A look back at the Robert C. McNair I knew
You will read a lot of tributes to Robert C. McNair, who passed away on Friday at the age of 81. You will hear a lot about his character, philanthropy and caring nature.
Some will also choose to focus on the controversies he became involved with regarding his comments in recent years.
I have chosen to tell you about the Bob McNair I knew.
I first met him in 1994 at Sam Houston Race Park, while working as a horse racing handicapper and writer. When the track first opened, McNair brought some of his high quality racehorses to Houston. Over the next few years, McNair’s racing operation - under the guidance of John Adger - would grow into one of the largest in the world. People forget just what a major player he was in the racing game before the Texans were founded. That was how I came to know him intitially.
I once spent a day with Adger, McNair and his wife Janice at their Ranch in Lexington, Kentucky, touring the massive place with his dog Liberty sleeping on my feet in a golf cart. We talked about a lot of things besides horses. He had just won the rights to shell out almost a billion for an NFL team he had been working to bring to the city for years.
We talked about building winning organizations. Bouncing back from failures. Business practices. Politics. Family. The man I knew was driven, intent on winning and had a deep love for the city of Houston. And of course, football.
Over the next two-three years, I was fortunate enough to spend more time with him. We played golf on a few occasions (he beat me soundly), talked horses. I attended Super Bowl parties with him in San Diego and New Orleans. Whenever we saw each other, we talked about his horses. Where they should run next. What newcomers he had coming up. Breeding theories that Adger had to create “The One.” He always went out of his way to spend a few minutes with me, even as his profile increased significantly as the Texans continued to develop.
Once the Texans began playing on the field, my role changed, and I was running the sports department at the Houston Chronicle. It got me on his bad side once. The Chronicle chose to run a rather graphic cartoon depicting him and then-GM Charley Casserly as buffoons. It was frankly too much. I did not want to run it but I was overruled. It resulted in a rather tense meeting at his office, and the first time I met his son Cal. Bob was clearly angry, but he handled it in a measured, sincere way, and accepted my apology.
It was not long after that I left for radio. He was my first guest on a Saturday morning show whose only listeners were friends and family.
I only saw him a few times at Texans practice after that. We always chatted for a few minutes, sometimes about the team, sometimes about the few remaining horses he had. The racing operation was sold off once he became an NFL owner, and our common bond eventually drifted away.
I lost touch in recent years, in part because it is hard to have a relationship with someone you have to talk about on radio. It started early on in my career, with dozens of callers saying “he didn’t want to win. He is just happy with selling out every game and making money.”
It was a take that was frankly as far from the truth as anything I have ever dealt with. I once saw how angry he got over one of his horses, a significant favorite, finishing fourth in an allowance race at Churchill Downs. He wanted answers. He was not happy. But he never lost his temper.
McNair’s theory on building a winning operation was simple: Get the right people in place and give them everything they need to succeed. With his horse operation, he had that man in Adger. They would not deal with questionable trainers or people of low character. And they had remarkable success.
In football, he tried the same model. The problem was he never got a John Adger to run the operation. Casserly’s early drafts were disasters. Rick Smith was just successful enough to lead the team to mediocrity. Gary Kubiak had success then melted down. And Bill O’Brien continued the trend. If McNair had a flaw, it was never quite getting the right people.
So I watched from afar as the team never got where he hoped. And I could see how frustrating it was for him.
The last few years, his “inmates” comment and support of fellow owner and friend Jerry Richardson cast him in a negative light. I did not agree with those comments, and they weren’t reflective of the man I knew. I attributed it to age and illness, and I stand by that.
The man I knew loved horses. Loved winning. Wanted the Texans to be successful, not for the money, but for the city of Houston. I learned a great deal about business and life from him. I am sad his team never achieved the success he wanted. I am sad I lost touch with him. I am sad he is gone. I am sad that his comments will taint his legacy with many people.
I will miss the man that built that racing operation and fought hard to get Houston the Texans. I miss the friendship with someone I admired.
That was the Robert C. McNair I knew.