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Remembering Jack Pardee

Jack Pardee died earlier this week. I remember Pardee not just for his great play for the Washington Redskins and his solid stint as our coach, but also for his remarkable football life — as rich as any I can think of.

That football life began playing six-man football for a small Texas high school (Pardee also worked in the oil fields throughout high school to help support his family). The next stop was Texas A&M, where Paul “Bear” Bryant was building his program.

Pardee was one of the “Junction Boys,” the legendary collection of players who survived the hell Bryant put 100 prospects through, in the heat of Junction, Texas, to find out, as Pardee put it, “who wanted to pay the price to not only play football, but to win.” Only 35 players passed that test. The ordeal became the basis for a made-for-TV movie starring Tom Berenger as the legendary coach Bryant

Pardee went on to become an All-American and co-captain of Texas A&M during the 1956 season. That team went 9-0-1 and was ranked No. 5 nationally in the AP poll.

Pardee, an outside linebacker, played most of his pro career for the Los Angeles Rams. After nine seasons, he missed the 1965 campaign due to life-threatening cancer. Pardee returned in 1966 and turned in five more seasons for the Rams.

In 1971, former Rams coach George Allen brought Pardee to Washington as part of his “Over the Hill Gang” (there’s no truth to the rumor that John McCain and Lindsey Graham were part of it). Pardee captained the defense, which was Allen’s core unit and the main reason why, after year of futility, the Skins made it to the playoffs in 1971 and to the Super Bowl the following season.

Pardee was 35 years old when he came to Washington. Nonetheless, he was selected for the Pro Bowl in 1971. That year, in my view, Pardee played outside linebacker as well as I’ve seen it played by a Washington Redskin. That includes Chris Hanburger, the Hall of Famer who played the other outside backer position in 1971-72.

Pardee, so obviously born to coach, began that portion of his career with the old World Football League in 1974. His first team made it to the championship game, which it lost by a point.

This earned Pardee the head coaching job with the Chicago Bears. In 1977, he led that struggling franchise to its first playoff appearance in 14 years.

When the Redskins ousted George Allen, Pardee was the natural choice to replace his former coach. Unfortunately, the team he inherited was aging and not exactly flush with draft picks, given Allen’s propensity to trade them.

Pardee’s first Redskins team went 8-8. But the next season, 1979, the Skins were on their way to an 11-5 record, the division championship, and a home field playoff game. All they needed to do was hold a 13 point lead in the late going of the season finale against the hated Dallas Cowboys.

Shockingly, they failed to do so. A fumble by one of Washington’s most sure-handed runners did us in. There would be no division crown and no playoff game, home or away.

Pardee’s final season in Washington was a disaster. The next year, he would be out. The Joe Gibbs era was upon us.

But Pardee was not without influence on this, the brightest era in Redskins history. Richie Petibon — Pardee’s friend, former teammate with the Rams and Redskins, and the Redskins defensive coordinator under Pardee — would run the defense under Gibbs. And those underrated, mostly no-name defenses would play their part in bringing three Super Bowl victories to Washington.

Meanwhile, Pardee was far from finished as a head coach. In 1984, he returned to Texas to coach the Houston Gamblers of the USFL. Pardee installed an potent, innovative offense called the “Run and Shoot” with Jim Kelly at the helm.

Despite being an expansion team, the Gamblers finished the regular season with the best record in their conference. In the playoffs, Pardee went head-to-head with his old mentor George Allen, and his star-laden Arizona Wranglers. The Gamblers led 16-3 with only 7 minutes remaining, but lost 17-16 following a furious Wrangler comeback.

Thus, Pardee suffered a galling defeat similar to that inflicted by the Cowboys in 1979. An even more galling loss lay in the future.

The Gamblers made the playoffs again in 1985 and, after some great personnel moves, were poised (now as the New Jersey Generals) for a huge 1986 season. However, the USFL folded before Pardee’s Generals could take the field.

In 1987, Pardee moved into college coaching, as head coach of the University of Houston. Shortly after his arrival, the program was hit with NCAA sanctions due to violations committed under the previous coach. But the sanctions didn’t prevent Pardee from compiling a fine 22-11-1 record in three years with the Cougars. And under Pardee, Andre Ware became the first ever African-American quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy.

In 1990, Pardee returned to the NFL as head coach of the Houston Oilers. Led by Warren Moon, his Oiler teams made the playoffs in each of his first four years.

But Pardee’s tenure with the Oilers is probably best remembered for a playoff loss to Buffalo in which the Oilers were the victims of the biggest comeback in NFL history. Early in the third quarter of that January 1993 contest, Houston led 35-3. But the Bills rallied to win in overtime, 41–38. You can read about this amazing game here.

After a terrible start to the 1994 season, Pardee resigned. But he wasn’t finished. In 1995, he coached in the Canadian Football League. The twist was that he coached the Birmingham Barracudas, part of the CFL’s attempt to expand into the U.S.

The Barracudas folded after one season. Naturally, Pardee guided them to the playoffs that season.

From 6-man football; to the Junction Boys; to an All-American college career; to a Pro Bowl NFL career; to mostly successful coaching stints in the NFL, the WFL, the USFL, the CFL, and college — as I said, Pardee’s football life was as rich as any I can think of.

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