Jack Pardee, who died Monday at the age of 76, dedicated more of his football life to the pro game than the college game. Pardee played three seasons for Texas A&M in the 1950s, and 15 seasons in the NFL. He coached three seasons at the University of Houston in the late 1980s, and 15 seasons in the pros.
Yet in only that pair of three-season stints, Pardee covered almost the entire spectrum of postwar college football.
Pardee came along early enough to have been one of Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys, the Aggies who toughed out Bryant’s first preseason camp in Junction, Texas, in 1954. When he returned to the game in 1987, he shepherded the run-and-shoot offense into major college football with the Cougars in the late 1980s.
The game evolved, and Pardee evolved with it. He played one-platoon football, smashing mouths on both offense and defense. He coached two-platoon football, spreading out defenses and running them ragged.
“He could adapt to anything,” his Houston quarterback, Andre Ware, recalled Tuesday. “He was tough. He never complained. He expected the same exact attitude from his players.”
Ware adapted. He signed with Houston to run the veer option offense of Bill Yeoman. He won the 1989 Heisman Trophy throwing the laces off the ball for Pardee.
“He said, ‘Why spend so much time trying to stop someone when you could score fast?’ said Ware, now an ESPN college football analyst.
Pardee learned how to adapt, when, as the youngest of six children, he became a teenaged breadwinner. After his father contracted rheumatoid arthritis, Pardee worked the oil fields and played six-man football at Christoval (Texas) High. That’s where Aggie assistant coach Willie Zapalac found him late in Pardee’s senior season.
The skills of six-man rarely translated to major college football, but Pardee blossomed under the taskmastery of Bryant. Pardee endured Junction because, like Bryant himself a generation before, he had so little to go home to.
“If I quit football,” Pardee said in "What It Means to Be an Aggie," a 2010 oral history of Texas A&M football, “I knew I was going to have to go back to those oil fields, and my momma and daddy would have been harder on me than Coach Bryant.”
It helps that Pardee’s days of manual labor had built him into a 6-foot-2, 212-pound fullback. As a senior in 1956, Pardee made All-American playing in the same backfield as John David Crow, who would win the Heisman Trophy in 1957.
In Pardee’s senior season, Bryant didn’t start him against Baylor because of an injury. “I was afraid he would whip me,” Bryant recalled, “if I didn’t put him in the game.” Pardee played and the Aggies won, 19-13. In fact, Texas A&M never lost that season, going 9-0-1 and winning the Southwest Conference. The College Football Hall of Fame inducted Pardee in 1986.
Pardee may have spoken softly -- Ware said he and fellow Houston quarterback David Klingler used to call their head coach “the Gentle Giant” -- but his presence had its own megaphone. That combination proved successful in Pardee, as it has in so many coaches.
“When he needed to lay down the law, he could make the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” Ware said. “… He made time for each and every one of his players who came through the door. I don’t know that you see that [anymore].”
Pardee commanded such respect that his NFL coach, George Allen, made him a player/coach for two seasons (1971-72) late in Pardee’s career. But Pardee already had coaching experience.
After being diagnosed with melanoma in 1965, Pardee retired and became an assistant at his alma mater to his Aggie teammate, Gene Stallings. He stayed there one season, got back into playing shape, and resumed his career.
When he retired for good, he embarked on a 20-year coaching career in the World Football League, the NFL, the USFL, the CFL and college football. Pardee took over a Houston team that had gone 1-10 in Bill Yeoman’s last season. By 1989, the Cougars went 9-2. After that season, Pardee went across town and returned to the NFL as head coach of the Houston Oilers.
Ware had intended to return to Houston for his senior season. But when Pardee left, Ware entered the NFL draft.
“Discipline I thought might take a hit,” Ware said. “He was the guy I wanted to play for.”
Pardee went 22-11-1 at Houston. Six years ago, he nearly returned to Houston as head coach. The university hired Kevin Sumlin instead. No matter -- there, as at his alma mater 90 minutes away, Pardee’s legacy remains secure.