A Birthday for Red McCombs

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By Bill Little

“They still listen to high school football on the radio in west Texas,” sings our friend Jack Ingram. “Lights still shine bright every Friday night. And you can drive ninety miles an hour on the highway straight through Cisco. The cops are at the ball game. And it’s getting tight.”

It has been darned near ninety years since Billy Joe “Red” McCombs was born in the west Texas town of Spur, which sits on the cusp of the Llano Estacado as it begins to rise toward Lubbock, seventy miles to the west. Today, it is home to just over 1,000 folks. In the 1920s, it was about the same.

And one of them was Billy Joe “Red” McCombs.

Football has long been part of the fiber of the land. Cotton, cattle and eventually, oil wells, may have paid the bills, but the passion belonged to Fridays in the fall.

On home-game Fridays, the stores closed at 3:30. If the Bulldogs were on the road, closing time was 1:30. It was, after all, a way of life.

So much so, that in those depression days of the 1930s—when there were no lights above the stands—the home folks would drive their cars up to the edge of the field and turn on their lights when dusk came early as the sun crept over the Caprock to the west.

Such were the early years of Red McCombs. It was a time of family, friends, faith—and on autumn Friday nights in particular—football.

Friday night, October 20, The University of Texas is taking time to celebrate one of its major benefactors, honoring Red, who turns 90 on the day before. His odyssey from those blessed-with-a-tinge of fall chill nights to becoming one of the most successful entrepreneur billionaires in the country carves its way among the legends of America.

The journey began in 1943, when Red’s family moved from Spur to the heart of the Texas coast, and put down new roots in Corpus Christi. He played football in high school, and then attended Southwestern University in Georgetown. There, he played lineman and receiver. He loved offense; distained defense.

He would carry those values throughout his life.

“I wake up each day and work on my offense,” he told me as he was writing the preface to the book Mack Brown and I did called “One Heartbeat,” adding “keeping an eye open for opportunities and acting on them.”

Offense he said, “is fun.”

As to defense, he said, “I don’t like playing defense—just concentrating on problems that try to drag you down.”

Red is an American patriot. He spans the journey of the country from the days of the Great Depression through World War II and beyond. And following two years at Southwestern, he served two years in the U. S. military. When he came back to Texas, he enrolled at The University of Texas in search of business and law degrees. Instead, he left school to go back to Corpus Christi. That was seventy years ago.

The next chapter of his life came when a friend in Corpus encouraged him to get into selling automobiles. He started selling used cars. By the time he was 25, he had his own used car dealership. But he always maintained his passion for sports. He bought a Class D professional baseball team called the Corpus Christi Clippers. It was the first of a fistful of franchises he would own, including the Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA (twice), and the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL.

He and Charline married in 1950, and were getting ready to relocate to San Antonio in 1956. It was then that he would meet a new young friend named Darrell Royal, who had just become the head football coach at The University of Texas, and the lives of both men were about to change forever.

The bond between the two men grew quickly. Royal had been raised in the southwestern Oklahoma town of Hollis, just a couple of hours away from Spur, Texas. Royal was three years older than Red, but the two shared the same kind of upbringing. They came from a time in America where the country had been ravaged by the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and war. It was a time when all that you really had was your pride and your loyalty, and for Darrell and Red, that was enough.

Royal hit Texas in December of 1956, and needed a way to reach recruits and their parents throughout the state. Red had wheels…lots of wheels. So in a time when it was legal for alums to help in recruiting, the two set about the business that they both knew best—selling.

As Red would drive Darrell to home visits, he marveled at Royal’s ability to connect.

“When we met people, Darrell talked about the positives and ignored the negatives,” Red recalls. “And that is how he built his program.”

By the early 1960s, Royal had created the makings of a dynasty in college football, and Red McCombs was on his way to becoming one of the richest men in America. His many diverse investments began with car dealerships, but quickly spread to real estate, ranching, and venture capital. He became a giant in the media industry. He bought several radio stations which formed a group that would later become Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartCommunications) because he realized it would be worth it to own the stations rather than simply buying ads from somebody else. His automobile business grew to the sixth largest conglomerate in America.

Once, when former Texas athletics director DeLoss Dodds held an executive retreat in San Antonio, we asked Red the secret to his success.

“Make decisions. Take chances,” he told us.

All the while, he never forgot about people. He cut a fair deal, and he reinvested in people every bit as much as he invested in land and business. He was well taught in the area of philanthropy. His folks didn’t make a lot on his dad’s salary as an auto mechanic, but what they had they shared. He remembers his mom taking in kids during the Depression when their parents couldn’t afford to take care of them. And best estimates say he and Charline have given away upwards of $138 million to various causes.

At the top of that, of course, is The University of Texas at Austin, where $50 million went to establish the McCombs School of Business. His passion for sport has allowed for gifts of $3 million to build the Red and Charline McCombs Softball Complex, and, of course, “The Red Zone” – the north end zone building at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

The loyalty and pride has always continued. If Red is your friend, he is your friend. And nobody could have a better friend than Red McCombs. He’ll tell you what he thinks, and you are well served to listen.

He joined Coach Royal in being staunch allies of Mack Brown when he was the coach at Texas. He saw a lot in Mack that he had seen in Coach Royal.

His faith in the power of sport has never wavered.

“People who feel good make way better workers than those who don’t,” he wrote in “One Heartbeat.”  “All over this country, sports are that important…it gives them something to be proud about.”

When Mack had first come to Texas back in 1997, the president of a rival university in the Big 12 was quoted as saying, “All Texans are rich and arrogant.” 

Red called Mack and said, “You tell that fella that he is right. I am rich and I worked hard to earn it, and I am arrogant, and damned proud of it.”

All who know him would take issue with that “arrogant” tag. Those of us who really know him would rather reflect on his humility and his pride. Here is a man who built a financial empire, and almost lost it in 1975 in a battle with alcoholism. But he won, as he usually does, and he hasn’t had a drink since.

Red was in his 80s a few years ago when the international sports world was shocked with his plan to build a Formula One racing facility in Austin. Skeptics scoffed. But remember — “Make decisions. Take chances.”

It is not without irony that this weekend, Austin is packed with international racing fans who are here to watch fast cars roar around the track they call “The Circuit of the Americas.”

And a few miles away, at the stadium that shares its name with his late friend Darrell Royal, Red and Charline McCombs will walk onto the field as honorary captains for his beloved Texas Longhorns football team.

The National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame on special occasions presents their highest honor, the “Gold Medal.”  Seven U.S. Presidents, five U.S. Generals, three U.S. admirals, a Supreme Court Justice, 29 Corporate CEOs and American heroes such as John Glenn, Jackie Robinson and John Wayne have received the award. In 2001, they gave it to Red McCombs.

And Saturday, as the north end of the stadium raises its open arms into the morning sky, fans who walked in that building will have gone by Red’s statue. And the day will have no need for the car lights to illuminate a life well lived, and a job well done.

Happy Birthday, Red.

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Source: Texas Sports

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