Jack Pardee has finished another day selling mud to the oil companies of the Permian Basin. Behind him, framed by a high window, is a view of Midland's fiscally fertile downtown and the scorched plains beyond. Pardee leans back in his office chair until it creaks. He speaks softly, but he wants to make things clear.
"I don't need to coach to live," he says.
Pardee pronounces the words as if he wanted them chiseled along roadsides from Midland to Washington.
In the winter of 1980, Jack Kent Cooke was about to make Pardee a former coach of the Redskins after three seasons. In the morning, Pardee read about his employment future in the papers. In the evening, he heard about it on the news. The affair dragged on into January until Cooke finally fired Pardee.
"We all knew it was coming," says the rookie executive. "I think Cooke just didn't want to spoil my Christmas."
Two Christmases later and the pressure is off. Last year Pardee survived an exercise in masochism, coaching the porous San Diego Chargers' defense. He left that sunny scene of slaughter voluntarily, confident that he could find satisfaction away from the football field, and accepted the offer to come to Midland.
Here Pardee works alone, without secretaries or colleagues, in a small, paneled office. As vice president in charge of marketing for Runnels Mud Co., a New Mexico-based firm, he meets with representatives of Midland's myriad oil concerns, trying to sell them 300 varieties of "mud"--an umbrella term for the substances used to cool and lubricate drill bits and counterbalance pressure in oil wells.
Fiber, treated paper, cotton seeds, crushed pecan and almond shells: "They all make mud," says Pardee.
The magazines on his table--"Drill Bit," "Drilling" and "Western Energy"--contain articles on shale preservation and wide-angle photos of oil rigs against post card-blue skies. The walls are covered with geological maps of the Southwest. Not a game ball, not a helmet, not an action photo in sight.
The only memento here of Pardee's 30 years in football is a painting by Lajos Markos titled "Yesterday's Heroes." In the picture, Pardee stands before Kyle Field on a clear autumn day dressed in his Texas A&M football uniform. No. 32. Class of 1957. He is tall and beefy. His blue eyes are bright under heavy brows. But for the thinner hair and a few southbound pounds, the 45-year-old executive closely resembles the college star.
Pardee thinks he ought to frame the picture before it yellows, but he says so without or irony or melancholy. Out of the limelight, out of the game, Pardee does not wish to betray any traces of regret.
"I enjoy what I do now," he says. "If I didn't, life would be unbearable."
At first, Pardee allows, life without football was unbearable. Since adolescence he had grown accustomed to his football life--the rhythms of its year, the occasional failures, the frequent honors.
All-Southwest Conference under Bear Bryant at Texas A&M. All-pro with the Los Angeles Rams and the Redskins. Head coach of the World Football League's Florida Blazers. NFL coach of the year with the Chicago Bears and the Redskins.
But after his firing and an "experimental year" in San Diego, he was suddenly away from it all. Pardee, his wife Phyllis, and their youngest child, Ted, were moving again. This time the van brought them not to another NFL city but to the Midland office of the Runnels Mud Co.
"I lived through the offseason pretty well," says Pardee of his first year out of football. "But when training camp started I missed it--that was the fun part of football."
When the regular season started, Pardee felt disoriented, out of control in his new role as a weekend spectator.
"To tell you the truth, I don't enjoy watching pro football on television," he says. "It makes me too nervous, and I can't do a thing about it. I enjoyed coaching because I could do something. You put your life into a game and know so much about it. That's what bothers me about the announcers. They start saying things you can't believe. It's easy to know what a team has to do--as a coach it's obvious what's limiting you--but doing something takes more than coaching. Not every player is a Danny Fouts or an Earl Campbell. The best thing that happened to me was the strike. It eased the withdrawal."
Pardee says he has learned, though slowly, to find pleasures away from football: "I don't know if I would have left San Diego so fast to go to a big town like Houston or New York. People here aren't nervous all the time. I didn't want to stop coaching and go right to a pin-striped jungle.
"I'm hunting for the first time in a long time. For quail and dove and deer. Football season always used to come at the same time as hunting season. I've been out maybe 10 times and it's relaxing."
Pardee also works out a few times a week at a local YMCA. He says his opponents on the volleyball and racquetball courts treat him like another middle-aged executive trying to keep the weight off and the heart rate down.
"People still recognize who I am here. I suppose I'm the only former NFL coach around," he says. "But I live here. I work here. They know my association with football but I'm a neighbor."
The whole picture looks pretty good as Pardee paints it--a business that interests him, time with his family, time to relax. It's a picture that would appeal to an exhausted Dick Vermeil, who quit as coach of the Eagles this week, citing "emotional burnout."
"You know, there's nothing like the highs of playing or coaching," he says. "You have to realize, though, the only fun in football is to win. Losing is hell. To go through that losing again . . . Well, you only live so long."
Maybe only an athlete who has had the kind of career Pardee has had, can understand not only the pain but the relief of leaving it behind.
Pardee says he may one day move up the executive ladder at Runnels Mud Co. There could be a bigger salary, more responsibility and an office in New Mexico down the line--things to look forward to.
Still, there are those highs--and you just don't get them in the mud business. Pardee leaves his office and heads across West Wall Avenue for his car. He makes enormous footprints in the dustblown sidewalk. He hasn't finished talking about the future.
"Maybe if the right offer comes along," says Pardee.
He worked as a roustabout in oil fields 20 miles from here when he was a boy, but Pardee has only recently learned the history of the area. That history is everything to his new work.
In 1886, only five years after the Texas-Pacific Railroad came through, Midland grew famous for its astonishing lack of hog cholera and cattle ticks. Antelope, buffalo and, most significantly, cattle were plentiful and healthy.
In short order, Midland became the largest cattle breeding ground in North America. Chinese coolies and Irish paddies--to use the vocabulary of exploitation--built houses and Texas ranchers lived in them. Even the fruit was opulent; settlers picked peaches 10 inches in diameter, ripe symbols of prosperity.
After nearly four decades of a bullish ranch economy, Midland's source of wealth went subterranean. The transformation of ocean algae into oil requires eons and a precise range of heat. Its discovery requires a long drill, and as Jack Pardee would later stress, a bit of mud.
Prospector C.G. Cromwell struck oil in Midland shortly after dawn on a Monday, May 28, 1923. He found the first clue to a vast network of streams and pools of crude awaiting their own draining. Oil. Buckets and barrels of it. Short wells and deep wells. Gulf was the first company in the land grab that followed. Humble Oil was next. And no one has appeared the least bit shy about punching the Permian Basin full of holes ever since.
Nowadays, Midland's downtown consists of a thicket of oil-industry office buildings. Downtown is fringed by an occasional line of rigs and an upper-class Texas-ranch version of tract housing. Streets are named not only for indigenous flora and the states of the union but for the companies that have unearthed the town's singular source of wealth: Sinclair, Shell, Humble, Gulf, Stanolind. One of Midland's cultural highlights is its Petroleum Museum.
A visitor knowing nothing of the oil here might wonder how this sudden punctuation of the plains ever came to be. Beyond Midland, and neighboring Odessa, the dry plains resume--rolling out flat as they once had over the basin before the boom.
"We're sort of out here in the hinterlands, aren't we dear?" says Phyllis Pardee to her husband. They are sitting in their new living room, a cavernous, private place stocked with the football memorabilia that is so obviously absent in Pardee's office.
Phyllis Pardee, dressed in a powder-blue running suit, her blond hair pulled back tight, is a year older than her husband and still beautiful. She married Pardee in his rookie season with the Rams and has seen him through a great deal. There were successes, many of them, and there were the nervous times--"I had to go the ballet instead of the games sometimes, I was so nervous," she says.
There was also the year doctors discovered a cancerous mole on Pardee's right arm. For days, until an operation isolated and removed the cancer, there was talk of malignancy and even death. Pardee returned to the Rams' lineup the next season.
And then there was the firing in Washington.
Pardee is a concise, engaging talker, but he is only too happy to let his wife explain the days that followed his dismissal:
"At first we were mad, because it's our life. (Cooke's) a millionaire and football is his toy. It happens that his toy is our life . . . Jack's firing had nothing to do with his ability. He just had a different philosophy. Even though the record (24-24) doesn't show it, he improved the team every year. No one knows the pressures he went through except for me and they're still not for us to talk about. Jack kept his dignity like a rock."
Pardee blushes like a heated thermometer, from his neck up to his wide forehead. His wife continues:
"Mr. Cooke wanted something different. He wanted his man in there, and that's not such a tragedy. Understand, I'm not bitter. We understand fully and completely what happened. But's it's a shame, because I love Jack. I love him so much. I think he could coach any team to the Super Bowl in five years."
Coaching again. Pardee considers his career and knows he could.
Joe Gibbs is in the process of leading the Redskins to their best season in 10 years. Pardee praises the team and will not claim any credit for it, but he must look at the 1982 Redskins and wonder what his fate may have been had the timing been right.
"Gibbs is doing a good job, but every coach does," he says. "Mark Moseley hitting so many straight field goals would make anyone look good."
And he must remember that, in a way, quick success was part of his own undoing. In 1979, Pardee's second year in Washington, everything clicked for the team as they finished with a 10-6 record. Only a 35-34 heartbreaker to Dallas on the last game of the season prevented a trip to the playoffs. The next year Cooke was talking Super Bowl, but realism, not the Redskins, prevailed. The numbers were reversed--from 10-6 to 6-10--and Pardee was gone.
Pardee refuses to wish away his life dreaming of the playing field in his office at the Runnels Mud Co. He fills his scratch pads with the numbers of potential sales and investments, not the Xs and Os of potential plays.
Pardee has seen men like George Allen make careers of being coaches-in-waiting. Since 1978, when he was fired by the Los Angeles Rams after two exhibition games, Allen lived a life of active limbo. He would wake at 5 a.m. to begin a day of writing articles, preparing for television appearances, scouting players and studying game films, working as doggedly as he had while employed as a coach. This year he is finally back, as head coach and part owner of the United States Football League's Chicago Blitz.
Coaches-in-waiting mostly sit by the phone. Like dictators unseated by revolution, they wait in exile, forever hoping that one day they will return to the homeland and rule again. Any homeland will do.
Pardee wants no part of that. He concedes that he has had discussions with some colleges and a few USFL owners. So far he has stayed away.
"I could only coach in a good situation," Pardee says. Such a situation, he says, is in a place where the owner patiently backs the coach and with a team that has a chance of winning it all. That sort of offer comes along as often as Halley's Comet, and Pardee will not tear himself up with false hopes or anticipation.
"It's sad to see a lot of coaches and assistant coaches at 55, 56 years old waiting for the phone to ring," says Pardee. "I don't want to be like that."
But for the log popping sparks in the fireplace, the living room is dead quiet. Why not wait out the call, he is asked.
"Because the phone never rings," says Jack Pardee.