My first thought when I heard that San Antonio mogul Red McCombs had died, at 95, was of his house, one that I think he hadn’t lived in now for many years. But when I was a teenager, that house loomed large, not just in my imagination but in the imaginations of many San Antonians who were beginning to grow restless with the ersatz modesty of the city, run as it was by old-money types who disdained flashiness and couldn’t be bothered to care much about people who weren’t like them.
So, the house: it started going up on the corner of Devine Road and Olmos Drive, which, if you know San Antonio, is about as flouncy an address as you could have back in 1965 (and, most likely, even now). Instead of some fusty old Spanish-style hacienda or an imitation Tudor manse made of limestone, this place was low-slung and unabashedly modern, a ranch house on steroids, fashioned of ochre-shaded brick, with so many windows it might have been mistaken for a contemporary cathedral or a very fancy Hill Country motel. O’Neil Ford, the brash, cigar-chomping Frank Lloyd Wright of San Antonio, was its architect, and I feel pretty comfortable telling you that he knew his client and that he knew exactly what he was doing. For a kid like me, who had grown up in a place as insular and provincial as San Antonio was then, that house was, in a tasteful way, an “up yours” to the old guard, signaling the arrival of something and someone new, an announcement that the San Antonio power game would not be played in the way it had been since, well, probably the Battle of San Jacinto.
The client, rumor had it, was a guy named Billy Joe “Red” McCombs, who had been a local car dealer since 1958. Before that, he had been a car salesman. (A car salesman??? That alone was enough to turn old San Antonio back on its heels.) That he had grown very rich was something that would have swung open every door in Houston but did not guarantee much ring kissing in the Alamo City, where, at the time, being showy was about as uncool as eating tamales without removing the wrappers. (President Gerald Ford, RIP.) But here was this very large, burly, redheaded émigré from Spur who seemed intent on making the town his own. (You know Spur—out in West Texas? Southeast of Floydada and northeast of Post?? Neither did a lot of folks in SA.) McCombs had no pedigree to speak of—it wasn’t a plus in old San Antonio that he had grown up selling peanuts to farmworkers and washing dishes after school—and he had his battles with the bottle, which nearly killed him at the age of 48. But once he gave up alcohol, channeling his addictive personality into other pursuits allowed him to continue a larger-than-life existence for almost fifty more years. “Nobody knew what an entrepreneur was in the 1930s and 1940s, but I was one,” he told Texas Monthly in 1999. “All I knew is that I wanted to have enough money to buy Arrow shirts.”
He got those, and more. By the late 1960s, McCombs had become part of a group of businessmen intent on moving San Antonio forward, and he seemed to be everywhere progress was attempted (and/or made). He supported the mayoral campaign of Henry Cisneros, who would go on to serve four terms leading San Antonio and later become the first Latino U.S. secretary of housing and development, under President Bill Clinton. Most important, though, was McCombs’s determination to bring a sports team to San Antonio, which, with the ascendance of the Spurs in the early 1970s, brought the city greater stature in the eyes of national corporations and, at home, created a unifying force previously unknown and maybe even unimaginable, thanks to McCombs’s recruitment of the likes of George Gervin and David Robinson. Later, in 1998, having sold that team, McCombs put down $250 million for the Minnesota Vikings, rocketing himself into the social stratosphere of NFL team owners. He understood the relationship between sports and the media; in 1972 he helped found Clear Channel, which he used as a brand extension for his car dealerships. McCombs loved Formula One, horse racing, and, no doubt, making the Forbes list of the richest Americans, on which he ranked 1,729 in 2022 with $1.7 billion to call his own, thanks to an empire that included the über-successful car dealerships, oil and gas investments, multiple ranches, and a real estate group.
Like a lot of successful stereotypical Texans—oil trader Oscar Wyatt comes to mind—McCombs expected to get his way. He got crosswise with environmentalists, like so many expansive Texans, when he wanted to build a ski resort adjacent to a national forest in Colorado and then spent more than thirty years trying to get the law to back him up. He lost. McCombs did not endear himself to the Navajo Nation when he tried to set up a casino on Lake Powell, and, in one of his worst offenses, he got in a heap of trouble when he shot off his mouth for calling the hiring of University of Texas football coach Charlie Strong, who is Black, “a kick in the face.” (McCombs had attended UT, was a major donor, and was not happy to have been cut out of the hiring process.) He made a public, if somewhat grudging, apology. There was also an obligatory million-dollar lawsuit against former executives that, McCombs told the San Antonio Express-News in 2017, destroyed relationships going back four decades. In other words, it would not be surprising to learn that Red McCombs was a less somber model for Yellowstone’s John Dutton.
But unlike Dutton, McCombs was not singularly focused on hanging on to what was his. The McCombs School of Business at UT carries his name, thanks to a $50 million donation in 2000, and Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center was the beneficiary of $30 million in 2005. Along the way, there were other contributions small and large; through the McCombs Foundation, he and his wife Charline, who died in 2019, donated more than $118 million to charity. Some other rich person lives in the house at Olmos and Devine now, and there are even bigger homes for richer people in town. I’m not sure any of those are the stuff of dreams, though, or serve as winking reminders of the time when San Antonio’s past and future met and the city moved forward.