NORMAN — Oklahoma officials confirmed that former Sooner football coach Chuck Fairbanks, 79, died Tuesday morning after a battle with brain cancer.
“Coach fought a hard battle. He was a great coach and like a second father to me,” former OU running back and 1969 Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens said Tuesday. “He taught me so much on the field, but he prepared me for life after football, which I always appreciated. He was tough on us but fair. I couldn’t have had a better coach.”
Fairbanks had a distinguished coaching career in both the college and professional ranks. His most successful stint was as head coach at OU from 1967-72.
During his six seasons, the Sooners won three Big Eight Conference titles (1967, 1968 and 1972) while compiling a 52-15-1 overall record and a 33-6 mark in the conference.
Fairbanks originally came to OU as a defensive assistant under head coach Jim Mackenzie prior to the 1965 season. Mackenzie died prior to the 1967 season and Fairbanks was elevated to head coach.
“From the moment he took the job, there was no question he was head coach. He was so organized and so professional. He took that team and made us Big Eight champions,” Owens said. “I think we were picked to finish fourth or fifth and we won the championship and had a chance to win the national championship that year. The thing about Coach was he was a hard coach. He pushed us hard, but he was so fair.”
Fairbanks’ lasting legacy at OU was the installation of the wishbone offense during the 1970 season under then-offensive coordinator Barry Switzer. The offense helped fuel the Sooners’ dominance throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
His last two teams at OU went a combined 22-2 and were some of the best in the program’s history. The Sooners only loss in 1971 was to top-ranked Nebraska in the “Game of the Century” at Owen Field. Both the 1971 and 1972 teams finished No. 2 in the final rankings.
Fairbanks left OU following the 1972 season to become head coach of the New England Patriots. He spent six seasons there before he returned to the college ranks at Colorado, where he coached from 1979-81.
Fairbanks’ final year in coaching was in the USFL as head coach of the New Jersey Generals for one season.
“Chuck possessed an exceptional eye for talent, recruiting talented players like Heisman winner Steve Owens and enabling innovative assistant coaches like Barry Switzer to thrive,” OU coach Bob Stoops said Tuesday.
“I was fortunate to have many opportunities to get to know Chuck over the years. He often visited his daughter (Gwen Hare) in Norman around Thanksgiving, and I enjoyed our conversations when he attended practice. We offer our prayers and condolences to Chuck’s family and the many individuals he touched during his time at the University of Oklahoma.”
Fairbanks spent the last 30 years of his life in private business in Arizona, building a successful real estate business. He also worked as a training camp consultant for several NFL teams in his later years.
“I was fortunate, because I was able to spend quite a bit of time with him, and I was able to express that he was loved and appreciated by so many of the players who played for him,” Owens said. “He became like a second father to me. Any time I needed council or advice, I would just call him. He always gave good advice.
“He loved all of his players here. I talked to him when he was so sick. He enjoyed talking about his experiences here at OU. It was a big part of his life and it was special to him.”