Two epic American success stories as different as can be. Two unlikely amigos. Both came together at the University of Miami February 10, to share their insights on winning, losing, and how to stay humble through it all.
Pat Riley, the fourth most winning coach in NBA history, is a Hall of Fame inductee and president of the Miami Heat. He is also a popular motivational speaker with two New York Times bestsellers to his credit. The dapper coach told an equally well-heeled audience in Storer Auditorium that he eschews the spotlight and is generally more comfortable surrounded by “half-naked and sweaty” men in an arena.
Miguel B. "Mike" Fernandez is the founder and chair of MBF Healthcare Partners, a private equity firm that invests in health care service companies nationwide, which recently spun off its iconic Navarro Discount Pharmacies to CVS Caremark. Last year his Simply Healthcare Holdings was acquired by Anthem Inc. for just under a billion dollars. He has also been a very good friend to the University of Miami, is a former member of the University’s Board of Trustees, and the proud Hurricane parent of three UM alumni plus a son who is currently a student-athlete on the Hurricanes basketball team.
The event, “Humbled by the Journey: Mike B. Fernandez in Conversation with Miami Heat President Pat Riley,” was a collaboration with Books & Books, heralding the release of Fernandez's first book, Humbled by the Journey: Life Lessons for My Family… and Yours.
The evening's moderator, Aileen Ugalde, vice president, general counsel, and secretary of the University, began by asking the men how they first met.
“I crashed his party,” Riley remarked, elaborating that he and his wife were driving though their neighborhood one night when they passed a house with "great music" coming from it. Riley stopped the car, let himself into the stranger’s home where a party was under way, and strolled up to Fernandez, saying, “I’ve always wanted to meet the guy who lives in the big house.”
It was the launch of a great friendship that has survived largely because Fernandez “doesn’t know jack about sports," quipped Riley. "He thought I was a baseball coach.”
Differences aside, both men credit their wives for where they are today, and both consider themselves dreamers with missions realized by hard work.
Another theme they agree on is that failure has been a key motivator and character builder in their lives.
“Whoever you pray to, pray for failure, pray for some adversity,” advised Riley, “I never thought of anything else but how to overcome.”
But that doesn’t mean every loss is a failure. In 1966, Riley was playing basketball for the University of Kentucky when his team went up against Texas Western in the NCAA finals. “It was the first time five white players played against five black players on national television,” he recalled. Texas won and the game proved to be a watershed moment in helping to integrate schools in the South, said Riley. “This was one time in history when I was glad to take a loss.”
And despite his record of being the only coach in NBA history to lead three different franchises to the NBA Finals, Riley pointed out that he’s still lost 40 percent of all the games he’s ever coached. "That's a lot of miserable drives home with my wife telling me how to coach!"
Fernandez agreed. “If you don’t push yourself to the point of failing, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough,” he said. “No one remembers the 49 failures. They only remember that one success.” In Fernandez's case, make that 600 failures before his first success as a door-to-door insurance salesman in Miami.
It was the memory of his father, who had lost everything in the Cuban revolution, that made Fernandez persist.
On Christmas Eve, 1964, Fernandez was 12 when his family was “invited to leave Cuba” by soldiers in olive fatigues brandishing Russian machine guns. “I remember the fear in my parents’ eyes,” said Fernandez.
Flown out of Cuba on a DC3, they arrived in the middle of the night in Mexico City with no ID or passports. A man waiting beyond Customs gave them 50 pesos and drove them to a convent for shelter. Before leaving them, he leaned down to Fernandez and said, “Son, your job is to take care of those who come after you.” It is a message Fernandez has never forgotten.
He lends his time and leadership to several organizations, including the United Way of Miami-Dade County, the Perez Art Museum Miami, and the Miami Children’s Hospital Foundation. His support for educational expenses is helping 145 students get an education, and proceeds from his book go to the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation.
Humbled by the Journey is Fernandez's offering to his five children and grandchildren so they can appreciate their family’s history in Cuba and what came after in their new homeland. That story is interwoven with tales from the 508-mile trek Fernandez took after two heart attacks and a bout with cancer. It is a path more than 200,000 people walk every year, through southernmost France and northern Spain, known as El Camino de Santiago. Walking El Camino, said Fernandez, enabled him to encounter people from all backgrounds he’d never otherwise get to know.
While you’re walking El Camino, he explained, “They all call you Pilgrim. You’re all equal.”
Robin Shear can be reached at 305-284-1617.