Meet the (Formerly Anonymous) Billionaire Donor Behind a Massive Naming Gift

All the stars lined up for what was sure to be another Texas-sized gift made to the University of Houston.

As loyal IP readers know, Lone Star philanthropy is a self-sustaining economic juggernaut in its own right, so the stakes are automatically pretty high. Then you have the recipient school, the University of Houston, with a student population of around 43,000 and an endowment of approximately $790 million.

And of course, we cannot forgot the donor. That would be University of Houston alumni Tilman Joseph Fertitta, businessman, entrepreneur, television personality, and the chairman, CEO, and sole owner of Landry's, Inc., one of the nation's largest restaurant corporations. His net worth stands at a shade over $3 billion.

Add it all up and the amount of Fertitta's gift—$20 million—feels about right. 

Rather, it's the intent of the gift that we found to be mildly surprising. The money is being earmarked to remodel and rename the former Hofheinz Pavilion. The new and improved basketball arena will be dubbed the Fertitta Center.

The $60 million facility is seen as a vital step for the university if it hopes to become the newest member of the Big 12 Conference.

Now we know what you're thinking. Millions of dollars to support basketball in football-loving Texas? Indeed, we were taken aback at first, but hey, far strangers things have happened, right?

In fact, a closer look at the center's remodeling suggests that the gift is about far more than basketball. Here's Fertitta, who also serves as the chair of the university's Board of Regents:

To be a part of the next generation of the University of Houston, when being here and hanging out there and coming to the concerts and sporting events at Hofheinz Pavilion, and to be able to take it to the next level is extremely, extremely special to me.

Now at this point another thought may have occurred to you, and it involves naming rights.

Indeed, students of our higher education vertical know that that the process of renaming anything, be it a single building or an entire school, can be fraught with acrimony and lawsuits. It sounds easy enough on paper, but it's far more complicated in practice.

Fortunately, word out of Houston suggests that the school will spared a imbroglio. The Hofheinz family legacy begins with Roy Mark Hofheinz, a Texas state representative, a county judge, and the mayor of Houston from 1953 to 1955. He passed away in 1982. The Hofheinz name adorned the area for the past 47 years, but in a rather graceful and selfless move, his family said their father wouldn't mind the name change.

Roy's son Fred (who also served as the mayor of Houston) said, "We think it is real significant that the name of one great Houston entrepreneur, Roy Hofheinz is going to be replaced by another great Houston entrepreneur, Tillman Fertitta." (Fun fact: The Houston Astrodome was Roy's idea.)

What's more, the university will continue the family legacy by having a street, plaza, and statue bearing the Hofheinz name.

Which bring us back to the donor, Tilman Joseph Fertitta, dubbed by Forbes as "World’s Richest Restaurateur" and star of his own CNBC reality show, Billion Dollar Buyer. Fertitta sits on boards for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Greater Houston Partnership, and the Texas Heart Institute, and is the chairman of Houston Children’s Charity.

He has given to various health-related causes over the years, including the John P. McGovern Museum of Health & Medical Science, Friends of the Texas Medical Center Library, and Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, Inc. That said, he hasn't been as particularly public in his philanthropy as some of his billionaire peers.

Which brings us to one final and provocative—and possibly foreboding—twist. In November of 2015, UH announced a $20 million pledge toward the renovation project by an anonymous donor. Now we know it was Fertitta.

And so we wonder. With a fortune of $3 billion, what other big gives does Tillman Fertitta have up his sleeve?