RED McCOMBS: LEGEND AND LEGACY
A Generous Friend of UT, McCombs Leaves a Permanent Mark on the School He Loved
In a state that brags everything in it is bigger, Red McCombs stood out.
At 6 foot 3 inches tall, with red hair and a booming baritone, McCombs was a giant of entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The Texas legend, namesake of the McCombs School of Business, died Feb. 19, 2023 at age 95.
A self-proclaimed “wheeler-dealer” who became a billionaire, the big passions that ran through McCombs’ life were sports, cars, and the University of Texas. Above all, he loved his wife, Charline, who died in December 2019 at age 91, and their daughters, Marsha, Connie, and Lynda.
Despite his prowess at making money, he once told McCombs magazine that “money has never been a goal of mine. My goal was to be one of the guys that made the decisions.”
Fascinated at a young age by the decision-makers who made things happen in his community, McCombs had a long entrepreneurial career that ensured that he’d be calling the shots. He often relied on instinct, according to his two memoirs, The Red Zone: Cars, Cows, and Coaches—The Life and Good Times of a Texas Dealmaker in 2002 and Big Red: Memoirs of a Texas Entrepreneur and Philanthropist, a 2011 follow-up that drew heavily on the first book.
“The fact is that, throughout his life, Red McCombs has had an uncanny ability to perceive business opportunities that most others were unable to see,” Don Carleton, executive director of UT’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, wrote in an introduction to Big Red. “Red calls them his ‘McCombs moments.’”
McCombs had many such moments in more than eight decades of buying, selling, and marketing. He created one of the nation’s most successful Ford dealerships; owned the San Antonio Spurs basketball team twice, the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, and the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings; and co-founded media and entertainment giant Clear Channel Communications, now iHeartMedia.
He also “dabbled”—his word—in cattle, oil and gas, racehorses, movies, real estate, minor league baseball, and more. And he was a collector. His 7,000 Old West artifacts make up one of the most extensive collections of its kind in the United States. His office at the McCombs Plaza building just north of downtown San Antonio, displays some of the collection’s Western paintings, walking sticks, saddles, and antique firearms.
McCombs continued going to the office into his 90s. Speaking about his deal-making success in a San Antonio TV interview marking his 90th birthday, McCombs said, “Well, the best decision up and down from start to finish was marrying Charline.”
Together, he and Charline were a power couple who left an indelible mark on the Alamo City through their generosity. They created a foundation and gave to thousands of nonprofits and institutions, including schools and colleges.
Their higher education giving was capped in 2000 by a $50 million gift to the UT business school that leaders called transformative. At the time, it was the university’s largest-ever single gift. It prompted UT officials to rename the business school for McCombs and hold a Texas-sized party, complete with a press conference and faux power switch that enabled the honoree to “light” the Tower orange.
“I told the students at the press conference that, aside from my family, everything else I have ever been involved with in my life paled beside this,” McCombs said of the donation in Big Red. “It was truly the defining moment of my life.”
A Salesman at 10
Billy Joe “Red” McCombs was born Oct. 19, 1927, in the small West Texas town of Spur to a car mechanic father and a mother who was a high school graduate and “a bit of a snob about it,” Red McCombs wrote in his memoirs. She was the only person who ever called him Billy Joe.
Red McCombs’ entrepreneurial spirit emerged when he was 10. He figured he could earn a few bucks by providing something no one else was selling on the streets of Spur. Peanuts. He sold a bag for a nickel to cotton pickers who passed through town during a monthlong migration. When his father and upfront funder pointed out that he spent more than he made, McCombs heeded his dad’s advice, put half as many peanuts in each bag, and soon had a mountain of nickels.
His next job was delivering newspapers, then working as a short-order cook. In high school, he played football and managed to skip a year when he moved with his family to Corpus Christi and declared himself a senior, instead of a junior. No one ever checked. He was in a hurry to come into his own.
He talked his way into a football scholarship at Southwestern University in Georgetown, the only way he could afford to go, he said. “Legend has it that when he arrived on campus, he carried everything he owned in a single suitcase,” according to a 2017 tribute on Southwestern’s website.
He left school before graduating in 1946 to join the army, serving in Seoul, and then returned to Corpus Christi. He needed to finish his undergraduate degree and planned to study law at UT. He had noticed that lawyers were often the decision-makers in their communities.
When he heard that Del Mar College in Corpus Christi was putting together a football program, he went to enroll his senior year and said he’d play for the team, if the school paid him. When Del Mar’s coach told him paying athletes wasn’t allowed, McCombs fibbed that a competing school had offered him $100 a week to play football. The coach countered the next day with an offer to pay his school expenses for the year, plus $10 a week if he would drive some of his teammates to the ballgames.
“The deal with Del Mar was one of the best I ever made because it resulted in my meeting the woman who would be the love of my life,” he wrote in Big Red. In the registration line, he had heard Charline Hamblin, “one of the prettiest girls I had ever seen,” ask about transferring credits from Southwestern University. He went up to her and asked her to help him because he needed to do the exact same thing.
He asked her out. She declined, but McCombs didn’t take no for an answer. They started dating.
He then enrolled at UT’s business school to earn some additional credits before entering UT’s law school in fall 1948. “I was your basic B student with an attitude,” he wrote in his memoirs. During his second year as a law student, he realized “a career in law was going to be too confining for a guy like me.”
Back home in Corpus Christi, a friend said he should try selling cars with him—Fords at the local Austin Hemphill dealership. At age 22, he discovered that he was a natural salesman, and by the end of the year, he was the dealership’s top seller. He upped his game and proposed to Charline in her grandmother’s driveway. Although she didn’t say yes immediately, McCombs later said he knew he had sealed the deal. They married a few months later, in November 1950.
Cars, Sports, and More
By 1953, McCombs, realizing that for every new car, two-and-half used cars were sold, opened his first used-car dealership. Later that same year, an old friend from Southwestern suggested they buy a minor league baseball team, the Corpus Christi Aces, to save it from bankruptcy. McCombs bit. The two paid $5,000 each for the team in 1954, renamed it the Corpus Christi Clippers, and watched the team win the playoffs.
“There I found again the magic of sports,” McCombs says in Big Red. “I became a big deal overnight because I had the only sports team in town, and it was winning.”
He was winning in business, too.
Early in 1957, his former boss and friend, Austin Hemphill, recruited him to sell Ford’s new Edsel. It soon became clear the car was not going to wear well with the public, and McCombs bailed. He went back to the two used car lots he owned.
Hemphill, meanwhile, moved to San Antonio, and asked McCombs to be his partner. Hemphill’s business had been hit by recession, and McCombs discovered it was $100,000 in the red. Like the Corpus Christi ball team, McCombs signed on and turned around the business. When he did the same thing for a Ford dealership in Houston, he gained national attention.
The highway was paved for McCombs to become one of San Antonio’s most influential decision-makers, a role he had long wanted. He worked with Texas Gov. John Connally as vice chairman of the executive committee seeking to bring the 1968 World’s Fair to San Antonio. HemisFair’s success “literally put San Antonio on the international map,” he said. To keep it there, McCombs decided his adopted home needed a professional sports team.
A Team Owner and a Reckoning
“He has proven that you can combine business and heart and it comes out the best for everyone,” close friend and real estate developer Marty Wender told McCombs magazine in 2000. “Red has been behind anything good that has happened in San Antonio in the past 40 years,” including bringing SeaWorld to town, building the indoor Alamodome stadium, and renovating historic buildings.
The money he was making in the car business made it possible for him to invest in a wide array of enterprises, including motion picture distribution. By 1972, he and a partner bought a radio station, then another and another. When they acquired a fourth station with a clear channel that beamed across North America and Mexico at night, their company became Clear Channel. The partners sold it for $28 billion in 2008.
“Of all the businesspeople I know,” Wender told McCombs magazine, “he has the best business sense and the ability to analyze a situation quicker than anybody.”
Charline McCombs said in the same article, “With the possible exception of fly fishing, he has never accepted mediocrity in anything he attempts.”
A friend who was a bar owner and later one of his top car salesmen, Angelo Drossos, told him the money-losing Dallas Chaparrals basketball team was for sale and urged him to be the lead investor. They bought the team in 1973, moved it to San Antonio, and renamed it the Spurs. Charline was less than thrilled, but after attending three games, she became such a rabid fan that she had trouble sleeping before games.
When he was 48, McCombs realized he had a drinking problem. One morning, Charline found him in a convulsive state, which turned out to be hepatitis magnified by alcohol abuse. Doctors at the hospital said he probably wouldn’t survive. When he beat the odds, they predicted he would be dependent on dialysis. That didn’t happen either.
McCombs was in the hospital six weeks and promised Charline he would “never, ever, have another drop of alcohol.” And he didn’t, attributing his success to the blessing of a higher power. “I can’t say this any plainer: God intended for me to do other things,” he wrote in his memoirs.
By 1982, he and Charline had a ranch in Colorado, as well as Subaru distributorship in Denver. That same year, McCombs acquired the Denver Nuggets and sold his interest in the Spurs. He called selling that winning team in 1985 one of his biggest blunders.
He bought back the Spurs in 1988 and bought the Minnesota Vikings in 1998, the same year he and Charline created the McCombs Foundation. The National Football League named him one of its most influential owners.
In 2010, a different kind of sport captured his attention: Formula One auto-racing. With McCombs’ financial backing, F1 came to Austin. In 2016, McCombs also demonstrated he was still very much interested in selling cars, opening a new Toyota dealership in San Antonio.
“My favorite business far and away, without any question, is the sports business,” McCombs wrote in Big Red. “I say that because sports makes my adrenaline flow faster than anything else. … There is no greater thrill.”
Making a Difference
As a businessman, McCombs demonstrated a tough-mindedness throughout his career. As a philanthropist he displayed a kind and generous spirit.
McCombs told the San Antonio Express-News in 2017 that he learned to give to others by watching his parents. “We’d seen people that really through no fault of their own had no place to go. I saw my mother take them in, take care of their children, sometimes for as long as a year or so until they could get a job. So, I’ve watched philanthropy in the small ways, but it is so ingrained … We got to the point where we could put zeroes behind (the donations) through our foundation,” he said.
Higher education also was a beneficiary of McCombs’ largesse, not just his beloved UT-Austin—but also Southwestern, the University of Minnesota Women’s Athletics Department, and the UT M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
“As important as sports have been in my life, the truth is that I don’t think I could have had the success I have had in my life without going to college,” he wrote in Big Red. So, he gave back.
Also, in a nod to his support for public education, he adopted Mary Hull Elementary School in San Antonio after poor student performance, and later, a fire, threatened its existence. Within three years of his involvement, Mary Hull was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School.
In 1997, McCombs donated $3 million to UT women’s athletics to fund a women’s softball stadium.
“What he has done for Texas is just unbelievable,” DeLoss Dodds, former UT men’s athletic director, said in a UT video about McCombs. “His legacy will be here forever.”
A statue of McCombs stands in the Royal-Memorial Stadium food court, part of the Red McCombs Red Zone.
UT leaders sought out McCombs, not just for donations but for his counsel. Former UT System Chancellor William Cunningham, now the James L. Bayless Chair for Free Enterprise at McCombs, said when he was chancellor, McCombs “was the man we went to see.”
“Red has always been concerned about the young people of Texas,” Cunningham says. “He has always understood the importance of having first-class institutions and first-class organizations.”
When then-UT President Larry Faulkner approached McCombs in 2000 for a $50 million donation to the business school, he appealed to McCombs’ competitive spirit and desire to see the school ranked among the country’s best. Faulkner did not have to wait very long for McCombs to say yes.
The gift marked the first time UT had ever named one of its schools for someone other than a campus leader.
McCombs says at the end of Big Red that he went to bed each night asking himself what he did that day.
“That question is not at all about making money,” he wrote. Rather, “Is there some worthy cause with which my philanthropy might make a real difference? And some days I find myself deficient…
“So, I grade myself, and I want to make every day count, because I realize, at the end of the day, we’re all a speck of sand. But, while I’m here, I want to make a difference.”
On that score, Big Red earned an A.
Text by Mary Ann Roser