(Editor’s Note: Former Houston Post, Houston Press and Houston Chronicle columnist Mickey Herskowitz covered Jack Pardee–Texas A&M “Junction Boy,” NFL linebacker and former Houston Gamblers, University of Houston and Houston Oilers coach–at nearly every stop. They also had a personal connection.
“We shared a bond, an unusual one and awkward to explain, for most of our adult lives,” Herskowitz says.
Before baseball’s opening day in 1964, Herskowitz wrote a story about Houston Colt .45s reliever Jim Umbricht, who had just died of melanoma at the age of 33. Pardee and his wife Phyllis saw the story in Los Angeles, and she insisted that he get a “black mole” similar to Umbricht’s checked out.
“Their suspicions were confirmed,” Herskowtiz says. “The mole was malignant. Within days of the test results, Jack underwent surgery, using a new technique – called perdusion, tying off the blood flow to the affected area – used for the first time in this country on Umbricht. The operation was a success, although they would not know for certain until five years later.
“For as long as we would know each other, Jack and Phyllis went out of their way to tell people that I had saved his life.”
Pardee would go on to volunteer and raise money for the American Cancer Society; he told the story of reading Herskowitz’s article when he received the American Cancer Society’s “Courage Award” from President Richard Nixon in 1973.
As Gene Stallings left the rosary for Jack Pardee, his Aggie teammate for three years and a friend for life, he paused briefly to chat with others lingering in the aisle. He could not hold back a smile over a memory more than 50 years removed.
“As a sophomore,” Stallings reflected. “Jack hardly said a word. We called him ‘Gabby.’”
Fans, and the occasional critic, were frequently puzzled by the demeanor of the football legend who died of gall bladder cancer on April 1. They would ask, in print or on the air, “What’s with Jack Pardee? How can a guy who played and coached for Bear Bryant and George Allen be so quiet and unemotional?”
We offer the short version of a sometimes complicated question. Pardee never needed to prove his manhood. He was less preoccupied than most people with the daily trivia of a world gone slightly daffy. He was that way in college and more so after 1964, when he was diagnosed with melanoma, black mole cancer, whose survival rate was then 10 percent.
In the end, he believed he had been given a bonus of 47 years.
“You’d rather not have it,” he said, when I called after hearing the disease was back, “but I’m okay. I’ve had a great run.”
He had several great runs, including a kickoff return of 85 yards for a touchdown that helped give the Aggies their first win over the University of Texas at Memorial Stadium. He never lost a yard from scrimmage in two seasons as a starting fullback. He may have been stopped for no gain once or twice, but a loss: never. Pardee did not see this distinction as a reason to boast. “Yeah, well, we didn’t run the fullback traps in those days,” he said. “We got the ball at the line of scrimmage and ran right at ‘em. It was hard to lose a yard.”
He was believed to be the first graduate of six-man football to perform as a professional. He was surely the first of that breed to grace the NFL head coaching faculty. To find a comparable story, you would need to locate an ex-singer of Western Union jingles, who later caught on with the Metropolitan Opera.
Born in Iowa, Jack was eight when his family moved to Christoval, a tiny community of dry-land farmers, whose sons were needed to push a plow, not a blocking sled. When the town enjoyed a brief oil boom in the early 1950’s, the enrollment at the high school expanded to roughly the size of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad.
In his senior year, Jack scored 57 touchdowns as one of two running backs on a team that employed a quarterback, two ends and a center. He was not to know a guard or tackle by name until he got to Aggieland, where as a sophomore in 1954 he fell under the influence of one Paul Bryant.
He was tall and gangly and shy and his coach couldn’t decide where to play him. He wound up at end, and, according to Bryant in his autobiography, Jack caught the touchdown pass that produced the only points in A&M’s only win, 6-0, over Georgia, in that 1-9 1954 campaign.
He was a Junction Boy, and Bryant’s love for that band of survivors, and that team, has been well documented. How could it have been otherwise? They gave him his only losing season in 38 years of coaching.
I once reminded Jack of his unique status as the hero of the Georgia victory. He shook his head and said, “No, that’s not right. Gene Stallings and I were the starting ends and Gene caught the pass for the touchdown. I caught a short one just before it.”
Startled and unused to hearing his former players correct the Bear, I asked Pardee if his memory could be trusted.
“I believe so,” he replied. “I also remember that we were driving for another score and I let a defensive man shoot the gap, throw us for a loss and kill the drive. That was when Coach Bryant decided to move me from end to fullback.”
In truth, Jack was something of a mystery to Bryant. He didn’t get mad no matter how much the coaches pushed him. The next spring some of the football players drove to Austin to cheer for the baseball team. Fights broke out all day, but the main event was between Pardee and a star Texas tackle named Buck Lansford. They brushed each other in the doorway of a restroom after Jack had turned away from the urinals.
Lansford snapped at him: “Don’t they teach you to wash your hands at A&M?”
And Pardee retorted, “They teach us not to piss on our fingers.”
They knocked each other sprawling over benches from one end of the bleachers to the other. The Aggies all thought Pardee won the fight.
In any case, after the baseball team returned to College Station, the Aggies trainer, a colorful old cuss named Smokey Harper, drove to Bryant’s house and knocked on the door. When Bryant appeared, Smokey said, “You don’t have to worry about that red-headed boy no more.”
As a senior, after an unbeaten 1956 season, Pardee made All-America teams as a fullback and as a linebacker. He dislocated a shoulder early in the season and dislocated the other two games later. He took shots to deaden the pain and never missed a start. He was the 13th player taken in the 1957 draft, by the Los Angeles Rams and Sid Gillman. He would later hire Gillman for his own staff when he coached the Chicago Bears.
He was coming off an all-pro season when a mole on his right forearm was diagnosed as melanoma. He underwent a nine-hour operation on his 28th birthday, retired from the NFL for a year and joined Gene Stallings’ staff at A&M as an assistant. The next season, George Allen, who had replaced Gillman, called and talked him into making a comeback with the Rams.
When Allen was fired, he moved to the Redskins, traded for Jack and made him the team’s defensive captain. Allen would telephone him at 2 or 3 in the morning, knowing Jack would not be able to get back to sleep until the message had sunk in.
When cancer couldn’t kill him the first time, Jack figured he had little to lose by going into coaching. He won five Coach of the Year Awards in four leagues, twice in the NFL, then in the WFL, the USFL and in the Southwest Conference. He guided three teams in Houston, a Texas and world record.
He accepted the job with the Houston Gamblers over the phone, coming from an NFL culture where a retired FBI agent visited the camps each summer to warn players to avoid gamblers and other unsavory characters.
Meeting the team’s owner for the first time, he asked Dr. Jerry Argovitz, a dentist, “Where did you get that name, the Gamblers?” The owner said he was a big Kenny Rogers fan and “The Gambler” was his favorite song.
“Man,” observed Pardee, “I’m glad your favorite song wasn’t ‘Coward of the County.”
At the University of Houston, he would later succeed Bill Yeoman, who had built the team into a national power, but in doing so clashed with the NCAA ethics police.
If timing is the essence of good theater, Jack had a touch of that. A week after taking the job he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, but as a new coach at a school with a fragile ego he had to navigate tricky currents. When a change takes place, there is a risk that every act, every promise will be seen as a slam on the former regime.
“If anyone hears me saying something that sounds like a knock against Bill Yeoman,” he allowed, “let me know and I’ll correct it. Coach Yeoman is a class person whose record commands all our respect. If you could assure me I would have 25 years at the University of Houston and go to four Cotton Bowls, I’d call that a deal right now.”
The Oilers were known as “Team Turmoil” before Jack arrived, succeeding the flamboyant Jerry Glanville, and, try as he might, Pardee could not entirely erase that image. He refereed the season-long hissing match between Kevin Gilbride and Buddy Ryan, who were responsible for the team’s offense and defense. Jack did this without getting caught in the middle and pressed like Spam.
He kept the Oilers steady even after the volatile Ryan took a swing at Gilbride on national TV, and after a starting tackle, David Williams, passed up a trip to New England to be with his wife as she gave birth to their first child. “I don’t know what he was doing there,” said Bum Phillips, even as Pardee kept the peace. “At that point the father’s job is done.” The Oilers were 1-and-4 at the time, then finished the 1993 season with 11 straight wins, losing to Kansas City and Joe Montana in the playoffs.
A year later the team dealt away Moon and other key players. After a 1-and-9 start, Jack was fired and replaced by Jeff Fisher.
Over the years, I often thought that Pardee was sadly underrated, despite his successes and his trophies. He was overshadowed in college by John David Crow, who would win the Heisman Trophy, and later by assistant coaches on his own staffs.
Then came the reactions to his death. Andre Ware, the Cougar quarterback who won the Heisman without ever playing on television, said, tearfully, “He was a father figure. He taught me about football and how to be a man.”
Ware and the Cougars ripped off yards by the acre with the Run-and-Shoot offense. John Jenkins, their coordinator at the time, remarked at the funeral, “The NFL coaches think it was a fad, but the right coach with the right quarterback could win with it today.” Pardee had Jim Kelly with the Gamblers, Ware with the Cougars, and Warren Moon, with the Oilers.
Mouse Davis received credit for designing the offense and introducing it to the Gamblers. But Pardee embraced it and would have taken the heat if the wide open attack had failed.
“Jack had a unique management style,” said Bruce Matthews, the Hall of Fame lineman who was a leader on the Oiler teams in the 1990’s. “He wasn’t polished or glib and he wasn’t a walking sound bite like the media wanted.
“He was a man of integrity.”
With his pale blue eyes and almost invisible red-blond brows and an open – some said vacant – expression, his face looked as if it was drawn by Charles Schulz, the cartoonist who created Charlie Brown. Yet he was an Academic All-American at A&M, maybe the brightest fellow on every team he graced. He was an intensely private, modest man whose silence was that of the forest, where an absence of noise is not to be confused with a lack of activity.
“I never heard him raise his voice,” said John David Crow, his old Aggie buddy who played against him in the NFL with the Cardinals and Giants.
Bum Phillips, who coached Jack as a Bryant assistant in the 1950’s, and preceded him as the trail boss of the Oilers, explained why the Bear used him to return kicks instead of a swifter runner. “Coach Bryant,” said Bum, “liked to have kick returners who could run over people.”
He played 15 seasons in the NFL, and coached 17 more in the pros, college and Canada. As a coach, he didn’t need to knock people down. Which didn’t mean that he couldn’t.