Bob McNair: A Strong NFL Presence, and a Complicated Legacy

Texans owner Bob McNair spent two decades working his way into the exclusive club of NFL ownership, and then into that club’s inner circle of influence. By the start of this decade, he’d arrived, serving on the six-man committee that officiated the NFL’s return to Los Angeles, holding a seat on the commissioner’s compensation committee and chairing the finance committee.

On one hand, that’s who he was—a statesman within ownership ranks who was known for his pragmatism and level-headedness. On another, his legacy will be forever marked by events of October 2017, when a comment he made at an NFL social-justice summit became public, and went viral.

McNair passed away at the age of 81 on Friday after a lengthy battle with skin cancer and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

The founder of the Texans a self-made billionaire who brought the NFL back to Houston in 2002, selling his energy company, Cogen Technologies, to Enron for $1.5 billion in 1999 to make it happen. That he got even that far was considered an upset. The league needed a franchise to make the numbers even after promising Cleveland the new Browns in the mid-1990s, and the expectation was a new L.A. team would do that.

Instead, McNair’s vision to give Houston a team back after it had lost the Oilers, and his ability to strike a solid stadium deal, won the day. On top of that, in his time as owner, the city would host two Super Bowls.

FROM THE VAULT: ‘How Bob McNair Is Shaping His Reputation as an NFL Owner,’ our story from July

Along the way, McNair became a respected voice in the room at NFL meetings, an owner who didn’t talk a lot but whose words carried weight when he did choose to stand up. His business acumen led to influence on that side of the NFL’s operation. He engineered the evolution of the G3 stadium financing program into the current G4 program, and was the driving force behind liberalizing antiquated debt policies, which has motivated teams to renovate stadiums in a fan-friendly way.

On Oct. 18, 2017, McNair was part of a group of owners meeting with players and union and league officials to discuss the controversy arising from social justice protests staged during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games. ESPN reported a week later that McNair said to the room that the NFL “can’t have the inmates running the prison.”

The story led to Texans players walking out of a Friday practice, and the trade of vocal left tackle Duane Brown, who said McNair’s “horrible” comments “sickened” him.

Months later, McNair was one of the few who stood up for Jerry Richardson when the Panthers owner was embroiled in a controversy that forced him to sell the franchise he founded. That led to further criticism of McNair, as did a $10,000 contribution he made in 2015 to a group opposing Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance. McNair retracted the donation when the group publicized it.

On the team level, McNair was known for having a steady hand, if not the most success on the field. He only had three head coaches and three GMs over 17 years, and one of the GMs was former Broncos personnel man Rick Smith, who became the second African-American GM in NFL history in 2006, and was, at the time, the youngest GM ever.

His Texans only made the playoffs four times in his 17 seasons. But before last few years, they were widely seen as stable and free of controversy, which lined up with his reputation at the league level.

Fellow owners and executives in league circles have privately expressed frustration that the events of the last year became such a big part of McNair’s public image as his health declined. Dan Snyder, Washington owner, called McNair “a true gentleman” and “a great leader.” NFL Players Association president Eric Winston, who began his career with the Texans in 2006, said McNair “was someone who cared about the community of Houston and the Texans.” 

McNair is survived by his wife, Janice, who was by his side as he passed away in Houston, and his four children. His son Cal has become more involved in the operation of the Texans over the years, being named vice chairman in 2008 and COO in 2012. Currently serving on the league’s audit and investment committees, Cal McNair has been widely seen as next in line to run the team.

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