When Chuck Fairbanks left the University of Oklahoma after five years as head football coach to take the New England Patriots coaching job, he made enemies of those who wore crimson and cream. Fairbanks not only left a good football program, he left it in a shambles.
Fairbanks died Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz. Brain cancer took him out at the age of 79. I would imagine not too many tears will be shed by fans who remember he “got out of Dodge” before the Sooners would be leveled with two years’ probation. Their beloved Sooners would not be allowed on television for two years and were not rewarded with a bowl game for two years. Fairbanks’ assistant Bill Michaels had altered transcripts of two high school players from Galveston—quarterback Kerry Jackson and lineman Mike Phillips—to make them eligible for college scholarships. Fairbanks knew what was coming down the pike in the aftermath and cut out for New England. Many believe Fairbanks knew of the transgressions and split, but that will never be proven.
His resignation was a blessing for Sooner fans in the long run because the university hired Barry Switzer to replace Fairbanks. Switzer turned out to be one of the best coaches college football has ever seen.
Fairbanks, tall and handsome like Wilkinson but not as personable as Switzer, was assistant head coach at OU when Jim Mackenzie died in the spring of 1967 after just one year as the Sooners’ football skipper. Fairbanks led Oklahoma to a 10-1 record, the first Big Eight Conference championship in five years and a No. 3 ranking his first year. OU struggled the next three years going 19-12-1. The Sooners tied Kansas for the Big Eight title in 1968, but Oklahoma finished fourth and second the next two years.
In 1970 fans were bringing signs of “Chuck Chuck” to games. The Sooners began the 1970 season at 2-0, but were humiliated at home with a 23-14 loss to Oregon State. The Sooners were running a sloppy pro-style offense after experimenting with the Veer-T.
“I am embarrassed by the ineptness of our offensive team,” Fairbanks said. “This is by far the poorest performance I’ve seen them make.
“I’m not sure why, but rest assured I’m doing everything I can to find out why. Maybe it’s our coaching philosophy. Maybe we don’t have the right players at the right positions. We’ll have to try and find out.”
OU had a week off before heading to Dallas to play Texas, 3-0, and defending national champs. The Longhorns were beating up opponents with a triple-option weapon named the Wishbone. Switzer noticed and tried to convince Fairbanks to switch to the new scheme.
Fairbanks had called his former head coach at Michigan State, Duffy Daugherty, to ask his opinion of the possible switch. His former coach told him that whatever he (Fairbanks) decided, he must not go back to the old style.
The Sooners had more than a week to work on the Wishbone. They debuted the formation against the Longhorns. Texas, though, showed them how it was done, blowing out OU, 41-9. After experimenting with it the rest of the season, Oklahoma had another year to perfect the Wishbone.
And did they ever. The Sooners set all kinds of rushing records that still hold today. OU went 11-1 that year and lost a heartbreaker to Nebraska in the "Game of the Century." The Sooners finished second behind the Huskers that year. Fairbanks’s team went 11-1 in 1972, his last year. But, part of the NCAA’s probation was that the Sooners had to forfeit games in which Jackson had participated. Instead of 11-1, the NCAA changed the record to 8-4; 3-4 in the Big Eight. The Sooners had to surrender the conference championship.
Fairbanks then bolted for Foxboro, Mass., and served five years as the Patriots coach, going 86-49. He was named Coach of the Year in 1976 by leading the Pats to an 11-3 record and the AFC East title, but they lost the first playoff game. Two years later, he again led the Patriots to the AFC East title with an 11-5 record.
One day after the regular season had ended, Fairbanks accepted a job to coach at the University of Colorado. He wanted to coach New England in the layoffs, but owner Billy Sullivan suspended Fairbanks without pay for not honoring his contract. The Pats lost in the first round again. So, Fairbanks didn’t endear himself to fans in New England, either.
Fairbanks' salary at Colorado was just $45,000 a year, but a local oilman and booster gave him a large piece of real estate near a golf resort. Fairbanks also made additional income from radio and television deals. His three-year career in Boulder was a disaster, going 3-8, 1-10 and 3-8, plus the Buffaloes didn’t beat OU.
When he left, Fairbanks bankrupted the Colorado athletic budget. He resigned in June 1982 to take the head-coaching job for the New Jersey Generals of the USFL. Fairbanks found himself embroiled in controversy there, too. He violated an unwritten NCAA rule to sign Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who still had one year of eligibility at the University of Georgia. The Generals finished 6-12 in 1983, the new league’s inaugural season. Chuck was fired after one year at the helm.
Chuck spent the last 30 years working in real estate and golf course development. He occasionally worked as a consultant with the Dallas Cowboys the past few years.