NEW YORK — Bob McNair, a transplanted Texan who built an energy empire that earned him a fortune he would spend on an NFL team and philanthropy and political causes, died Friday at his home in Houston. He was 81.
The team he owned, the Houston Texans, announced his death in a statement. A team spokeswoman said the cause was cancer.
A longtime Houstonian, Mr. McNair founded Cogen Technologies, which became the largest privately owned cogeneration company in the world — and then sold the bulk of it in 1999 for $1.1 billion with an eye toward becoming an NFL owner. In October 1999 his aspirations were realized when the league awarded him the franchise that would become the Texans — a move that would return professional football to Houston in 2002, six years after the Oilers skipped for Tennessee to become the Titans.
“The whole thing was just an absolute dream come true,” Mr. McNair told The New York Times that year. “I don’t know how I could have scripted anything better.”
As the team’s owner, he was also instrumental in bringing two Super Bowl games to Houston, in 2004 and in 2017.
“Nobody cared — or helped people — more, and that’s just one of the reasons I will always be proud Bob was my good friend,” former president George W. Bush said in a statement Friday. “He was simply the best.”
Robert C. McNair was born in Tampa on Jan. 1, 1937, to Ruth and Ruse McNair. He grew up in Rutherford County in North Carolina and graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1958; he and his wife, Janice Suber McNair, moved to Houston two years later.
After amassing his fortune in the energy sector, Mr. McNair began contributing large sums to educational, philanthropic, and politically conservative causes. For instance, he donated $100 million to Baylor College of Medicine in 2007 and pledged $1 million each to relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
His donations over the years helped etch his name on everything from a graduate school of management to an Asian elephant habitat, according to a biography on the Texans’ website.
In 2012, he gave $1 million to a super PAC supporting Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. In the lead-up to the 2016 elections, he gave more than $7 million to conservative groups and campaigns. And when Donald Trump was elected, Mr. McNair donated another $1 million for inauguration festivities.
In 2015, Mr. McNair was criticized for donating $10,000 to a group that opposed a Houston ordinance that sought to protect gay and transgender rights. He later rescinded the check, saying the group had “made numerous unauthorized statements” about his opposition to the ordinance.
But it was with his $700 million bid to create the new Houston franchise that he would enter the exclusive club of NFL owners and raise his public profile.
He was among the owners most actively involved in NFL matters, serving as chairman of the finance committee while also sitting on two other committees.
Under his ownership, the Texans won their first AFC South title in 2011 and repeated as conference champions the next year. The team went on to win four division titles in seven seasons.
But in recent years, the league has found itself embroiled in the political issues of the day — and team owners like Mr. McNair have occasionally stoked discord with their comments.
In October 2017, he was reported to have groused about “inmates running the prison” if NFL owners allowed players to continue to sit or kneel during the national anthem. He made the comment among a handful of owners and team executives not long after a meeting with about a dozen players, many of them African-Americans, and many of whom had demonstrated during the anthem throughout the season to highlight a lack of attention to racial injustice.
The remarks prompted Texans players to consider walking out of practice — two actually skipped — and Mr. McNair apologized twice, on back-to-back days.
Then, in April, the anthem protests drew barbs on Twitter from Trump and forced the league to hold a confidential meeting among its players, owners, and executives.
In an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The Times, Mr. McNair rebuked the players for kneeling: “You fellas need to ask your compadres, fellas, stop that other business, let’s go out and do something that really produces positive results, and we’ll help you.”
In addition to his wife, Janice, Mr. McNair leaves two sons, Cal and Cary; two daughters, Ruth and Melissa; 15 grandchildren; and two great-grandsons. His son Cal is believed to be the heir to the football franchise.