Oklahoma football: Five stories about Chuck Fairbanks

by Berry Tramel Published: April 2, 2013

Five stories about Chuck Fairbanks that you've either never heard or would enjoy hearing again:

SACRIFICING FOR THE TEAM

Barry Switzer and Chuck Fairbanks both arrived in Norman in 1966 as part of Jim Mackenzie's new OU staff. Switzer had been a fellow assistant with Mackenzie at Arkansas, and Chuck Fairbanks had visited Fayetteville regularly as a Houston U. assistant coach observing Razorback practices.

When Mackenzie died of a heart attack in April 1967, offensive coordinator Homer Rice had just left to become head coach at the University of Cincinnati. OU president George Lynn Cross appointed the 34-year-old Fairbanks head coach over the more veteran Pat James, and when the '67 Sooners won the Big Eight title and then the Orange Bowl, OU's regents were on board making Fairbanks the permanent replacement for Mackenzie.

“Chuck and I were tied together at the hip,” Switzer said.

But the Fairbanks/Switzer tandem that led to the installation of the wishbone offense in 1970 almost didn't happen. Switzer says he wanted to coach defense under Mackenzie, because he thought it would be better for his career.

Mackenzie asked Switzer to coach offense for a year, then he could move to defense. Sure enough, Switzer coached defense in spring 1967. Then Mackenzie died. Fairbanks had been offensive coordinator, replacing Rice. When Fairbanks became head coach, he asked Switzer to become offensive coordinator.

“He says, ‘You've got to come back over to offense,'” Switzer said. “I did it for the team. I didn't think it was best professional move for me.”

Turned out all right.

SUCCESSION PLAN

When Chuck Fairbanks called Barry Switzer into his office in January 1973 and told him to shut the door, Switzer had no idea what was coming.

Fairbanks was leaving OU to become coach of the New England Patriots. And Switzer was just the second person to know, behind Fairbanks' wife.

“It shocked me to death,” Switzer said. “I fell out of the chair.”

Then Fairbanks told Switzer to come with him to New England. But Switzer's mind wasn't on the NFL. His mind already was racing.

“I'm thinking, maybe I got a chance to get this job,” Switzer said.

He did indeed. Regent Jack Santee was a Switzer supporter, made a case for Switzer to the other board members, and a few days later, Switzer succeeded Fairbanks.

SERIOUS MAN

Chuck Fairbanks was many things. But he was nothing if not serious.

“That's his personality,” Barry Switzer said of the former OU head coach who died Tuesday. “When you were one-on-one with Chuck, and he knew you, he was a lot of fun. But he was serious. People looked at him as quiet, guarded. Carried himself differently.”

Steve Owens, who won the 1969 Heisman Trophy playing for Fairbanks, tells the story of being driven to Tulsa by Fairbanks, probably in 1968, for a booster function. From Norman through Oklahoma City and onto the Turner Turnpike, Fairbanks stayed completely quiet.

“He didn't say a word to me until we got to Sapulpa,” Owens said. “With the radio off. That was just Chuck. He was a deep thinker. I just sat in the car. At that time, he smoked. Smoked and didn't say anything to me. I was scared to say anything to him.”

BREAKING BARRIERS

Raymond Hamilton walked down the hallway of Douglass High School as a senior 45 years ago and did a double take. Chuck Fairbanks was walking down the same hallway. A tall white man stood out in the all-black school just east of downtown Oklahoma City.

“Seems like just yesterday,” said Hamilton. “He paid a surprise visit. I thought I was a big shot. The head coach was coming to see me.”

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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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