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Oklahoma football: Chuck Fairbanks made a game-changing move

COMMENTARY — The former Sooner coach, who died Tuesday at age 79, made a bold decision in 1970 that changed the face of college football: Installing the wishbone offense.
by Berry Tramel Modified: April 3, 2013 at 12:45 am •  Published: April 2, 2013

Barry Switzer sold Chuck Fairbanks on the wishbone-T — a tough sell; Fairbanks was up all night deciding whether to OK a midseason change in offenses — and then Fairbanks had to sell his Sooner ballplayers.

They thought the same thing most people would think. Then or now.

“Well, of course, everybody's first thought was, ‘This is nuts,'” said Eddie Foster, a redshirting sophomore who eventually would become an All-American offensive tackle, thanks in large part to the splendor of a newfangled offense.

Nuts it was. But madness and genius, desperation and boldness, are not so far apart.

The man who pulled the trigger on the wishbone, changing the course of OU and college football history, died Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the age of 79. Brain cancer got Fairbanks, which is a surprise to all who remember how tough he was.

“I just lost a dear friend,” said Steve Owens, who as an I-formation tailback for Fairbanks won the Heisman Trophy in 1969. “He fought cancer like he fought everything. He fought it tough.”

Nobody who wasn't tough dare would have risked the absurdity of changing offenses during an off week, like Fairbanks did in late September 1970, when the Sooners were a sluggish 2-1 and “Chuck Chuck” bumperstickers were all the rage around the state.

But Fairbanks and Switzer and the rest of that grand old staff withstood the growing pains of the wishbone and lived to see the fruits. By season's end, OU had quite the offense. By 1971, OU had the greatest offense the sport ever had seen. Over the next 10 years, two coached by Fairbanks before Switzer succeeded him, the Sooners went 105-11-2. Over the next 18 years, through the end of the wishbone era, the Sooners were 179-31-4.

And Fairbanks' role in the Oklahoma Renaissance often is underappreciated, if not flat out forgotten.

“I think sometimes we forget what a great coach he was, because he was sandwiched between some pretty great coaches,” Owens said.

Fairbanks spent only six years as the OU head coach. He left in January 1973 to take over the New England Patriots. Probably a career mistake, though Fairbanks transformed what had been a sleepy NFL franchise.

But Fairbanks' imprint on the Sooner program remains unassailable, even 40 years later.

“He was willing to take a chance,” Foster said. “Now that I'm as old as I am, I just appreciate that more and more.”

Switzer says he actually tried to get Fairbanks to install the wishbone in spring practice 1970. The Sooners left the I formation, all right, but installed the Houston veer, which Fairbanks was familiar with from his days with Bill Yeoman at the University of Houston.

“We'd have been as good in '70 as we were in '71,” Switzer said.

And Switzer always has said the move to the 'bone in the off week before the Texas game was a no-brainer. That the staff had nothing to lose.

Fairbanks never bought that theory. “Tell Barry that's easier'n hell for him to say,” Fairbanks told me back in the '90s. “He didn't have to make the choice. I didn't sleep too good making that one. It was a big game, a tremendous gamble. I wouldn't advise anyone to do it.”

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist and Reporter
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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Born: June 10, 1933, Detroit

Died: April 2, 2013, Scottsdale, Ariz.

High school: Charleboix, Mich.

College: Michigan State, 1951-53; played on Spartans' 1952 national championship team.

Coaching stops

Ishpeming (Mich.) High School, 1955-57

Arizona State, assistant, 1958-61

Houston U., assistant, 1962-65

Oklahoma, assistant, 1967

Oklahoma, head coach, 1967-72, 52-15-1, three Big Eight titles

New England Patriots, head coach, 1973-78, 46-39, two playoff appearances, one division title

Colorado, head coach, 1979-81, 7-26

New Jersey Generals, head coach, 1983, 6-12.


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