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Editor’s Note: New to San Antonio and Texas? Meet B.J. “Red” McCombs, who rose from used car salesman in Corpus Christi to South Texas billionaire, professional sports franchise owner, Texas Longhorn breeder and UT Longhorn diehard. San Antonio is home, but McCombs has been a larger than life figure in Texas business, politics and sports for decades. He built a fortune with one of the biggest automobile dealership empires in the country, and has enjoyed success as a rancher and investor in energy, broadcast media and real estate. Red was named one of Forbes magazine’s top 400 richest Americans in 2005.
He brought the then-Dallas Chaparrals of the American Basketball Association to San Antonio in 1972, and renamed the team the Spurs. It so happens that McCombs was born in Spur, Texas in 1927. He once owned the Denver Nuggets and later the Minnesota Vikings. More recently, he helped bring Formula One racing to Texas. He and his wife Charline have given away tens if not hundreds of million of dollars to various causes, including the McCombs School of Business at UT-Austin and the Charline McCombs Empire Theater in downtown San Antonio.
McCombs kicks off the Rivard Report’s week-long look at the making of Alamodome as it turns 20 this week. One fact Red omits from the article: His own face and name adorn a bronze plaque in the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame, housed in the Alamodome.
I believe the Alamodome is the most underappreciated part of the history of San Antonio. I don’t mean the history of sports – I mean the total history of San Antonio. I will not be discussing any of the hundreds of events that have taken place there. My discussion will be about the birth of the facility.
One beautiful day in May, 1987, a chartered Southwest Airlines plane loaded with San Antonio leaders – sponsored as usual by the Greater Chamber of Commerce and carrying our typical group of mariachis and tubs full of tamales – landed in Colorado Springs where the U.S. Olympic Committee was meeting to select a city for the off-year 1991 U.S. Olympic Festival. As I recall, there were several cities making proposals. I remember, in particular, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Each of the cities making proposals had brought several leaders, usually from three to five total. San Antonio had blown everyone away with our plane load of nearly 200 supporters.
The two presenters for San Antonio were Mayor Henry Cisneros and myself. Henry was his usual breathtaking presenter and I was my usual screaming self: “This is no contest. You have to choose San Antonio.”
During a 15 minute break, my longtime friend George Steinbrenner, one of the U.S. Olympic Committee members making the site selection, took me aside and said, “Big Red, you know how I love San Antonio. You guys don’t have a chance because you don’t even have one option for an opening venue. You have no facilities to offer. For God’s sake, if you want to compete, build some facilities. Quite frankly you have the best presentation, but your offering of facilities is embarrassing.”
I was disappointed, hurt and angry. On the flight home from Colorado Springs I shared all of my emotions with Cisneros and at the same time criticized him for not having found some way that we could offer facilities without suffering an embarrassing defeat in Colorado Springs.
Henry shared my feelings, but indicated he had no solution at that time. I asked why we couldn’t use a funding strategy that we were thinking about using at a later date – to win legislative and financial support for Retama Park, a planned new racetrack that was on the horizon. Henry’s said such a move would be impossible to introduce a bill in the Texas Legislature and win public support in such a short time period.
When I suggested that we leave the Southwest Airlines charter in San Antonio and go directly to Austin to try to get the needed legislation, Henry’s response was one that I will never forget.
“Red, it is now Saturday afternoon and the Legislature adjourns at midnight Tuesday,” Henry said. “Getting some legislation in this session of course would be impossible.”
I wasn’t giving up that easily.
“Why don’t you find some bill that is in the process of being passed and ‘tag’ that bill with our requirements for a facility in San Antonio?” I asked.
“Red, there’s no time. It’s impossible. And besides I can’t go to Austin because I have to be in San Diego for a longtime commitment tomorrow at noon,” Henry said.
I assumed he was talking about San Diego, California. “Well, let’s go home, get a change of clothes when we land and then get on my plane and I will fly you to San Diego and then back to Austin.”
Henry just looked at me.
“Red, I am talking about San Diego, Texas, not San Diego, California.”
What a blow! Now for purposes of history, it should be stated that our mayor back then, Henry Cisneros, can do things that the rest of us could never do. Henry and I did go to Austin. Henry did find a bill satisfying our needs to tag an existing bill. It did get passed and although we had to jump through many other hoops, it never would have happened without Henry and his expertise in getting that legislation done in 48 hours.
I could write you a chapter about how the Alamodome could have been even more successful if City Hall had let professionals run it instead of bureaucrats. Since that is not a part of the Rivard Report’s request, I will save that for another day.
I want to close by saying the Alamodome’s birth was nothing short of a miracle. What it has returned to all San Antonio citizens is beyond measure. Before the Alamodome, San Antonio had no chance of becoming a “big time” city, no way of inviting the world to come see events here. We’ve come a long way in San Antonio, and much of it started with the Alamodome 20 years ago.