The view from the owner's box
Welcome to Robert McNair's world: close the roof, chill the shrimp, make the playoffs.
This article appears in the Nov. 28 "One Day, One Game" issue of ESPN The Magazine.
HERE COMES YOUR HOST, kissing little old ladies' cheeks, working the stadium like a politician on overdrive. He has a beefy security guard tailing him. But why? Robert McNair, billionaire owner of the Houston Texans, is going to stop for anybody -- a complete stranger or the guy with his face painted holding a Bud Light -- and shake a hand or slap a back. "I like to press the flesh," McNair says. "I'm a toucher."
He has the suit and the gait of an important man, someone who needs to be elsewhere but can't quite pull himself from the party. He drinks cranberry juice on the rocks, sans the twist, and has been up since 5:30 a.m. on this October Sunday because that's when Sparky, his English cocker spaniel, wanted outside.
On the surface, McNair's game-day mornings probably aren't too different from yours. He drinks a cup of coffee, reads the newspaper and watches the pregame shows on TV. There is one slight difference. On this particular morning, he receives a phone call from overseas. Seems his filly, Elusive Kate, has just won a race in France. McNair turns to Janice, his wife of more than 50 years, and says it's a sign. This is going to be a good day.
Just after 9:30 a.m., the McNairs are preparing to leave their 12,124-square-foot Houston manse for Reliant Stadium's 3,620-square-foot owner's suite, which is big enough to house a small jet. But before the 15-minute drive, McNair makes his first executive decision of the day. The Texans have a 50-80 rule: If the temperature outside is below 50 degrees or above 80 degrees, the stadium roof is closed. Today is expected to be a picture-perfect south Texas afternoon, with the thermometer climbing above 80 degrees. McNair makes the call to shut the roof.
Most of the decisions McNair makes on Sundays go unnoticed, and that, he will tell you, is the idea. Where football is concerned, McNair believes in hiring the best coaches and front office staff and letting them do their jobs. But the game-day experience -- the temperature inside the stadium, whether glare from an open roof will impede fans' views or the tailgate parties in the parking lots -- are his baby. It's one of the burdens of ownership these days. Fans don't just demand a winner. In exchange for their high-priced tickets and parking, they expect creature comforts, such as the 72-foot-tall high-definition scoreboard at Cowboys Stadium and amenities such as the 1.3-million-square-foot Patriot Place retail and dining area at Gillette Stadium.
The defending-AFC-champion Steelers are in town, and the city of Houston and the entire NFL will learn whether the upstart Texans are finally for real or, once again, paid too much for this party. Some important people will be at Reliant Stadium -- the house that McNair built -- to witness this clash of 2-1 conference foes. Houston's mayor, the president of Baylor College of Medicine and former Secretary of State James A. Baker are all on hand. George H.W. and Barbara Bush would be here, but they don't arrive in Houston until later in the fall, when they migrate back from Kennebunkport, Maine.
Still, 74-year-old McNair is the most important man in the room. Even so, he's humble enough that security guards feel comfortable approaching him. He's willing to sit with his suite open to the fans, some of whom are just feet away waving Terrible Towels. He's also sitting next to Baker, one of the most important political figures of the last century.
A few years ago, McNair's loyal executive assistant Becky Virtue remembers, Jerry Jones visited McNair's suite when he was collecting ideas for the rich man cave he was developing. Virtue has been with McNair for 13 years. She couldn't tell you Arian Foster's stats, but she knows everything about her boss, like that he avoids sweets every day but Sunday. That day he likes ice cream, win or lose. What Virtue remembers about Jones is that he once said his Cowboys were about glitz and glitter and that things like checkered tablecloths, boots and 10-gallon hats should be left to the Texans.
But this is no hoedown. Everything in McNair's suite is first class. There's a piano in the corner for when country star Clay Walker comes to visit or when team staff has its midweek Bible study. There's a glass-enclosed phone room for when Bush 41 or other visiting dignitaries need to break away and make a private call. The Sunday menu covers just about everything, with made-to-order omelets with all the fixings, jalapeno grits and bacon-wrapped hors d'oeuvres. The servers have been given advance notice, in caps, on how to display the jumbo Texas shrimp. BE SURE THE SHRIMP IS FRESH AND ISN'T ODOROUS AND BE SURE THAT IT IS SERVED ON ICE TO KEEP FRESH.
Sticking with his game-day routine, McNair decides to take the elevator to the field an hour before kickoff to watch the players warm up.
A former college athlete, he still feels a bond with those who sweat for a living and wants to know how they're feeling. Janice McNair is on the field on this day too. It's the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Janice, a survivor of the disease, will partake in the coin toss.
After the Texans win the flip and pound the Steelers' defense with a 19-play, 95-yard drive that eats up 10:55 and ends in a touchdown, AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" plays, the guitar chords rippling like waves through the crowd. McNair's stadium vibrates. Still standing on the sideline, the owner raises his fists halfway. Time to go back to his suite.
IN THIS WORLD of winnowing information and access, where jammed thumbs are treated like national secrets, McNair lays down just one hard rule after allowing a reporter, a photographer and a photo assistant to trail him on such an important Sunday: He does not want to be bothered during the game.
His guests are mindful of this three-hour chatter-free zone and let McNair be while he's hunkered in the first row of his suite next to general manager Rick Smith. This team is not a toy for a man who, according to Forbes, is worth $1.5 billion -- a fortune that was decades in the making. McNair was the first person in his family to go to college. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs out of high school in 1954 but wound up playing basketball at the University of South Carolina, leaving the team after his freshman season. In 1960, he started a Houston car-leasing company with $700, then later a trucking company. When the latter nearly failed, almost forcing him into bankruptcy in the 1980s, McNair had enough resilience to start Cogen Technologies, which owned power cogeneration plants. It became the largest privately held firm of its kind in the world and, in 1999, was sold to Enron for $1.5 billion. That proved two things about McNair: He had impeccable timing, and he understood that building good things takes time.
McNair is so calm and cordial that critics wonder whether he, or his team, lacks a killer instinct. But he wants to win. Desperately. He believes that whatever happens with this franchise will help define his life. "Bob won in business," says Texans vice chairman Philip Burguieres, "and eventually, we're going to win on the football field."
McNair lives a few doors from Bud Adams, who owned the Houston Oilers before moving that team to Tennessee after the 1996 season. On Sundays, McNair would walk to his house to get a ride to the Astrodome, where the Oilers played, and the two would sit in Adams' suite. McNair loved those days. After the Oilers became the Tennessee Titans, McNair says his civic duty prompted him to pursue an NFL team. He couldn't fathom the idea of the country's fourth-largest city being without one.
When the league announced in 1999 that it was expanding to 32 teams, McNair led a group that plunked down $700 million for the new franchise and patiently waited for two competing bids from LA to fizzle. Like a prize from a big-game hunt, a framed blue No. 32 jersey with the words LOS ANGELES crossed out is on display in the suite.
The Texans, now in their 10th season, are the only current NFL team never to make the playoffs. This isn't Green Bay or New England, where a couple of losses launch the fan base into crisis mode. There is a forced patience in Houston; this city knows what it's like to lose its team. But patience is waning. At the end of last season, another mediocre one, many fans were ready for McNair to blow the team up and start over without coach Gary Kubiak. McNair felt the urgency, but the coach kept his job. Two days before the Steelers game, McNair was asked what he'll do if the Texans don't make the playoffs. He barely pauses. "I don't worry about the playoffs because we're going to make the playoffs," he says. "I don't consider what would happen if we don't."
HOW DO YOU SHADOW A ROCK? McNair's emotions over an up-and-down second half are well in check. He stares down at stat sheets, sips his cranberry juice, leans in, leans back. He gets up at one point, flashing an anxious smile.
With 6:09 to play and the Texans clinging to a 17-10 lead, Mario Williams sacks Ben Roethlisberger, and the suite starts rocking. McNair raises his fists in the air. A few minutes later, he hustles to the elevator and pushes the down button twice. "Boy that was great, Mario coming up with that stop!" McNair says to his GM. After a short ride, the elevator doors slide open to the field-level crush outside, and McNair walks faster. He'll spend the rest of the game in a five-yard space on the sideline not far from the end zone. With 19 seconds left, Texans cornerback Jason Allen intercepts Roethlisberger, and McNair can finally exhale. He shakes the hand of his son Cal. He shakes his GM's hand. He backslaps or bearhugs linebackers, linemen and basically anyone else not wearing black or gold. Before the reporters enter the locker room, McNair stops by every stall and congratulates each player, from the stars to the ones who didn't suit up. "They're part of the team," McNair says.
By 4 p.m., he's ready to go home. It's been an emotional day, a huge win for a franchise so hungry to take the next step. McNair is spent. After working the locker room, he heads up to his suite.
Ever the host, he asks whether anyone needs anything. Then he says, "I'm going to go eat ice cream. And then I'm going to go home and pass out."
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ESPN The Magazine: November 28, 2011