McNair battled two different forms of cancer in recent years: leukemia and squamous cell carcinoma. He passed away with Janice, his wife of 61 years, and his family at his bedside. A specific cause of death has not been released.
McNair was born Dec. 31, 1937 in Tampa, Fla. He was raised in Forest City, N.C., a town of about 7,500 residents just an hour west of Charlotte. McNair’s father worked as an office manager before transitioning to sales while his mother was a homemaker.
“We were a middle-class family, trying to make ends meet,” McNair said. “We were active in our church and my parents supported the church. My mother was a homemaker and, with three boys, we kept her busy. She was the glue that held us all together.”
McNair attended the University of South Carolina. He originally wanted to study civil engineering before switching to psychology. During his freshman year, he attended a dance at the all-women’s Columbia College and met his future wife. The two married during McNair’s junior year.
McNair graduated from South Carolina in 1958. He worked at a Charlotte auto leasing company owned by one of his fraternity brothers until the business went under. In 1960, the McNairs moved to Houston, where he started an executive car leasing company that failed in the early 1980s.
McNair was perilously close to bankruptcy when another business opportunity presented itself. Taking advantage of the deregulation of electrical power, he founded Cogen Technologies Energy Group. By the late 1990s, Cogen was the country’s largest privately-owned cogeneration company with five power plants.
A cogeneration plant is a power station that simultaneously generates electricity, steam, and useful heat. Cogen’s customers included Exxon and the City of New York. McNair sold Cogen for $1.5 billion to Enron and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) in 1999, two years before the Enron scandal.
“Many people say I was an overnight success, and I was, after 20 years of struggling,” McNair said in a 2014 interview with Houston Lifestyles & Homes.
McNair spent most of the 1990s trying to become a member of a very exclusive clique: the NFL ownership group.
He first tried to get in with the Miami Dolphins after the 1990 death of team founder Joe Robbie. He was also interested in a possible St. Louis expansion team after the Cardinals departed for Arizona after the 1987 season.
It first appeared McNair’s dream of NFL ownership wouldn’t come to pass. Then, two seismic events took place.
First, the Browns departed Cleveland and became the Baltimore Ravens in 1996. The NFL made it clear their next expansion team would be awarded to Cleveland. Then, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee after the ’96 season.
McNair was determined to bring the NFL back to Houston.
“I was working with a major company and a man asked me what was wrong in Houston, if we could not support an NFL team,” McNair told Houston Lifestyles & Homes. “I thought this was a black eye for Houston. Then I heard the NFL was going to add expansion teams, and I thought it was important for the city, so I looked at it as a civic project.”
McNair paid $700 million for the expansion franchise to replace the Oilers in 1999, a bid that he admitted “went higher than any reasonable person would go”. Expansion teams were awarded to Charlotte and Jacksonville, Fla. for a modest $140 million each just six years earlier. After he was approved, McNair said he was “more than happy with the number”.
The Texans began play in 2002 with a lifetime record of 117-149 as of the conclusion of Week 11. They have four postseason appearances, never advancing past the Divisional Round. So far this season, Houston has won seven consecutive games after an 0-3 start to lead the AFC South.
McNair’s investment was a sound one. The Texans made Forbes magazine’s list of the World’s 50 Most Valuable Sports Teams with an estimated worth of $2.8 billion. They are No. 8 among NFL teams and tied for 19th overall with the World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
McNair became one of the NFL’s most powerful and influential owners despite his team’s performance and his own low profile. NRG Stadium, the Texans’ home field, hosted Super Bowls XXXVIII and LI. He also served as chairman of the powerful NFL finance committee.
McNair donated millions of dollars to various educational and philanthropic endeavors. Nonetheless, his tenure as an NFL owner was not without controversy.
In 2015, the city of Houston held a referendum to improve and expand its anti-discrimination protection. Critics of the law were against the protections extended to gay and transgender residents, claiming the law would allow men in women’s restrooms.
McNair also contributed millions of dollars to conservative political causes. He made a $10,000 donation to Campaign for Houston, a group who opposed the referendum with the slogan “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms”. Campaign for Houston later disclosed McNair’s donation, leading to public criticism by Houston residents and city leaders. McNair backpedaled, rescinding his donation and issuing a mea culpa.
“I do not believe in or tolerate personal or professional discrimination of any kind. I also believe we Houstonians should have an ordinance that unites our community and provides a bold statement of non-discrimination,” McNair said.
McNair also made headlines during the 2017 fall owners’ meetings. He reportedly said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison” in response to player protests during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Two-thirds of the NFL’s players (as well as most of the protesters) are of African descent. McNair’s quote turned into a national news story, angering players around the league and within McNair’s own team. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and running back D’Onta Freeman skipped the team’s next practice. Tackle Duane Brown called the comments “ignorant” and “embarrassing”.
McNair made a transparent attempt at damage control. He said he wasn’t referring to his players but rather the league not listening to ownership.
“I am truly sorry to the players for how this has impacted them and the perception that it has created of me which couldn’t be further from the truth,” McNair said in a statement.
Six months later, McNair had a change of heart. He told the Wall Street Journal, “The main thing I regret is apologizing. I really didn’t have anything to apologize for.”
McNair also made headlines for all the wrong reasons when he came to the defense of former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.
Richardson was accused of workplace misconduct of both a sexual and racial nature. At the March owners’ meetings, McNair said Richardson “was very candid in what he said and what he did” when sharing his side of the story. McNair also said he believed Richardson’s regret was that “he didn’t fight some of the things”.
The two men have much in common. Both hail from small North Carolina towns, matriculated at South Carolina colleges, and built fortunes outside of the NFL.
Richardson was the co-chair of the league’s expansion committee when McNair was trying to get a franchise. His Panthers played in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Both men were on the L.A. expansion committee and unsuccessfully pushed a stadium deal in Carson, Cal. for the Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders.
McNair probably believed he was doing his friend a favor by speaking on his behalf. It came back to bite Richardson in a major way.
One of Richardson’s accusers saw McNair’s statements as a violation of the non-disclosure agreement she signed. She detailed Richardson’s alleged sexual harassment in an April Sports Illustrated article. Richardson eventually sold the Panthers and was fined $2.75 million by the NFL.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement.
“During his nearly two decades as an NFL owner, Bob McNair left a lasting mark on his city and our league. His leadership and determination brought the NFL back to Houston, built a magnificent stadium that hosted two Super Bowls, and his beloved Texans are in the midst of another successful season and are again contending for a place in the postseason. Off the field, Bob served with distinction as the chairman of the Finance Committee and was recognized in his native South Carolina, his adopted home of Houston, and elsewhere for his extraordinary philanthropic and community development work. He cared deeply about the league and was generous with his time and willingness to share his insights as an exceptional businessman. But above all, Bob was a family man. I extend my heartfelt condolences to Janice, their family, the Texans, and the entire Houston community.”
Texans president Jamey Rootes also released a statement.
“We lost an incredible man today. Bob McNair had a positive impact on so many people’s lives. He was the reason professional football returned to Houston and he stewarded our franchise with a laser focus on honest, integrity and high character. He was an amazing champion for Houston and worked hard to make sure our city received maximum value from the presence of the Texans and the NFL. Bob gave me an opportunity 19 years ago to be part of the creation of the Texans and he became my mentor, hero and father figure. We will all miss him dearly. Our thoughts and prayers are with the McNair family during this difficult time.”
President George H.W. Bush, McNair’s longtime friend, said, “Bob McNair wasn’t just the brightest point of light in Houston; he was one of the kindest and most generous people anywhere. Nobody cared—or helped people—more, and that’s just one of the reasons I will always be proud Bob was my good friend. He was simply the best.”
McNair’s son, Cal, will take over as Texans CEO. He has been serving as the team’s chairman and chief operating officer.
McNair’s death is the third passing of an NFL owner this season. Chargers owner Alex Spanos died at age 95 from complications of dementia on Oct. 9. Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen died at age 65 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Oct. 15.
Along with his wife, McNair is survived by four children, 15 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
– Curtis Rawls is a Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage and covers the NFL, the New York Giants, and the NBA. Please like and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Twitter. Curtis can be followed on Twitter @CuRawls203.