Sports

Field of Nightmares: Billionaire John Ruiz Searching for More UM Stadium Sites via Helicopter

Coral Gables Senior High, site of John Ruiz's proposed stadium
Coral Gables Senior High, site of John Ruiz's proposed stadium Photo by Dr. Zak/Wikimedia Commons
The name "John Ruiz" has been top of mind for nearly every University of Miami (UM) football booster and power broker this past week, after the billionaire lawyer made the surprise announcement he was forming an "Orange Bowl Stadium Committee" to explore the prospect of building a new football stadium on the campus of Coral Gables Senior High School.

This comes on the heels of head coach Manny Diaz's firing and the surprise announcement that University of Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal — to whom Ruiz is related by marriage — will be his replacement. The Miami-based attorney, who formerly hosted the popular financial advice program La Ley on Spanish-language TV and now runs a firm called MSP Recovery that litigates Medicare claims, trumpeted his vision on Twitter, stating that the new stadium would have a retractable roof and be adjacent to the public high school.

Said vision was met with widespread disapproval from the school district, city leaders, and Gables High alumni. More than 3,100 people signed a petition to essentially "Save Coral Gables High" from Ruiz's plan. 

"A really ridiculous idea in all respects!" one alumna commented on the Coral Gables Senior High Grads! Facebook group. "Look for land that does not disrupt a residential community, that can withstand the traffic and noise factors."

“No one at the City of Coral Gables has had any conversations with Mr. Ruiz and we are NOT in favor of a stadium project," reads the City of Coral Gables' emailed statement to New Times. "In addition a stadium is not compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods and Coral Gables Senior High School is a community institution which we value. This property belongs to Miami-Dade County Public Schools. This proposal is speculative and one we do not support.”

Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, echoed the city's statement, saying the district "has not been formally approached about any proposals to build a stadium at the site of Coral Gables Senior High School."

Ruiz, though, is not discouraged. He tells New Times he is continuing to assemble a steering committee that will work to assess the feasibility of building a stadium at one of at least six sites (including Gables High). Diana Diaz, who co-chairs the committee and works as chief communications officer for Ruiz's firm,  says she and Ruiz will be performing aerial inspections of the other sites on Saturday from one of Ruiz's helicopters.

"We're just going to say that we're definitely exploring and have been to multiple sites," says Diaz, an alumna of Gables High, UM, and a longtime WSVN-7 reporter. "We don't want to go down that road again until we narrow down those truly viable locations."

Diaz says the group is not yet at liberty to disclose the locations of the other sites under consideration.

"The bigger goal is to provide not just a stadium, but a community," Ruiz says. "To give back to the younger generation and to provide a platform students from across Dade County can benefit from. Nothing is being done to harm anybody."

The news comes at a pivotal time for the university's football program as it brings aboard Cristobal and searches for a new athletic director. The Hurricanes technically haven't had a stadium to call their own since 2008, when the Orange Bowl was razed. The team has played its home games at Hard Rock Stadium, a 20-plus mile trek from campus via I-95, ever since.

Ruiz says he scrambled to make the announcement in an attempt to clear the air after a UM sports blog implied in a December 4 report about the then-rumored proposal that Gables High may be demolished to make way for the would-be stadium (Ruiz says that was never the case).

"People just kind of created adversity to it without really knowing what the plan was," Ruiz says. "So just like with anything else, you should not make a decision for or against until you know the situation. The bigger picture is that we're looking at all options, not just Coral Gables Senior High."

Setting aside the evidently forced messy rollout, Ruiz has had controversial business ventures fizzle in the past, and he lacks athletic administration and development experience.

Take, for example, his attempt nearly a decade ago to flip the 130-acre Homestead Sports Complex: With the help of then-Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman, a former political ally who was convicted of corruption-related charges in 2014, the city council at the time turned over the stadium to Ruiz who agreed to spend nearly $2 million in renovations and $250,000 in naming rights. The terms of the rent-to-buy deal meant that Ruiz could purchase the stadium for $16 million after a seven-year lease.

The deal imploded, though. Ruiz ultimately couldn't make utility payments on the property, couldn't get the place insured, and the City of Homestead filed a lawsuit to evict him in 2013. Not to mention the Department of Children and Families found that a group that was renting the space was housing nearly two dozen Venezuelan teens in the locker rooms in 2012. (In 2012, Ruiz, who owns boat manufacturer Cigarette Racing Team, also had his luxury cigarette boat repossessed.)

"The stadium in Homestead was a huge success," Ruiz counters. "It was a bunch of corrupt politicians that caused us to be unable to operate."

On Thursday, Ruiz announced he was donating $10 million to build a new sports facility at Westminster Christian School in Palmetto Bay.

Ruiz tells New Times he has donated generously to the university in the past though he declined to specify when and how much. Ruiz says he is in talks to donate even more money to UM and that an announcement on that front is imminent.
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Michael Majchrowicz is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. He studied journalism at Indiana University and has reported for PolitiFact, The New York Times, Washington Post, the Post and Courier, and Tampa Bay Times.

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