AS THE MAN RESPONSIBLE FOR BRINGING NFL FOOTBALL BACK TO OUR FRANCHISE- SPURNED CITY, ROBERT C. MCNAIR HOLDS A LOVINGLY AND LOYALLY BRANDED PLACE IN THE HEARTS OF MANY HOUSTONIANS. THE HISTORIC PURCHASE, MADE IN MANY (MOST) PARTS POSSIBLE BY THE SALE OF THE ENERGY COMPANY HE FOUNDED, COGEN TECHNOLOGIES, TO ENRON FOR $1.5 BILLION IN 1999, REVITALIZED A FOOTBALL CRAZED CITY THAT HAD ESSENTIALLY BEEN IN MOURNING SINCE THE LATE BUD ADAMS INEXORABLY MOVED THE HOUSTON OILERS TO TENNESSEE IN 1997.
COUNTING MYSELF AS ONE OF THOSE FORMERLY BEREAVED OILER FANS, I WAS LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS MEETING WITH THE OWNER, IN A MORE (SELF ADMITTEDLY) PERSONAL WAY. A QUICK OFF THE CUFF CHAT ABOUT THE “AMAZING” RODEO CREWS SETTING UP THE NEW STAGE BELOW FOR THE UPCOMING HOUSTON LIVESTOCK SHOW AND RODEO, AND IT IMMEDIATELY BECAME APPARENT THAT THERE WERE QUALITIES AND CHARACTERISTICS BEYOND THE OFT AND OVERLY PUBLISHED.
WITH HIS BUSINESS SUCCESSES BEING THE MOST WELL-DOCUMENTED UNDOUBTEDLY, PEELING BACK SOME LAYERS LEADS TO THE DISCOVERY OF THE ELEMENTS OF A MUCH MORE IMPRESSIVE RÉSUMÉ: PHILANTHROPIC GIANT, FINANCIAL CHAMPION FOR EDUCATION, LOCAL SPORTS FAN, FORMER RACEHORSE OWNER/BREEDER, LOYAL GAMECOCK, FORMER COLLEGE BASKETBALL PLAYER, ASPIRATIONAL SOCCER CLUB OWNER, FATHER OF FOUR AND HUSBAND TO JANICE, HIS PARTNER IN WORK, GIVING AND IN LIFE.
On October 6, 1999, the NFL announced that the 32nd NFL franchise had been awarded to you. Take us back to that moment.
I was in Atlanta and we‘d been negotiating for most of the night. I don’t think we got through until maybe 3 or 4 in the morning. We made the announcement and I was really excited. Of course, we had paid so much for it – it was the highest price that anybody had paid for a team. I was happy but I was still a little apprehensive about whether it made economic sense or not.
How did your pre-Texans business success prepare you to be a successful NFL owner? Is there anything you have learned as a team owner that has helped you in other avenues?
I had run businesses for a number of years, and then of course I’d been in the thoroughbred racing business. We had basically a team there of people on our farm and our trainers and people who manage the racing. I think I was well prepared but the thing that’s different is running an NFL team is half business and half political, and it was the political part that was different.
Deshaun Watson exploded onto the scene this past season, and was poised to lead the team to the playoffs and run away with the Rookie of the Year award before his unfortunate injury. It seems that for the first time, in a while
at least, you have your franchise quarterback. What are your expectations of both Deshaun and the team in the upcoming season(s)?
Deshaun is one of the most exciting players that’s come around in a number of years. Of course, we’ve been looking for our quarterback and had not been successful until we found Deshaun. He is not only a tremendous player but tremendous person, and I think going to be a great leader. So, we’re very excited about him and I think that he’s going to lead us to a lot of victories.
We all know how superstitious athletes can be. Do you have any superstitions either personal or related to the team?
Not really. I’m not a superstitious person.
Similarly, everyone always focuses on the pre-game routines of players. Do you have a pre-game ritual? Post-game?
Pre-game, I go in the locker room and I visit with the players and I speak to them and wish them well and wish them good luck for the game and join them for a pre-game prayer that we have. After the game, I go in the locker room with them and have the opportunity to visit with them there and enjoy the victories and suffer through the defeats.
J.J. Watt was recently named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. It seems as though even when he isn’t dominating on the field, he is making an impact elsewhere, whether it be commercially or in the community, as he proved post-Harvey with his heroic fundraising and subsequent boots to the ground efforts. Talk about what J.J. has meant to you personally, this franchise and the city of Houston.
J.J. has been such a great example for all of our players. Stardom has not affected him. He is still humble and interested in people and caring about other people. Just a terrific, terrific person. We’re so fortunate to have him and for him to be such an outstanding player on top of those other characteristics is just unbelievable.”
Your philanthropy over the years, along with your wife Janice, is well known, having donated millions to various scientific, educational, athletic and health-related causes. Most notable among those being a $100 million gift to Baylor College of Medicine. Where and when did you learn the value of giving back?
I learned through my church, Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church. They have a dollar-for-dollar benevolence program. For each dollar that is spent there on the church, a dollar is given to the community for charitable efforts. It was just a great demonstration of being generous and being a good steward.
Speaking of giving, you have also given back to your alma mater, The University of South Carolina. Take us back to your college days. What kind of student were you and what goals did you have? Did your eventual career align with your initial plans?
When I was in school, I was a well-rounded student. I engaged in politics in college and it was a very rewarding experience, but I had no idea That I would be doing what I’ve done with my career. The only goals I had was I wanted to be able to earn enough money to have a nice home and send my children to college.
What kind of an athlete were you growing up? Did you ever dream of being a professional athlete?
I played all the sports when I was growing up. I was probably what you’d say was a good high school athlete but I really wasn’t big enough and good enough to be a professional athlete. I really didn’t think of that but I did think of playing at the collegiate level, which I did my freshman year – I played basketball. I wanted to see if I could compete, and I did. I was a starter. That sort of fulfilled my ambition. After that I knew I wasn’t going to be a Bob Cousy, a professional All-Star, so that was the end of my athletic career on a serious note.
Houston sports has enjoyed a sort of renaissance as of late, with the Astros winning their first ever World Series Championship, and the Rockets fighting for the top spot in the NBA. How closely do you follow the other Houston teams and what is your relationship like with the other owners?
I enjoyed watching the Astros win the World Series. I’m really pleased for Jim Crane and their organization. They’ve done a great job. And of course the Rockets, one of the top teams in the NBA. I like their coach, Mike D’Antoni, and of course Tilman Fertitta is a friend and he now owns the team. I’m pulling for them and I hope that both teams win this year, as hopefully the Texans will.
What is your prediction for the Texans next season?
I really don’t make a prediction other than to say that I want us to be competitive and make the playoffs and see how far we go.”
Give one word answers in response
to these words:
– Houston: “Generous”
– Janice: “Unbelievable”
– Restaurant: “Mark‘s American Cuisine.”
(has since closed)
– Guilty pleasure: “I don’t feel guilty about it
but I love to play golf.”
– O’Brien: “Great coach”
– Vacation spot: “Kiawah”
– Future: “Bright”