John McClain: Cal McNair welcomes Hannah McNair’s growing influence in Texans’ decision-making process
PHOENIX – Cal McNair, the Texans’ chairman and CEO, welcomes the growing influence his wife, Hannah, has in the organization’s decision-making process.
In the team’s power structure, she sits at her husband’s side and is helping shape a philosophy they hope will invigorate a franchise that suffered through three years of losing that created turmoil, negativity, and embarrassment. They’re looking in a new direction – straight ahead – since they made the popular decision to hire DeMeco Ryans as head coach.
“A lot has gone on, and there’s a lot of opportunity to grow,” Hannah McNair said during the NFL meetings this week. “I think a lot of good things have happened like (hiring) DeMeco. There’s clarity in a lot of things. I think that helps the whole organization.”
The McNair family, including co-founder and senior chairman Janice McNair, oversees an organization that has been in upheaval since Bill O’Brien was fired as coach and general manager five games into the 2020 season. David Culley and Lovie Smith were one-and-done head coaches. Josh McCown was almost hired as the head coach, and Jack Easterby was fired during last season.
People familiar with the decision-making process said Hannah played an influential role in decisions like switching from McCown to Smith as well as Easterby’s firing. She declined to address them specifically.
“You don’t want to look at the past too much, but when you do, you look at it to learn,” she said. “You take from that the experiences good and bad, what works and doesn’t work, and you take that with you into the next decisions you make. You seem to learn from failure more than you do from winning, so we learned a lot.”
Hannah McNair has a sense of humor. She’s a devoted wife and a loving mother to four children. She’s vivacious and laughs easily, but she’s also careful, serious, and demanding when she needs to be. If she sees something she believes should be changed, it usually is. Cal trusts her and embraces her suggestions.
“Hannah’s smart, and she’s been giving me good advice since early ’08 when we first met and then were married in 2009,” Cal said. “I’ve always respected her and her insights. None of us are 100%, but she has a pretty high batting average as far as giving good advice.
“It’s been so much fun having her more involved. I’m delighted to have her as a partner. Dad (team founder Bob McNair) had mom as his partner, and she was involved in everything, so I really enjoyed having them as a model. Ride or die, Hannah’s by my side. I just appreciate her so much.”
Cal McNair doesn’t have the kind of ego that makes him want to keep his wife in the background. He respects her business acumen and opinions, even when they disagree.
“It’s a direct reflection of how he views the organization and where he wants it to be,” Hannah said. “The more diverse voices you have, the better you are. The fact that he has no ego and he’s like, ‘I want my wife to help because I think she’s smart and helps the process,’ I think that speaks to what our organization views as far as diversity. That starts at the top. He’s not saying, ‘I want my voice to be the solo voice.’ He’s saying, ‘We’re better together’ like his mom and dad were.’
“I don’t have an agenda when I speak with Cal (about Texans’ business). My only thing is to support him and speak the truth to him. I can tell him something point blank, whether it’s hard to hear or whatever it is, and I have no agenda except what’s best for him.”
Cal and Hannah will celebrate their 14th anniversary in June. They met at a soccer match at NRG Stadium in 2008. She earned a business degree from the University of Houston and worked for a wealth management firm. On Valentine’s Day, he invited her to dinner that night. She made a reservation at Café Annie and told him she’d meet him there. The rest is McNair family history.
Fans may ask why Hannah has gotten so involved in making non-personnel decisions in recent years. She’s been busy being a mother to their four children – Robert, Calhoun, Michael, and Hunter Grace.
“When they were babies, it was a lot harder to be at the office with him,” she said. “Since our daughter’s been in school, it’s been a little easier to be there. I go around the office and talk with a lot of people. That’s just relationship building. I hope they trust us and know we support them in whatever they need. While he’s in his office doing all the grunt work, I get to go out, converse, and make sure everybody’s feeling good and we’re headed in the right direction.”
On balancing being a mother and wife with decisions that have to be made at the office, Hannah said, “Our priority is our relationship first. When the kids see that, the whole family is better. And then working hard at the business. There’s so much that goes into that. We’re always working, but we try to make sure our attention is where it needs to be.”
Hannah is confident and comfortable in her role. Having a business degree helps with participating in decisions that have to be made on the administrative side of the organization.
“I think working full time while I was in school helped me balance reality and what was just school,” Hannah said. “I think there’s more if you can get experience with a degree, of course, but I think it definitely helps that I spent so much time working. There’s a commitment to learning and getting things done, staying up until 2 in the morning to get your homework done, and then waking up at 5 to go to work. Things have to get done no matter what it takes.”
They hired Nick Caserio as general manager in January of 2021. They gave him a six-year contract and recommended that he rebuild a team that reached the divisional round of the playoffs in 2019 before becoming unhinged. They gave him the power over personnel. Caserio walked into mayhem, beginning with the Deshaun Watson trade demand.
“None of us knew the storm he was walking into,” Cal said. “I think he’s done a fantastic job getting the Texans’ ship through some bad weather. A lot of that was unforeseen. I don’t know that other teams have gone through what we went through. I think he grew through that process. He’s got us in a great spot with the assets we have with DeMeco, draft choices, free agents, and the cap space he’s been using to help put our roster together.”
In a five-year period, the Texans employed general managers Rick Smith, Brian Gaine, O’Brien, and Caserio. Easterby was interim GM after O’Brien was hired.
There were tumultuous times, especially during the O’Brien era.
“DeMeco’s in lockstep with Nick, and they have the same mindset and work ethic,” Hannah said. “If you don’t have a GM and coach working together, you’re in (trouble). They’re in alignment, and it’s nice to see. They’re working really well together.”
The McNair philosophy is to keep up with what’s going on, provide the financial resources to help Caserio acquire the best coaches and players, and keep their distance. They won’t tell Caserio which quarterback to draft with the second overall pick. But if things don’t go well, something’s untenable, and demands change, they’re not afraid to make tough decisions they believe are necessary, no matter how much they’re criticized.
“Cal wanted to adopt that policy to hire people and let them do their job, but sometimes you have to step in,” she said about making changes. “You have to get things going in the right direction. That philosophy is great when you have the right people in place, but there are moments when you see the need for that. From my perspective, he’s there to make sure it runs at a high level.”
During the NFL meetings at the Arizona Biltmore, Hannah McNair was always at her husband’s side as they navigated issues that impacted the product on the field. During some down time, they paused to do interviews with Houston media. One subject they avoided was responding to questions about the Watson controversy and how glad they are they no longer have to worry about it.
Asked about the league taking away a fifth-round draft choice because of a salary cap violation involving Watson, Cal said, “I felt like it was a harsh penalty, and we’re glad to have it behind us.”
When Watson played for the Browns at NRG Stadium last season, he was warming up by the Texans’ bench. When he went over to shake Cal’s hand, Hannah turned her back to him, which earned her a lot of praise around the NFL, especially from women.
“I think it is what it is, and I’ll let that stay as it was,” she said.
Something the McNairs were happy to talk about was the NFLPA survey of players and how they’re treated. The Texans finished fourth in the NFL in the eight-category survey. The McNair family drew high praise for taking care of their players.
“We want the players to know they’re in a place where ownership is committed to winning,” Cal said. “We want the fans to feel we’re committed to winning, and that’s what we’re about. We do things to take care of players. We give Nick and his crew a lot of latitude to do that, and it was nice to see that report come out. We do it for the players and for them to feel they’re cared for in a first-class way.”
Hannah said the survey provided them with more incentive.
“We take pride in it, but I look at it to see where we can improve, as well,” she said. “There’s a lot of good in that survey, but there’s also some areas we can improve. We think we’ve also improved the business side of things for the employees across the organization. We’re going to spend the money on the people in the building, but we also expect results. If the return is not what we’ve invested in, we’ll need to look at that.”
Cal and Hannah have invested a lot of confidence in Caserio and Ryans, giving both six-year contracts. After years of chaos and confusion, they’re as excited as fans are about the draft and the season. They hear positive reviews from fans and media about the coaching staff, free agency, and the two first-round draft choices, including one who’s expected to be a franchise quarterback.
“It’s always good to be reaffirmed, but we know we have to win some games,” Cal said. “That’s what our fans are excited for, and that’s what we’re excited to do. One thing we visited with DeMeco about was the table is set for him to lead us to a new era of winning and back to where Texans football should be. There were some issues in the past, but we feel like we’ve got the team in a really good place.”
(John McClain writes four columns a week for GallerySports.com. He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).