Red McCombs turned 91 years old in October, but he’s still selling, still showing up at the office every day, his wheels still turning. That’s evident in the lead photo of this column: Red sitting behind an Indy 500 race car at the McNay Art Museum last week, promoting the launch of the IndyCar CLASSIC Series at the Circuit of the Americas track in Austin next March.
Legally, he is B.J. “Red” McCombs, the initials short for Billy Joe, a name I have never heard said out loud in the 30 years I’ve known Red.
I was at the McNay to catch up with Red after he fell under the weather two Saturdays ago and left an empty seat onstage at San Antonio CityFest. Red was one of six singular San Antonians, individuals so familiar we know them by their first names. All were invited to appear on a showcase panel, San Antonio Icons and Turning Points in Contemporary History. On a day when much of the programming explored the city’s future, we wanted to make sure some of the most important stories about the past 50 years of city development were not forgotten.
Red and former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell were unable to participate, so I decided to connect with Red last week to capture for readers what he would have shared with the CityFest audience. I’ll do the same with Lila after Trinity University Press publishes her nearly completed memoir in the coming months.
While Red and Lila were not present, four other iconic San Antonians captivated the audience with their stories: former Mayors Henry Cisneros and Phil Hardberger, catering pioneer Rosemary Kowalski, and civil rights and arts advocate Aaronetta Pierce. The hour flew by, and at the end, the audience responded with a standing ovation.
Red could have filled the hour all by himself. I’ve spent many hours with him over the years, hearing stories of his rags-to-riches gallop through life and his strongly held views on contemporary life and politics in San Antonio. There are two Red McCombs books on my shelf. Here is the first paragraph of his autobiography:
“I was born in 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh flew alone across the Atlantic, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, Ford discontinued the Model T, the Great Depression had America by the throat, and the song that may have best reflected the times was ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime?’”
Red was born in the small West Texas town of Spur. One has to believe his birthplace was the inspiration for the eventual name of the five-time NBA Championship basketball team he brought to San Antonio for the 1973-74 season, then known as the Chaparrals, struggling to draw 150-250 fans per game in Dallas.
“Most people think I bought the team because I’m a jock,” McCombs said last week. “Well, it’s true that I’m a jock, but that’s not why I bought them and moved them here. I knew San Antonio was never going to get on the map unless we had a professional sports franchise here, and one that was a winner.”
The Chaparrals-turned-Spurs were in the old American Basketball Association, and today’s sports fan would find the numbers back then hard to comprehend. Journeymen players earned $400-$500 a month, and just about anyone could afford a good seat in the HemisFair Arena.
McCombs negotiated a highly favorable transfer deal. The team’s asking price was $800,000, but McCombs leased the team for half that much cash in a lease-buy deal that included 50 other local investors. Within three years, most had sold their stock back to McCombs.
Dr. Joe Pierce was one of four local African-American investors in the group, Aaronetta told the CityFest audience. Later, she told me the investors were required to pledge $45,000 each, and could buy in at $15,000 a year over three years. Imagine how many of us would become Spurs owners if that deal were on the table today.
The sellers, led by Dallas Mayor Robert Folsom, even agreed to cover any losses in the team’s first three years that exceeded $400,000, while accepting payment for the team out of the cash flow generated at games.
No deal epitomized McCombs’ salesmanship more than his acquisition of the Spurs, which he intuitively knew could put San Antonio on the map as only the Alamo had.
“San Antonio trained the people of this country to go fight and win two wars, and yet that didn’t make us an important city in the eyes of others around the country,” McCombs said last week. “We needed something more, and I had known since we organized and put on HemisFair in 1968 that the people of the city and everyone outside the city needed to see a big pro sports team in San Antonio.”
McCombs came to San Antonio in the late 1950s, a successful young auto dealer with a much grander vision for building a business empire, arriving from Corpus Christi, home to his wife, Charline. Her name graces the Empire Theatre, and for those who know her well, she proved to be the ideal partner, renowned for her deprecating comments meant to keep larger-than-life Red down-to-earth.
Together they built that empire, so Charline’s name on that theater can be read in more than one way. Oil and gas, Longhorn cattle, one of the largest and most influential Ford dealerships in the country, and owner of the Spurs (twice), Denver Nuggets, and Minnesota Vikings. That doesn’t count the deals shopped to Red that he turned down.
McCombs today is a familiar billionaire legend, a civic promoter and philanthropist, with a thriving 21st century business empire and family foundation largely in the hands of daughter Marsha Shields and confidant Rad Weaver.
“It wasn’t always that way,” he said. “In the beginning I didn’t have any money, and even when I bought the Clippers, the failing minor league baseball team in Corpus Christi, I managed to get control of the stock without actually paying any cash for it. My first used car business there had three employees: me, another sales guy, and the fellow that washed cars.”
HemisFair ’68 also was cash-poor and on shaky ground in the year leading up to its opening. Kodak was the only big corporate name committed to a pavilion. Most of the big names found at the 1964-65 New York world’s fair and Expo ’67 in Montreal were not interested in a San Antonio world’s fair. Former employees of the 1962 Seattle world’s fair were brought to San Antonio to help rescue the project.
Even Ford Motor Co., then run by Lee Iacocca, a friend of McCombs, at the time one of the country’s most prominent Ford dealers, turned him down. McCombs kept calling, eventually wearing out his welcome and provoking the top auto executive in the United States to curse him over the phone before hanging up.
“We thought San Antonio was great little city, but the Fortune 500 companies simply were not interested,” McCombs said. “Lee finally told me not to call him back again, that I might not believe it, but San Antonio does not matter in the world of Ford, economically or politically.”
McCombs didn’t get to be where he is today by folding his hand. A conversation with then-Texas Gov. John Connally led to a call to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who picked up the phone and called Henry Ford II. That did the trick, and once Ford was committed, other corporate sponsors followed.
“We pulled off a world’s fair that was unbelievable and didn’t cost the city anything and that left them with 100 acres downtown, free and clear, and the Tower of the Americas,” McCombs said. “It was a success in every way, and it helped bring San Antonio into a modern era, but it didn’t make us a great city in the eyes of others. For that we needed a professional sports team in town.”
HemisFair ’68 came to a close and McCombs went back to work, building his empire, searching for new opportunities, looking at every sports deal in the country. Five years later, McCombs had his team and San Antonio had its Spurs. That’s the short version.