Culture / Sporting Life

Tilman Fertitta On His Dana Holgorsen Belief, UH’s “Biggest Game” and His Rockets Process Pain — A Billionaire Unplugged

A PaperCity Exclusive

BY // 12.02.21

It is 14 minutes till midnight when we connect on phone, one of the best times to reach Tilman Fertitta, the Houston billionaire business and sports tycoon whose mind is always thinking of the next deal and definitely does not shut off at 10 pm. One of Fertitta’s greatest deals — the complete resurrection of the University of Houston’s athletic program which he helped orchestrate — is on his mind at the moment.

Dana Holgorsen — the coach Fertitta long ago bonded with when they were both younger and just as ambitious as they are now, the man the billionaire helped bring from Big 12 West Virginia to H-Town — has UH 11-1 and set to play No. 4 Cincinnati Saturday in one the biggest conference championship games in America.

“Dana’s always been a straight shooter,” Fertitta tells PaperCity. “And I’ve always liked that about Dana. He really wants to be in Houston and I thought he was the right pick three years ago and I think he’s proving it now.

“He had his first year. His second year was COVID. This is his third year and I think he’s who we thought he was going to be.”

Fertitta and Holgorsen both have little patience for fools or BS artists and their shared willingness to be blunt and take on a problem head on helped them form a bond when Holgorsen was first at UH as a hotshot, up-and-coming offensive coordinator. Now, Fertitta usually checks in with his friend at least once a week during the season, even as both men balance countless responsibilities.

So yes it means something to Fertitta to see an 11-1 UH team in a championship game with Dana Holgorsen as the coach.

“It’s a huge game,” Fertitta says. “It’s one of the biggest games that UH has ever played in. They’re going up against a really good football team. I think that the last team to beat (Cincinnati) was Georgia. Just 24-21 (last January). And we know how good Georgia is.

“So it will be an exciting game Saturday and win or lose, we’ve accomplished a lot this year. The kids have done a great job. And the coaching staff has done a great job.”

Dana Holgorsen college athletics The University of Houston Cougars prevailed in an overtime 31-24 win over East Carolina University, Saturday
Tilman Fertitta always believed getting Dana Holgorsen would be a coup for the University of Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Fertitta essentially adopted the University of Houston as a passion project long ago. Some billionaires collect priceless art. Or exotic supercars. Tilman Fertitta pours his time and money into helping transform his city’s university. It’s about making Houston better. And he is as involved with the school as ever. He is still the chairman of the UH System Board of Regents (as he has been since 2009) — and he refused to let Houston be left out of the Big 12’s expansion. He is not able to go to as many UH games these days as he did before he bought the Houston Rockets, but he does plan to jet in for Saturday’s title tilt in Cincinnati.

Still, in our talk, Fertitta is quick to share the credit for a transformation that sees UH’s two most impactful athletic programs — football and men’s basketball — set up for longterm success with Dana Holgorsen and Hall of Fame worthy program resurrector Kelvin Sampson locked in.

Combine that with the impending Big 12 move (which could happen as soon as 2023) and in many ways, Fertitta does not have to worry about UH’s athletic future as much as he did in the past. He can focus on other team and business building.

“I think it’s something we’ve all worked on at UH for many years,” he says. “I think we put the right team together in Chris Pezman as AD and the right coaches for the major sports. And I don’t think we could be any happier.

“Right now, athletically in the big two — football and basketball — we’re in the Top 15, 16 in the country, with a few programs in the whole United States to accomplish that. We’re thrilled. We’re excited. We’ve worked hard on it. And the chancellor (Renu Khator) and the whole board of regents understand the importance of the success of athletics.

“You’re able to monetize winning athletic programs to bring other money into a university. It’s very important and we all understand that.”

“Dana’s always been a straight shooter. And I’ve always liked that about Dana. He really wants to be in Houston and I thought he was the right pick three years ago and I think he’s proving it now.” — Tilman Fertitta on Dana Holgorsen

This Saturday’s American Athletic Conference Championship Game on ABC is another national spotlight moment for UH, following on the heels of Kelvin Sampson’s rolling basketball program’s Final Four run. That kind of momentum matters — and builds on itself. When Clayton Tune, Marcus Jones and Alton McCaskill take on the Bearcats as big underdogs, UH will be showcased too.

It will be a while before the Houston Rockets play in a game of this magnitude again. Fertitta admits that it’s difficult for him to deal with the losing. Even with a four game winning streak, the Rockets remain dead last in the Western Conference with a 5-16 record. (Though, they’ve never lost a game by 73 points.)

“It’s very hard,” Fertitta tells PaperCity. “Because I like to win. But I understand that this is the process. And the biggest mistake you can make is we could bring in a brunch of veterans with these young guys and win more games. But it’s not the right process.

“You’ve got to let these guys have the minutes. And you’ve got to let it work. We don’t want to be one of those building programs that are just mediocre for four years or five years. That’s what a lot of teams decide to do. And when you’ve been as good as we were for so many years, yeah we could have had the eighth seed in the playoffs or the ninth seed.

“But it’s better to tear it apart and start over and build up again. It will last for many years to come.”

Tilman Fertitta Opens Up on the Rockets’ Process

The guy who used to bring his grandfather’s briefcase to school as a little kid and tell people he had his business in it, the tycoon who still looks at the numbers for all the various businesses across his Landry’s Inc. empire every single day, studied the history of the NBA before he accepted this route. As always, Tilman Fertitta did his own due diligence.

“It was hard for me,” Fertitta says of taking the rebuilding path. “But I listened to the process and I studied what other teams have done in the last 30 years in the NBA and how this works. . . And this is the correct way to do it. You don’t just want to be a mediocre team.

“You want to be one of those teams every year — like we were — that a break here or there, you can win a championship. You want to set yourself up to be one of the top two or three teams in your conference and then anything can happen.”

Fertitta has become immersed in advanced basketball analytics, right along with his general manager Rafael Stone and his son Patrick Fertitta. Including some of the Rockets’ own proprietary analytics.

“It’s analytics you don’t see in the box score,” the owner says. “You don’t see in the newspaper. It’s different analytics. It’s at a higher level. You can look at a box score and think, ‘Oh my God, this guy had a triple double, he must be great!’ Where this person really was inefficient and wasn’t very good.”

Jalen Green Rockets
The Houston Rockets are wishing upon a star with Jalen Green.

As with all his other businesses, if you give Tilman Fertitta enough numbers, he’ll quickly grow to be able to seize on what the important ones are.

“I enjoy it,” he tells PaperCity of his basketball analytics conversion. “I sure wasn’t a basketball guru. I thought I knew a lot before I owned the team. I realized how much I didn’t know. There’s just different analytics that you look at in all sports that tell you so much more than you ever thought that you knew.”

Humbleness is not a trait people often associate with Fertitta, who is a natural promotor whether he is considering taking his company public or ultimately deciding against it. But you do not turn yourself into a billionaire tycoon without putting in the time and schooling yourself on every business you take on. And Fertitta sounds pretty humble when he talks about the Rockets process — and even UH’s success — on this night. He is still always trying to get better at all his ventures. There’s always another level.

“You can look at a box score and think, ‘Oh my God, this guy had a triple double, he must be great!’ Where this person really was inefficient and wasn’t very good.” — Tilman Fertitta

It is close to midnight and Tilman Fertitta is still thinking about business.

“I’m always working on some deals that you can write about in the weeks or months to come,” he laughs. “I always have deals working. And there’s always something exciting to happen every year.”

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