The NFL will return to Houston starting in the 2002 season, when the league will expand to 32 teams and realign into eight still-undetermined four-team divisions.

NFL team owners meeting here today awarded Houston businessman Robert McNair a franchise that will cost him $700 million, a record for an American pro expansion team. In addition, McNair will pay about $115 million of the projected $310 million cost of a new stadium in Houston, which has been without an NFL team since the Oilers departed for Tennessee following the 1996 season.

McNair also confirmed today he has had several discussions with former Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, but said he has made no decisions about a coach or a general manager for his team. Asked about Casserly, he said: "I will probably be talking to Charley again. I like Charley, I like him a lot."

Other sources in McNair's group said Casserly, now a consultant to Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder, will be a candidate to run the team's football operations.

Casserly confirmed Tuesday that he's had conversations with McNair, but would not reveal details of their discussions.

"We have talked," Casserly said. "But as to the content of our conversations, I think that's best kept between myself and Bob McNair."

Cleveland financier Al Lerner paid the previous record expansion fee--$530 million for the Browns. Snyder purchased the Redskins and Redskins Stadium in May from the estate of Jack Kent Cooke for $800 million, assuming approximately $495 million in stadium, team and financing debt.

Today, the NFL's expansion committee voted unanimously to recommend Houston, McNair and the nation's 11th-largest television market over Los Angeles, where two groups were vying for a team in the nation's second-largest TV market. The league had conditionally awarded the franchise to Los Angeles last March, contingent on a specific site and stadium development agreement being in place by Sept. 15.

That deadline passed without an agreement. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said today team owners on the expansion committee felt there were still too many questions about sites and stadium financing in Los Angeles, an area that has been without an NFL team since 1994, when the Raiders returned to Oakland and the Rams left Anaheim for St. Louis.

"The membership felt on balance the Houston proposal was superior," Tagliabue said.

The entire ownership group met for about two hours this morning and approved Houston, with 29 teams voting in favor, and two--Arizona and St. Louis--abstaining because of concerns over realignment. Houston needed a minimum of 24 votes to be approved.

The Houston team will play in the AFC, and the league's owners voted today to have a realignment plan in place by May 2001. However, there was no discussion on specifics concerning the composition of the eight four-team divisions.

Snyder said the Redskins almost certainly will stay in the NFC East, and that he has been told the league will try to keep division rivalries in place.

The new team, which will not be called the Oilers, will play in a facility that will have a retractable roof, 110 luxury boxes and 7,700 club seats. Construction is set to begin in March, with completion expected in time for the 2002 season.

"The key thing was both the quality of the stadium, the fan interest in Houston and Texas and the quality of the ownership in Bob McNair," Tagliabue said. Tagliabue also said Houston will be awarded a future Super Bowl, and likely will be a site that will continue to contend for the league's marquee event.

Other league sources indicated the key factor was McNair's willingness to pay a $700 million expansion fee.

A Los Angeles group headed by Eli Broad and Ed Roski proposed a $500 million franchise fee and a $400 million renovation of the Los Angeles Coliseum. A second Los Angeles group, headed by Michael Ovitz and Ron Burkle, offered to pay a $550 million expansion fee with private funding of a $350 million stadium.

McNair, 62, who made his fortune in the energy business, insisted today he made a sound business decision.

"It is an awful lot of money," he said, "but there's an awful lot involved. It is more than I ever anticipated. But I think we can have a successful football operation. If I didn't, I wouldn't have submitted that kind of bid. We knew we had to differentiate ourselves [from the Los Angeles groups]. We wanted to do something so outstanding, we'd break through this period of indecision."

Tagliabue said he met with both Los Angeles groups late Tuesday night and he expects they will continue their separate efforts to return pro football to that area. Neither Ovitz nor Roski were immediately available to comment.

"Houston just blew us away," John Semcken, a spokesman for Roski, said here after the vote was announced.

McNair will begin the process of naming the team through fan participation almost immediately.

The team will be stocked with players the same way the new Browns were stocked. It will have the first overall pick in the 2002 college draft and an extra draft choice at the end of every round. There also will be an expansion draft for veteran players from the 31 other teams.

Staff writer Mark Maske contributed to this report.