McNair was responsible for bringing the NFL back to Houston after the Oilers left for Tennessee. He purchased an expansion franchise for $700 million in 1999 and the Texans began play in 2002.
"It is with deep sadness that we announce Houston Texans Founder, Senior Chairman and Chief Executive Officer and philanthropist, Robert C. McNair passed away peacefully in Houston today with his loving wife, Janice, and his family by his side," the team said in a statement.
Texans general manager Brian Gaine, head coach Bill O'Brien and teams from around the NFL offered condolences to the family and lauded McNair for his "generosity to the City of Houston."
"We lost an incredible man today," Texans president Jamey Rootes said in a statement. "Bob McNair had a positive impact on so many people's lives. He was the reason professional football returned to Houston and he stewarded our franchise with a laser focus on honest, integrity and high character. He was an amazing champion for Houston and worked hard to make sure our city received maximum value from the presence of the Texans and the NFL.
"Bob gave me an opportunity 19 years ago to be part of the creation of the Texans and he became my mentor, hero and father figure. We will all miss him dearly. Our thoughts and prayers are with the McNair family during this difficult time."
McNair raised eyebrows in 1999 when he paid $700 million for the franchise, six years after expansion teams were awarded to Jacksonville and Carolina for $140 million. But he said he was satisfied with the price he paid and, earlier this year, Forbes magazine estimated the Texans' value at $2.8 billion.
On the field, the Texans struggled before finally reaching the postseason in 2011. But they've never had much success in four trips to the playoffs, losing each time in the divisional round, though there's optimism this year that the team can make a longer run.
Off the field, McNair had considerable influence in the NFL, bringing the Super Bowl to Houston twice during his ownership and also chairing the league's finance committee.
McNair was raised in a middle class family and struggled early in his business career before he founded the largest privately-owned energy cogeneration company in the world. He later sold that company.
In addition to the Texans, he owned a thoroughbred horse farm and stable in Kentucky and oversaw multiple companies that controlled the family's investments. He was also a philanthropist who donated to multiple causes.
Last year, McNair stirred controversy with a comment about players and the national anthem protests, saying: "We can't have the inmates running the prison."
At least two Texans players were upset and skipped a practice. He said his comments were misinterpreted.
McNair is survived by his wife and his four children, Cal, Cary, Melissa and Ruth, and 15 grandchildren. Cal is the Texans' CEO.