Jack Pardee, a Texas football legend who was Walter Payton's first head coach in the NFL and guided the Bears to a playoff appearance in 1977, died of cancer, his family announced Monday. He was 76.

Pardee coached the Bears from 1975 to 1977 and is credited with helping turn the franchise around from the doldrums of the late '60s and early '70s. He was diagnosed with terminal gallbladder cancer in November.

He compiled a 20-22 record as head coach of the Bears, improving each season, and won the final six games in '77 to reach the playoffs, the first time the team had been in the postseason since the 1963 championship season. But the Bears were ousted 37-7 by the Cowboys and 31/2 weeks later Pardee resigned, saying he had "mixed emotions." He rejected an offer from general manager Jim Finks to return to the Bears and was hired by the Redskins, for whom he had been an assistant coach and player.

"Jack was a great guy," said former Bears wide receiver Brian Baschnagel, whom Pardee originally tried as a cornerback. "Very stern. Very quiet. But he was extremely fair. He spoke his mind. He was very direct."

Baschnagel said the players were disappointed when Pardee departed after the 9-5 season and were not sure of all the circumstances surrounding the change that led to Neill Armstrong taking over.

"It was crushing when Jack left," former Bears linebacker Doug Buffone said. "I got real close to Jack, football-wise. He was an old linebacker like myself. I used to call the defenses. We would go over the whole game plan, and then he would turn it over to me during the game. He gave me the keys to the car.

"It was the first time in a long time playing for the Bears (when) things looked pretty good down the road for us. We got to the playoffs. We were playing well. I thought maybe he would be the Golden Boy for the Chicago Bears. I was surprised he would leave, but who knows what happened?"