at inaugural Houston Sports Awards

J.J. Watt garnered a big award. Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

The Harris County – Houston Sports Authority Insider will take you inside Houston Sports each Friday because #WeAreHoustonSports! Check out the web site here.

One brought the city back-to-back world championships a few decades ago and may have just set up his former team for a run at a third.

One asked for patience with a team at the bottom of the standings and delivered a world championship a few years later.

And one a hero who simply lifted us onto his broad shoulders during the worst disaster the city has ever seen and gave us hope.

Leslie Alexander, Jeff Luhnow and J.J. Watt – in order – didn’t just stand out in 2017. They stood above. They made lasting impacts on the nation’s fourth-largest city and were the epitome of #HoustonStrong.

And now they’re being honored at the inaugural Houston Sports Awards, Feb. 8 at the Hilton Americas.

Alexander, who owned the Houston Rockets for 24 years before selling one of the league’s best teams to Tilman Fertitta, will be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Luhnow, the Houston Astros General Manager, will be honored as Executive of the Year for rebuilding a 111-loss 2013 Astros team in into 2017 World Series Champions.

And Watt? What can you say about the Texans’ All-pro defensive end who became a sort of patron saint of Houston for raising over $37 million for Hurricane Harvey Relief? He didn’t just touch Houston, he touched the world with his YouCaring initiative and will be honored with the Sportsmanship Award.

J.J. was the talk of the town and national-news-worthy daily in the aftermath of Harvey as the three-time NFL defensive player of the year, seeded the fund with $100,000 and hoped to raise just $200,000. The effort took off and his daily total was a staple on network news as the world watched the number skyrocket in just a few short weeks to over $37 million.

You shouldn’t be surprised. The man who shared Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year honors with Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, started his Justin J. Watt Foundation, which serves middle school programs in 28 states, when he was in college at Wisconsin.

The city that celebrated his efforts, cried with him, too, when a  few weeks after raising the money, Watt, who was coming back from back and groin injuries in 2016, suffered a season-ending left leg injury.

Les Alexander made news first in 2017 for putting the Houston Rockets up for sale, then for donating $10 million to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Hurricane Harvey Relief efforts. The financier and philanthropist purchased the Rockets in 1993 and delivered back-to-back NBA Championships in 1994 and 1995. He followed that up with his Houston Comets winning the first four WNBA titles from 1997-2000.

Alexander wasn’t afraid to bring superstars in to boost the roster. In his second season as owner, he added Clyde Drexler, who was key in the second NBA title, then Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen.  He set the stage for this year’s powerhouse roster picking up James Harden in 2012, then adding Chris Paul before selling to Fertitta.

Jeff Luhnow knows a little about building a team, too. When he came to the Astros in 2011 from St. Louis, he asked for patience with his long-range rebuilding plan, then started fast. On his second day, he traded for Marwin Gonzales then made Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, Jr., his first two draft picks in 2012.

The 50-year-old added manager A.J. Hinch then gave him Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. But the key to the 2017 run came just a minute before the trade deadline when he made a deal to add ace Justin Verlander. With that, the Astros, who won the AL West by 21 games, beat three storied franchises -- the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers -- on the way to the title.

Three men. Three strong legacies. And more to come.

####

A reminder that you can now purchase tickets for the 2018 Houston Sports Awards Golden Ticket Raffle. Each ticket gives you a chance to win a pair of season tickets to all Houston Astros, Houston Rockets, Houston Dynamo, Rodeo Houston & Houston Open home games/events during the 2018-19 season. In addition, the winner receives tickets for two Houston Texans home games, the 2018 AdvoCare Texas Kickoff and the 2018 Texas Bowl. Information is available at www.houstonsportsawards.com

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome