“I think sometimes we forget what a great coach he was, because he was sandwiched between some pretty great coaches,” said Steve Owens, the 1969 Heisman Trophy-winning tailback for Fairbanks in 1969.
Fairbanks coached the Sooners from 1967-72, a period that ignited the OU renaissance and included the implementation of the wishbone-T offense. Barry Switzer, who took over for Fairbanks in 1973 when Fairbanks became head coach of the New England Patriots, convinced Fairbanks to install the wishbone in September 1970, and the Sooners became an offensive juggernaut most of the next 20 years.
“Chuck was smart to recognize we needed to do it and he did it,” Switzer said.
Fairbanks joined Jim Mackenzie’s OU staff in 1966 and became head coach in April 1967 when Mackenzie died of a heart attack.
“Lost a great coach, but a great friend,” said Owens. “Boy, he was special to me. He was like my second father. Taught me so much. He was tough on us, but he was fair.
“I was so fortunate to have him. After he went to the Patriots, we stayed close friends. Every time he came to town, we got to spend some time together.”
Owens said Fairbanks was probably the toughest coach he ever had. “He demanded we performed at practice,” Owens said. “He had a tough nature about him. We knew he cared about us. That was the important thing. If he told me to run through a brick wall, I was scared not to. I’d have to put up with his wrath. Special guy.”
Fairbanks was born June 10, 1933, and played football at Michigan State under legendary coach Biggie Munn. Fairbanks coached three years of high school football, then joined the Arizona State staff of Frank Kush. In 1962, Fairbanks moved on to Bill Yeoman’s staff at the University of Houston, where Fairbanks occasionally would visit the Arkansas spring practices of Frank Broyles’. It was there Fairbanks met Mackenzie, and when Mackenzie became OU’s head coach, he hired Fairbanks as part of a staff that included Switzer, Galen Hall, Larry Lacewell, Pat James and Homer Rice.
In six seasons as OU’s head coach, Fairbanks went 52-15-1, with three Big Eight championships, one Orange Bowl victory and two Sugar Bowl wins. But the 1969 season was rough, with the Sooners going 6-4, and “Chuck Chuck” bumperstickers became popular in Norman.