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Jeff Vinik honored at 24th Celebration of Free Enterprise

USF President Judy Genshaft, Jeff Vinik, Dean Moez Limayem

Tampa businessman Jeff Vinik has many accolades attached to his name: business visionary, community leader, generous philanthropist. This past week, he added another: the 24th Honoree of the Celebration of Free Enterprise.

The 2015 Celebration of Free Enterprise, hosted by the USF Muma College of Business on Sept. 24, brought business leaders from the Tampa Bay community together to raise money for student success initiatives at the college.

Held at the Marriott Waterside, the evening was full of references to Vinik's role in the Tampa Bay community, many of them familiar to Lightning fans. Fox Sun Sports Lightning broadcaster Paul Kennedy was the night's emcee, Lightning organist Krystof Srebrakowski played music all evening, and recently retired U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sonya Bryson sang the national anthem.

"I think we picked a winner this year!" Dean Moez Limayem told the crowd as he presented the award and detailed Vinik's impressive career. "Jeff Vinik is the essence of free enterprise and we cannot find a better person to honor."

Limayem cited the selection criteria: individuals that have consistently demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit, made significant contributions to the free enterprise system, and have a unique story to tell. Limayem spoke about Vinik's ownership of the the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Tampa Bay Storm, his leadership in revitalizing downtown, and his early success in the finance sector.

The evening also celebrated Vinik's current vision: a potential downtown expansion will include nearly three million square feet with three new office and hotel towers, USF's medical school and heart institute, 500 residential units and 5,000 additional parking spaces.

"When you bring a visionary leader like Jeff, together with the best business school that has a strong vision for itself and the community, lightning strikes!" Limayem said as laser-beam "lightning" lit up the room. 

USF System President Judy Genshaft spoke about the student success initiatives at USF that the evening's proceeds would help support.

"These scholarships help us as we help students transform into professionals from their first moments on campus," Genshaft said. "And speaking of transformation, the man we are here to honor tonight is a transformational thinker. Jeff Vinik took a risk on Tampa when he purchased the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Tampa Bay Storm. He envisioned an NHL experience like no other, one that focused on fans as much as the team – and recognized the importance of building the Tampa Bay community."

"It's an honor to get this award, I'm very thankful to USF," Vinik said as he accepted the award, calling USF a family. "The partnership that we have created was meant to be.... I'm so proud to own a team and be part of a community that USF is a part of."

Michael Kilgore, chief marketing officer of the Columbia Restaurant Group, attended the event and congratulated Vinik in a Facebook post on behalf of the company and former Free Enterprise honoree Richard Gonzmart.

"Honoree Tampa Bay Lightning owner, stock market hero, entrepreneur and City of Tampa cheerleader Jeff Vinik found himself in a minority of one at the University of South Florida Muma College of Business annual award dinner tonight: He thought that his stock perhaps was overvalued, 'kind of like internet stocks in 2000,'" Kilgore wrote. "Multiple standing ovations indicated his concern about performance might be one of the few times the genial and modest Vinik has made a mistake."

Vinik referred to his role in changing the brand of Tampa Bay with that trademark humility.

"We're just trying to do our part," he said. "I don't want the focus to be on me."

The evening's premium sponsor was TECO Energy, with other sponsors including Jabil Circuit, Chase Bank, DEX Imaging, the Debartolo family, and the Guterman family. To see a photo gallery from the event, visit the Muma College of Business Flickr page.