As word of B.J. “Red” McCombs’ death spread Monday, local leaders and others described the countless ways in which San Antonio is a better city because of the contributions of the gregarious local auto magnate, civic leader and self-professed sports addict.

And that’s just the stuff people know about.

“There are so many stories — things that he’s done behind the scenes that nobody knows,” said longtime San Antonio developer Marty Wender.

The billionaire businessman died Sunday at age 95, leaving a legacy told in colossal numbers that go far beyond his net worth. Funeral services for McCombs are set for Monday, Feb. 27, at 10 a.m. at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

Most know McCombs as a car dealership owner. But few people know that he was not a good driver himself, Wender said. Wender often drove them both to Austin for meetings at the suggestion of McCombs’ wife, Charline, concerned for their safety.

“I would pick him up and I would listen to his stories about how he did business and how he did things,” Wender said. “I got a degree from the ‘McCombs School of Business’. … I got a Ph.D. being Red’s driver.”

McCombs was a mentor to him. And more. 

“Besides my own father, he was like a father figure to me — he was the person that I would always go to,” Wender said. 

Wender also credits McCombs with helping him close the deal on SeaWorld of Texas in the mid-1980s, a move which ultimately anchored the future of Westover Hills and propelled the rapid development of far West San Antonio.

“SeaWorld would not be in San Antonio if it wasn’t for Red helping me see [Texas] Gov. Mark White,” Wender said. “But I could tell you a hundred other stories.”

Former Mayor Henry Cisneros had a more singular description of the time he spent with McCombs: he was “one-of-a-kind.” McCombs was also outspoken when it came to doing what was needed for San Antonio to thrive, Cisneros said.

“Red had very little patience for people who were negative or ambiguous or neutral on important matters,” Cisneros said. “Of all the attributes associated with him, the one that stands out for me is his optimism and his commitment to do it.”

McCombs’ philanthropy is well-documented. But his generosity exceeds the news headlines and multimillion-dollar donations, Cisneros said. 

Cisneros recalled often referring people to McCombs to present their business proposals. One day, Cisneros asked for forgiveness.

“Don’t ever apologize for sending me people with good ideas,” Cisneros remembers McCombs saying to him. “You don’t understand, I have popcorn stands all over town,” in other words, businesses no one even knows about.

But McCombs’ interests in all aspects of San Antonio’s growth were substantial, said Cisneros, naming off Hemisfair, Greater:SATX, the San Antonio Spurs, the Alamodome, McAllister Freeway, UTSA and a network of car dealerships. 

“Red’s passing marks the passing of an era,” Cisneros said. “He was the last of a group of leaders who created modern San Antonio.”

The mark McCombs left on San Antonio was also recognized by Mayor Ron Nirenberg in a tweet on Monday. “His influence was instrumental in creating the city we know today. Our hearts are with the McCombs family and the thousands of residents he uplifted through his generosity.”

McCombs was one of the last titans of industry, said Eddie Aldrete, former senior vice president of IBC Bank. But he was also very engaged in civic matters and politics.

McCombs was a major donor to Republican candidates, Aldrete said, and part of a group of business leaders who sought unsuccessfully to bring the Republican National Convention to San Antonio in 2020.

“[McCombs] was always focused on judicial races. He wanted to make sure that people were better educated about the judges that they were voting for.”

In the early 1970s, sports became more than a pastime for McCombs when he brought professional basketball to San Antonio. In 1987, he recruited Naval Academy cadet and center David Robinson to the San Antonio Spurs. 

The rest is notable San Antonio history, as No. 50 went on to become an NBA All-Star and 1995 MVP, and lead the Spurs to two championships, in 1999 and 2003. 

“Red had a profound influence on our family through his focus on positively impacting all around him,” said Peter Holt, managing partner of Spurs Sports & Entertainment. “His card that reads ‘Expect to Win’ sits on my desk as a daily reminder of the continuous need for positivity and abundance in this world. We sure do love Red and will miss him deeply.”

Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich called McCombs a true icon, impacting tens of thousands of lives with the charitable work he and his wife Charline took on. “From multimillion-dollar donations to flying a stranded Little League team back to San Antonio, the McCombs family has always put community first,” Popovich said.

In a tweet Monday, Robinson expressed his grief upon learning of McCombs’ death: “He was a legendary figure in San Antonio, and had a huge impact in my life. We will miss you!”

Honoree David Robinson gives an address during the IDEA Public Schools luncheon. Photo by Scott Ball.
David Robinson was recruited in 1987 by Red McCombs to play for the San Antonio Spurs. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The memory of how McCombs recruited Robinson to San Antonio later inspired former mayor Phil Hardberger to work toward bringing Sheryl Sculley from Phoenix to serve as city manager in 2005. 

“I was thinking, ‘Red took a chance and he got the best,'” said Hardberger. “I’m going to take a chance and I’m going to get the best.” Sculley retired from the city’s top post in 2019.

Hardberger also appreciated McCombs for both his salesmanship and what could be considered a “priceless” sense of humor.

Recalling the time McCombs handed him the keys to the first Toyota Tundra manufactured in San Antonio, Hardberger said when he asked the price, McCombs told him they didn’t need to discuss that. 

Only after Hardberger drove the truck for several months did he get the bill of sale — for much more than the mayor expected. “It was so Red,” Hardberger said, laughing. “He was huge fun to be around.” 

Many in San Antonio’s business, education and philanthropic communities also released statements on Monday following McCombs’ death:

“The whole academic family at Red McCombs School of Business grieves his loss with his family and the San Antonio community. His gift and support to Texas McCombs has transformed the lives of students, faculty, businesses, and society. We will carry forward his legacy into our second century driven to serve and focused on making a difference.”

Dean Lillian Mills, McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin

“He played an integral role in helping to preserve and protect this historic site for future generations. Mr. McCombs’ contributions to the Alamo and to San Antonio as a whole are immeasurable. His dedication to philanthropy, business, and civic leadership has left an indelible mark on our community.”

Alamo Trust

“Red was a San Antonio legend and visionary whose business acumen and positive influence helped shape our city and set it on a trajectory of growth, development, and success.”

Dave Petersen, interim president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce

“The list of his achievements goes on and on, not the least of which is his very successful auto dealership empire. Most of all, I always found Red to be a great friend who gave me invaluable advice and was always available to listen to an idea or participate in a worthwhile project.”

Dennis Nixon, CEO, International Bank of Commerce

“Red was a titan of business whose hard work, vision and leadership caused transformational change here and elsewhere in Texas. He served as Chamber Chairman when Hemisfair literally created our modern tourist industry. We would not have had the San Antonio Spurs without his efforts. They don’t make them like Red anymore.”

Joe Krier, former president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and former councilman

The McCombs Foundation and Spurs Give are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.