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Texas businessman B.J. 'Red' McCombs dies at 95

A man in a suit smiles for the camera
Courtesy of McCombs Enterprises
B.J. "Red" McCombs built an automotive sales and service empire, but he also was known for his ownership of professional sports teams, including the San Antonio Spurs. UT Austin named its business school after him.

San Antonio businessman B.J. "Red" McCombs died on Sunday at the age of 95.

McCombs built an automotive sales and service empire, but he also was known for his ownership of professional sports teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, the Denver Nuggets, and the Minnesota Vikings.

He and his family used their McCombs Foundation to make philanthropic gifts surpassing $135 million, including the business college at the University of Texas, which bears his name, and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

He also had business interests in energy, ranching, real estate development, and radio broadcasting, co-founding Clear Channel Communications.

In 2020, Forbes Magazine estimated his wealth at $1.5 billion.

A family statement explained that "the entire McCombs Family is heartbroken to announce that our father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, Red McCombs, passed away on Sunday February 19, 2023."

Billy Joe Red McCombs was born in the West Texas town of Spur in 1927. He got his nickname from the color of his hair.

His first job was at age 10, selling peanuts for a nickel a bag.

"I never had any plan to have all the success that I've had,” McCombs explained during a 2011 interview on KLRN, San Antonio's PBS affiliate, with TPR’s then-News Director David Martin Davies. “I am a natural entrepreneur." He also shared his memories in his 2011 autobiography, Big Red: Memoirs of a Texas Entrepreneur and Philanthropist.

No one on either side of his family, McCombs remembered, had ever been in business. Both grandparents were sharecroppers in West Texas. His father was an auto mechanic. McCombs was the oldest of four children. The family grew during the Great Depression, “and times were lean,” he recalled later, “but we had a loving family, and the McCombs kids suffered no hardships.”

Since he was 10 years old, McCombs recalled, "I was fascinated with how business worked — how the bank worked, how the drugstore worked, how the grocery store worked — how did all that come together."

"And there wasn’t any goal to be rich,” he added. “I do have a goal in everything I do, and my goal is to win. And I look at every day as an opportunity to win or not win, and I kind of grade myself every day as to what I accomplished that day ... I never doubted that I would be very successful."

"Red McCombs was a pillar of San Antonio’s modern history and a titan of our local economy," San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg tweeted on Monday. "His influence was instrumental in creating the city we know today. Our hearts are with the McCombs family and the thousands of residents he uplifted through his generosity."

His wife of 69 years, Charline, passed away in December 2019.

In a statement to TPR, he added: "From economic development to the rise to our higher education institutions to professional sports here in San Antonio — and one of the most well recognized brands in the San Antonio Spurs — if I had to pick out one thing that I'll remember Red McCombs most for is the lifting of the expectations of a city to be a city of the world, a top ten American city, a vibrant city where we can expect and deserve more. That's the kind of optimism and expectation that Red brought to our community in many ways."

Dave Petersen, the interim president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, also honored McCombs, who served as the chamber's Chair of the Board in 1965. McCombs "was a San Antonio legend and visionary," Petersen said in a statement, "whose business acumen and positive influence helped shape our city and set it on a trajectory of growth, development, and success."

David Martin Davies, Paul Flahive and Steve Short contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Brian Kirkpatrick has been a journalist in Texas most of his life, covering San Antonio news since 1993, including the deadly October 1998 flooding, the arrival of the Toyota plant in 2003, and the base closure and realignments in 2005.
Fernando Ortiz Jr.