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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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.
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.