“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.
After a 2-1 start to the 1970 season, Switzer convinced Fairbanks to install the wishbone during an off week. The Sooners were rolled 41-9 by Texas in the wishbone debut, but eventually, OU got its bearings with the offense and by 1971 became one of the greatest offenses in college football history.
Fairbanks shocked everyone – including Switzer – when he left in January 1973 to join the Patriots. Fairbanks coached New England six seasons, going 46-39, with two playoff appearances for the previously woebegone Patriots.
Fairbanks left New England after the 1978 to become the head coach at Colorado, but that was a disaster. The Buffaloes won just seven games in three seasons, including an historic 82-42 loss to Switzer and the Sooners. In 1982, Fairbanks resigned to become coach and general manager of the New Jersey Generals of the fledgling United States Football League. He was fired after one season.
For the last 30 years, Fairbanks has worked in real estate and golf-course development, though he has dabbled in football. He periodically worked for NFL teams in training camp as a consultant, including with the Dallas Cowboys when Bill Parcells was the coach.
Fairbanks was one of the pioneers of the NFL 3-4 defense – it was called the 5-2 at OU – and current Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a 2007 press conference, “I think Chuck has had a tremendous influence on the league as well as this organization in terms of nomenclature and terminology and those kinds of things. I'm sure Chuck could walk in and look at our playbook and probably 80 percent of the plays are the same terminology that he used -- whether it be formations or coverages or pass protections.
“We were sitting there talking yesterday and he was saying, ‘How much 60 protection are you guys using? How much 80 are you using?’ All of the stuff that was really the fundamentals of his system are still in place here even, again, to the way we call formations and plays and coverages and some of our individual calls within a call.”