A Lone Star legacy
The state of Texas loses an icon with the death of Jack Pardee.
The football landscape in Texas has been shaped and cultivated by all sorts of characters, be they players or coaches or administrators or fans.
But very, very few have been such a part of Texas football so many levels as Jack Pardee. From high school to college to the pros, as a player and as a coach, Pardee had an unmatched impact on the Texas football landscape.
Pardee died Monday from complications due to gallbladder cancer. He was 76.
Born in Iowa, Pardee moved with his family to Christoval – a tiny town in the Big Country near San Angelo – as a teenager, where he quickly found his way to the gridiron. The only game in town was six-man football, and he immediately excelled.
From Christoval, he found his way to College Station to play for Bear Bryant and Texas A&M, where he survived Bryant’s now famous preseason camp in Junction in 1954. Of the 100 or so players who entered camp, only 35 came out, including Pardee. Whether it was the preseason training, his natural ability or a combination, it worked, as Pardee became an All-American linebacker for the Aggies.
From there, it was off to the NFL, as he was the 14th overall pick in the 1957 draft by the Los Angeles Rams, which would begin the longest time he’d spend away from Texas. Pardee played linebacker for the Rams for 13 seasons, including a Pro Bowl season in 1963 and missing a year in 1965 due to melanoma. After two largely uneventful seasons with the Washington Redskins, Pardee retired in 1973. To this day, Pardee is the only six-man football player to ever play in the NFL.
Now, it was time for the chapter of his career for which most modern football fans remember him: coaching. From 1974 to 1981, Pardee bounced around a variety of jobs – coaching the Florida Blazers of the World Football League (and guiding them to the “World Bowl”), the Chicago Bears (and guiding them to the playoffs in 1977), the Washington Redskins and as an assistant with the San Diego Chargers. It wasn’t until 1984 – after being out of the game for three years – that Jack Pardee returned home to the Lone Star State.
The job: head coach of the Houston Gamblers of the USFL. Sure, the USFL eventually flopped, but it was here that Pardee adopted the offense that would define his coaching career: the run and shoot. The high-flying, quick-firing offense worked wonders with Jim Kelly at the helm of the Gamblers, and would prove to be the prelude to the rest of his career (though Pardee would be out of a job when the team, which had already merged with the New Jersey Generals, disbanded in 1986).
Pardee wasn’t out of work long, as he took over the head coaching job at the University of Houston after longtime head coach Bill Yeoman retired in relative controversy after the 1986 season. The run and shoot came to the Coogs, and it changed everything, as Houston quickly became one of the nation’s most electrifying offenses.
The team struggled to a 4-6-1 record in 1987, but did upset Texas in a wild 60-40 affair. In 1988, the Coogs took a big leap forward with an exciting young quarterback named Andre Ware, going 9-3, finishing second in the Southwest Conference and earning an Aloha Bowl berth.
The 1989 season is probably the most definitive of Pardee’s career. He appeared on the cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football alongside his friend and rival Forrest Gregg at SMU. On the heels of major sanctions levied by the NCAA for violations under Bill Yeoman, Pardee led Houston to perhaps its best season ever – 9-2, second in the Southwest Conference and a Heisman Trophy for Andre Ware, who flourished in Pardee’s dynamic offense to the tune of 4,299 yards and 44 touchdowns passing.
Pardee’s success did not go unnoticed in Space City, as the Houston Oilers came calling, plucking Pardee to be their head coach after firing Jerry Glanville. It seemed like a match made in heaven – Pardee inherited big-armed quarterback Warren Moon – and it was, as the run and shoot offense led the Oilers to the playoffs in his first four seasons. It was an inelegant finish – Pardee resigned after the Oilers started the 1-9 in 1994 – but it couldn’t taint a largely successful coaching career.
Pardee kicked around as the coach of the Birmingham Barracudas of the Canadian Football League for a year before eventually retiring. But his name never truly went away: he even interviewed for the vacant UH job in 2007, though the Coogs eventually went with an up-and-coming Oklahoma assistant named Kevin Sumlin.
From six-man football star to Junction Boy to Aggie star to coaching legend, there’s no two ways about it: Jack Pardee was a Texas football icon, and there’s one fewer character in the Lone Star State’s gridiron landscape now that he’s gone.
Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.