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San Antonio businessman, philanthropist Red McCombs passes away peacefully at 95

Family members say the prolific business magnate was surrounded by loved ones when he died Sunday.

SAN ANTONIO — The founder of Red McCombs Automotive Group, Billy Joe "Red" McCombs, has passed away, his family announced Monday.

They said the multi-industry business magnate died peacefully Sunday, surrounded by loved ones.

His family sent KENS 5 a detailed statement reflecting on his life, outlining the positive impact he made not only in the San Antonio community, but across the Lone Star State and beyond.

"While growing his car dealership empire, which would later reach more than 60 stores, Red and his family fell in love with San Antonio. It became home for them and would be for the remainder of his life," they said.

Funeral services will be held on Monday. Feb. 27 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts at 10 a.m., according to the Mission Park website. 

To send flowers or a memorial gift to the family go to their website.

A native Texan, a Texas icon

McCombs was born on Oct. 19, 1927 in Spur, Texas. Growing up in the Great Depression, a strong family value was cemented at a young age. He developed a love for people, and knew he wanted to give back to others, despite living with his three other siblings on his father's $24.75-a-week Ford mechanic’s salary.

He served in the Army after World War II and used the GI Bill to study at the business and law schools at The University of Texas at Austin.

While waiting for a corporate job, Red joined a friend to sell cars at a Ford dealership in Corpus Christi. After selling ten in one weekend, he knew he had a knack for the business. McCombs would sell an average of 30 or more cars a month, and within half a year set out on his own. He began McCombs Used Cars, and the empire developed from there; he would later reach more than 60 stores.

The letter from his family outlines the joy he had for giving back, detailing the generous donation of $50 million to UT Austin. Beyond the business school, Red helped fund a brand-new softball stadium and the north end zone at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium, both named in his honor.

Paving San Antonio's future

Red McCombs is a name synonymous with impact, the greatest of which was buying and then bringing the San Antonio Spurs to this city 50 years ago, having also played a role in the construction of the HemisFair Arena.

It was 1973 when Red McCombs brought the Dallas Chaparrals Basketball team to the Alamo City, renaming them the San Antonio Spurs. He said in 2019 that he considered it his greatest accomplishment.

"I'm most proud of the Spurs because it put San Antonio on the map," McCombs told KENS 5 at the time. 

He also forever changed San Antonio after moving here in 1958 and opening his first car dealership. He made his fortune as the founder of Red McCombs Automotive Group and co-founder of Clear Channel Communications, building them into billion dollar enterprises that made him one of the wealthiest men in the world and enabled him to own not only the Spurs, but the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Vikings as well.

The Spurs honored McCombs at a game last year, and Head Coach Gregg Popovich spoke about his old boss on his birthday earlier this year.

"More important than basketball, somebody we all know is 95 years old today... and it's not me. It's Red McCombs, 95," he said. "Since this is our 50th anniversary (in San Antonio), we wouldn't be having this without Red McCombs. He was my first boss, and I can remember still walking into Incarnate Word and seeing this big dude come in in his giant cowboy boots and his fur coat and his big Texan hat and I wondered, 'where the hell have I landed?' He was the boss, and we all know what he's done for the community and for the state."

"He was passionate about everything that he did. He had high standards, he demanded a lot, but he was fair, a great sense of humor," Popovich said. "We don't all see him as much as in the past, but when you do you can still see the little sly smirk on his face here and there because he loved a good joke, he loved people of all stripes for sure. And he let you know that he was in charge, no doubt about that."

Paying tribute

Popovich reflected on McCombs' life in a statement released by the Spurs on Monday evening, saying, “Red was a true icon. A Texas legend. It’s impossible to overstate the impact he had on the City of San Antonio."

In addition to the Spurs' coach, along with the franchise's CEO and other NBA higher-ups, local leaders like Mayor Ron Nirenberg and former Congressman Will Hurd paid their respects to a Texas "titan."

Spurs legend David Robinson paid tribute to McCombs on Twitter.

"R.I.P. Red McCombs. He was a legendary figure in San Antonio, and had a huge impact in my life," Robinson said. "We will miss you!"


San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg reacted to the news on Monday afternoon.

"Red McCombs was a pillar of San Antonio’s modern history and a titan of our local economy," Nirenberg said. "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."

Retired Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff recalls being in the State Senate in 1973 when the Spurs were brought to San Antonio.

"I've known him for 50 years, we worked on some things together. I think I was very instrumental in helping him sell to a local group...that bought the team," Judge Wolff recalled.

"He was a bigger-than-life kind of guy, very outspoken, I enjoyed working with him," Judge Wolff said about McCombs' contributions. 

McCombs, his wife Charlene and their three daughters have shared their wealth, donating more than $1 million to charities through The McCombs Foundation.

In 2019 Red McCombs told KENS 5, "I think that's what God intends us to do to help those who have less."

Twenty years earlier, in 1999, he said his secret to success was simple: "Do a better job at what you do. There will always be people who just do enough to get by, that creates opportunities for the rest of us."

Red and Charlene McCombs donated $30 million to MD Anderson Cancer Center and $50 million to UT Austin, which renamed its business school after him.

Much less well known was his commitment to Mary Hull Elementary in the NISD which began in 1994. McCombs adopted the school 28 years ago, and every year contributed money and gave of his time by serving as a mentor for students every year up until last year. 

Roberto Zarate was principal when McCombs helped take Mary Hull from an underperforming facility to a Blue Ribbon school.

"It was not a typical corporate mentorship," Zarate said. "Red McCombs gave of himself, he encouraged our students. I have never seen anything like that anywhere."

KENS 5 interviewed Red McCombs for our "People Who Make San Antonio Great" series in 2019:

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