It was meant to be a day of celebration and joy. The University of Houston accepting a gift of $20 million — the largest such donation in school history — to be used for the renovation of Hofheinz Pavilion. But in the end, what probably matters most is the answer to a question on every Cougar's mind: Will it boost the University of Houston's chances of getting into the Big 12?
The answer came towards the end of the press conference when, after getting details about facility costs and when construction would begin, UH President Renu Khatur and Tilman J. Fertitta fielded a question about whether the refurbished Hofheinz Pavilion would help UH’s bid. Khatur was non-committal and said she hoped UH athletes would soon be able to compete against the best at all levels of college competition. But it was Fertitta, chairman of UH’s board of regents, and the benefactor responsible for the $20 million gift, who willingly addressed the topic.
“They have a timeline,” Fertitta said of the Big 12, “and we think in the next 60 to 90 days it’ll all be over, and hopefully the University of Houston will be in the Big 12.”
Fertitta continued that he could not understand any decision that didn’t end with Houston joining the conference, and that he can’t wait for the likes of Texas, Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to be playing games against the Cougars on campus.
“I think there is a whole lot of support out there,” he said, “from university presidents to athletic directors, and from the media out there and student bodies and from the alumni of lots of different schools that are in the Big 12.”
The purpose of the press conference, and why everyone was gathered, was not the Big 12, however. It was to discuss Fertitta's donation, and how the UH athletics department will use it for the renovation of Hofheinz Pavilion. While UH has not yet raised all of the money needed for the project, the Fertitta gift is enough for UH to finally begin work on the much-needed massive upgrade to the facility, which should begin after the end of the upcoming basketball season.
UH projects the facility will be complete in time for the 2018-19 basketball season, at which time it will no longer be known as Hofheinz Pavilion, but will instead be called Fertitta Center. There was some blowback earlier this year regarding the potential renaming of the facility, with the Hofheinz family going to court in an attempt to keep the Hofheinz name attached to the building. But that’s no longer the issue — the Hofheinz family even came to the press conference. And the name Hofheinz will not disappear from the campus, as a statue of Roy Hofheinz will be placed on a new Hofheinz Plaza, just outside of the Fertitta Center.
“We think it’s real significant,” Fred Hofheinz, the former mayor of Houston and the son of Roy Hofheinz said, “that the name of one great Houston entrepreneur, Roy Hofheinz, is going to be replaced by another great Houston entrepreneur in Tilman Fertitta. And I would say, also, that I think it’s important to Houston that the name on this building continues to be a Houstonian.”
Fertitta, the chairman and CEO of the Landry’s restaurant chain, as well as a reality TV star, was born in Galveston and attended UH before getting into the food business. In his comments yesterday, Fertitta stressed his ties to Houston as the key to his contribution to the university, and thanked the Hofheinz family for their past and continued support. And with the Hofheinz family looking on, Fertitta reminded those too young or too new to Houston just how important Roy Hofheinz was to the city.
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“You think about what he accomplished…He changed the city,” Fertitta said about Judge Roy Hofheinz, speaking of how Hofheinz built the Astrodome and lured a major league baseball team to Houston. Laterm Hofheinz built Astroworld, purchased a circus and built hotels and resorts in Houston. “Nobody had ever thought of Houston as a tourist city until Roy Hofheinz came along. So what an honor it is for me today to be able to take this facility, and take it to the next level.”
The Cougars see a new, upgraded basketball arena as one of the last pieces in the puzzle for returning UH hoops to its past glory, joining the recently added pieces of head coach Kelvin Sampson and the Guy V. Lewis Basketball Development Center. Sampson has spoken of the importance of new facilities in the past, and stated he can’t wait for the chance to show recruits a new basketball arena.
“Winning is important,” head basketball coach Kelvin Sampson said. “But winning the right way is more important. With the Guy V. Lewis Development Center, with the Fertitta Center, now we have a chance. Now we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the giants and expect to compete.”
Whether those are the giants of the Big 12, or some other conference, is still to be determined. But hopefully there’ll be a decision by the end of football season. And no matter the conference, the new Fertitta Center should outshine them all.