Monday’s Presidents Day, the national holiday for occupants of the White House throughout history, made us think of the leaders of distinction over the decades in major team sports in Miami and South Florida.
Franchise owners, team executives and coaches – we’re talking about everyone but the players themselves. Who have been the most important and influential personalities we have had, not counting athletes, all sports and all times?
There was a handover quality to the timelines of the top two men on our list, as Pat Riley was introduced to Miami by the Heat in September 1995, just months before Don Shula retired from the Dolphins.
I consider myself a sports historian in Miami, so I think I have a good top 15 here. Again, Presidents Day can’t decide if there’s an apostrophe in there, so nothing is certain. (I’d fight you on my first two, though).
Our top 15 non-athletes in Miami team sports history:
1. Pat Riley (Heat president, 1995-present; Heat coach, 1995-03, 2005-08): Riley was introduced to a cruise ship called Imagination, said he was considering parades of championship on Biscayne Boulevard – and delivered. That’s three NBA crowns under his watch so far, and counting. Along the way, swing big Riley traded for Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal, drafted Dwyane Wade and signed LeBron James.
2. Don Shula (Dolphins coach, 1970-1995): Back-to-back Super Bowl wins, including the perfect 1972 season – still a one-of-a-kind achievement. Most NFL coaches win with 347 (274 with the Fins).
3. Wayne Huizenga (Marlins owner, 1993-98; Panthers owner, 1993-2001; Dolphins owner, 1994-08): – The only man to be a major player in three SoFla franchises, Huizenga was the founding father and the first owner of Baseball Marlins and Hockey Panthers. As owner of the Dolphins, his teams have made the playoffs eight times in 15 seasons (and have made the playoffs once in the 13 years since).
4. Joe Robbie (Dolphins Owner, 1966-89): A South Dakota attorney, Robbie jumped at the chance to bring an AFL expansion team to Miami, and the rest is history. Ingenuity and his own money built the stadium that is Hard Rock today. Underrated Robbie (and his wife Elizabeth) also owned the NASL Miami Toros-turned-Fort Lauderdale Strikers, the seed of pro football in South Florida.
5. Erik Spoelstra (Heat coach, 2008-present): Miami’s all-time winningest coach and a two-time champion. A Riley protege who started as the team’s video coordinator and rose through the ranks to recently be named one of the 15 greatest coaches in NBA history.
6. Joe Thomas (Dolphins director of player personnel, 1966-71; vice-president 1979-82): Put simply, Thomas’ recruitment in the era of the club’s expansion left a wealth of talent whose Shula inherited. Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Dick Anderson, Mercury Morris, Bill Stanfill, Jake Scott and Vern Den Herder were all Thomas finds. He also had one of Larry Little’s all-time steal deals in the trade.
7. Jimmy Johnson (Hurricanes football coach, 1984-88; Dolphins coach, 1996-99): At UM, “JJ” took over from Howard Schnellenberger and accelerated the Canes’ rise as a powerhouse, winning the national championship in 1987 and leaving the talent behind to help win two more over the next four years. With the Dolphins, Johnson’s draft picks included Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas, Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain and Daryl Gardener.
8. Howard Schnellenberger (Dolphins offensive coordinator, 1975-78; Hurricanes coach, 1979-83; FAU football founder/coach 1998-2011): Schnellenberger will forever be the father of the Canes football dynasty as a winner of the UM’s first national championship in 1983 At FAU, he started the program from scratch and left school with an on-campus stadium born of his own initiative and tireless fundraising.
9. Micky Arison (Heat owner, 1995-present): Arison is the top dog ever happy to be in the background, himself a revelation. His first hire as an owner was Pat Riley. Credit his quiet leadership for building the most competitive sports franchise in this market.
10. Dave Dombrowski (Marlins general manager, 1993-2001): Dombrowski orchestrated the little one’s best years, signing Jim Leyland and building the team that won the 1997 World Series. After a mandatory fire sale and rebuild , the team’s 2003 championship after his departure mainly included Dombrowski’s players.
11. David Beckham (President/Co-Owner of Inter Miami, 2020-present): Miami enters its third Major League Soccer season this Saturday, but Beckham’s perseverance has continued since 2014, through stadium delays and layers of Miami politics. The team didn’t win enough in their first two seasons, but Beckham’s commitment and brand are cause for optimism.
12. Ron Fraser (Hurricanes baseball coach, 1963-1992): Fraser took a fledgling, dying program with no money, no uniforms, and no scholarships and turned it into a powerhouse. The “Wizard of College Baseball” won two national titles and, as master promoter, carried out the construction of the program’s stadium on campus.
13. Sam Jankovich (Hurricanes director of athletics, 1983-1990): The most important RA in UM history, Jankovich oversaw three national football championships and brought men’s basketball back to campus after an absence of 15 years.
14. Honorable mentions: We haven’t forgotten you, Andy Elisburg, Derek Jeter, Jim Larranaga, Jim Leyland, Katie Meier, Jack McKeon, Kim Ng and Bill Torrey, among others. Jeter must start winning to go up. Ng might be higher for the lone trailblazer, as MLB’s first Asian and female general manager. We might also nod to incoming Canes football coach Mario Cristobal based on the instantaneous and massive spike in enthusiasm around the program since he was hired.
15. Brian Flores (Dolphins Coach, 2019-21): In closing, we’re saving a symbolic spot for Flores, the Dolphins’ first full-time (non-interim) black head coach, recently fired despite the team’s first straight season. club since 2003. What you see on this leaderboard are mostly white faces – Discard the only colored one. This underscores the point of Flores suing the NFL alleging racist hiring practices. The sport still has a long way to go in encouraging and realizing diversity at the owner, manager and coach level.
So. With preemptive apologies to any deserving names we may have overlooked…how did we arrive at our rankings?
© 2022 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.