Team Player

Will Red McCombs forever be denied an NFL franchise? Not if he can help it.

When San Antonio’s B. J. “Red” McCombs offered $186 million for the Minnesota Vikings in early February, he probably had the champagne on ice, and why not? Rarely in NFL history has a team sold for more; surely the car dealership and radio station mogul would emerge victorious. Little did he know that Tom Clancy, the author of such techno-thrillers as The Hunt for Red October and a pro sports hobbyist (he has a minority interest in the Baltimore Orioles), would outbid him by about $15 million. “We’ll just keep looking,” the seventy-year-old McCombs said cheerfully the day after he got the news.

Take him at his word: This is, after all, someone who has long been on a committed quest for an NFL franchise: Call it The Hunt for Red McCombs. During the past fifteen years, he says, he repeatedly tried to persuade his friend Bud Adams to sell him the Houston Oilers—and in the mid-nineties, before Adams hightailed it to Tennessee, McCombs tried to steer him to San Antonio, the site of the team’s training camp. “It didn’t take,” McCombs says. “He wanted to go someplace where the mass of support was for him.” In 1992 McCombs urged the NFL to consider San Antonio for one of two planned expansion teams, but the city didn’t even make the first cut. In 1995 McCombs and Governor Ann Richards lobbied the owners of the Los Angeles Rams to move the team to San Antonio, but St. Louis was chosen instead. A couple of years ago McCombs offered the owners of a team he won’t name $20 million for a new training facility if they would simply move to San Antonio; they wouldn’t. And last year he called Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson to see if he could buy and move that team. Wilson said no.

By comparison, the Vikings deal must have seemed like a sure thing. Last August the team’s owners—who each held a stake of approximately 10 percent—decided to sell, creating an opportunity for McCombs, who has previously owned pro basketball’s San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets. Even though the Vikings “need some tinkering,” he says, and had a firm lease at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome until 2112, he thought the team was a good buy, so he calculated how much he could afford to pay and submitted a sealed bid before the February 2 deadline. Up until that day, he didn’t know who the competing bidders were, but he assumed they’d be football fanatics like himself; in fact, when a reporter called him that night to say Tom Clancy was the winner, McCombs at first had no idea who he was talking about.

What now? McCombs knows expansion is unlikely anytime soon, since the NFL has committed to a new team for Cleveland in 1999 and plans to service teamless Los Angeles and Houston next. As for buying a team, “there are thirty of ’em out there,” McCombs says hopefully. “The various owners know I’m interested.” What he’s not interested in, though, is a team in another pro sport (except, possibly, an NBA franchise in Mexico City). The thought of a baseball or a hockey team doesn’t intrigue him at all—“less than zero”—even if one were offered to him free. “An NFL team is the premier property in the sports world today,” he says. “I have to have a passion about the things I do.”

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