OKLAHOMA CITY — Chuck Fairbanks, who coached Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens at Oklahoma and spent six seasons as coach of the New England Patriots, died Tuesday in Arizona after battling brain cancer. He was 79.
Oklahoma said in a news release that Fairbanks died in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale.
“He was a special coach, he was a special friend,” said Owens, one of five Heisman winners for Oklahoma after rushing for 1,523 yards and 23 touchdowns in 1969. “As a player, he made me better on the field. He was a tough coach, but he was a fair coach.”
Fairbanks was 52-15-1 in six years with the Sooners, including an Orange Bowl victory his first season and consecutive Sugar Bowls wins in 1971-72 before taking over the Patriots. He won 46 games for New England, a franchise record at the time.
The Patriots made the playoffs in their fourth season under Fairbanks in 1976 and two years later were on their way to their first outright AFC East title when owner Billy Sullivan angrily suspended him for the final regular-season game because he had agreed to go to Colorado. Fairbanks returned for the playoffs, but New England lost to Houston. He was 0-2 in the playoffs with the Patriots.
Colorado hired Fairbanks away from the New England, but he was just 7-26 in three seasons, including an 82-42 loss at home to the Sooners and his replacement, Barry Switzer.
Fairbanks left the Buffs to become coach and general manager of the New Jersey Generals of the USFL. He was fired after one season.
The Sooners went 10-1 and beat Tennessee in the Orange Bowl in Fairbanks’ first year in 1967. He won 11 games each of last two seasons with OU, beating Auburn and Penn State in the Sugar Bowl.
Fairbanks agreed with the suggestion of Switzer, his offensive coordinator, to install the wishbone at OU after Texas used it to win a national championship in 1969. After becoming head coach, Switzer used the wishbone to win three national titles, matching the number Bud Wilkinson won from 1947 to 1963, a tenure that included a record 47-game winning streak.
“His squads won three Big Eight championships and helped lay the foundation for the program’s ongoing success with the installation of the wishbone-T offense,” current Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said in a statement. “I was fortunate to have many opportunities to get to know Chuck over the years.”
Fairbanks played for Michigan State’s 1952 national title team and was an assistant at Arizona State and Houston before joining the OU staff in 1966. Owens said he stayed in touch with Fairbanks because his former coach would often visit his daughter in Norman.
“Not just during football, but after football, we just loved him,” Owens said. “He was like a second father to me.”
Fairbanks worked in real estate and golf-course development after his coaching career. He occasionally worked as a consultant for NFL teams in training camp, including with the Dallas Cowboys when Bill Parcells was coach.