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

Such an all-in move today would be dissected like a frog in ninth-grade biology. And in 1970, it required some serious talking.

Remember America in 1970. The Vietnam War still blazed. Hippies had taken over OU's Campus Corner. Blindly following authority was not in vogue for the younger generation.

“There was a general attitude of questioning going on,” Foster said. “As an athlete, though, ‘all right, you're asking me to do this for you, just give me a little understanding of why we're doing this.'

“He and coach Switzer did that.”

Fairbanks sold it this way. For OU's personnel, the wishbone was the way to go. But it needed to be done sooner rather than later.

With Jack Mildren as the quarterback, the wishbone gained steam. Even during the 41-9 loss to Texas, OU moved the ball at times.

“Texas' defense just laughed when we lined up in the wishbone,” Foster said. “But the next week, we go to Colorado and beat 'em. We knew this was something real.”

Albert Chandler, an OU tight end from 1970-72 who later played for Fairbanks with the Patriots, said the Sooners could see what was happening.

Fairbanks had recruited a different style of athlete. Speedy halfbacks Greg Pruitt and Joe Wylie. Do-it-all quarterbacks like Mildren.

“We knew we had something going,” Chandler said. “We had to get the kinks out, but we won some games.

“Very good decision. Everyone was willing. There wasn't any distrust or negativity toward it. Bottom line was, we wanted to win. We had the right personnel for that offense. The rest was history.”

History it was. Alabama played OU in the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl, and Bear Bryant was so smitten with the wishbone, he installed it the next season. The Sooners and Bama were the most successful programs of the '70s.

Half of college football, it seemed, was running the wishbone by 1975. When Switzer suffered his first defeat, 31 games into his head coaching career, he was felled by Kansas, running the 'bone with Nolan Cromwell.

By then, of course, Fairbanks was entrenched in New England, where some of his innovations resonate to this day in the NFL, including the installation of the 3-4 defense.

But no schematic move has rocked the sport like the sleepless night decision Fairbanks made on Sept. 27, 1970, when a tough coach made a tough decision, and Oklahoma football soared.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at btramel@opubco.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
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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CHUCK FAIRBANKS

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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