Chuck Fairbanks; coach revived Patriots’ fortunes in ’70s

Sam Cunningham got tips from Chuck Fairbanks in 1973.
Associated Press
Sam Cunningham got tips from Chuck Fairbanks in 1973.

In December 1976, a couple of weeks before The Sporting News named him coach of the year for guiding the New England Patriots into the playoffs, Chuck Fairbanks reflected on the challenges he had faced improving the fortunes of what had been a lackluster team.

“After I got here and looked over the situation I knew we had a long way to go,” he told the Globe. “It was even worse than I thought.”

Despite his own words in 1973 — “I don’t expect miracles here” — he performed some, bringing in a pair of future Hall of Fame players and several others whose names became enshrined in team history.


He also assembled a talented lineup of assistant coaches, instituted a 3-4 defense, and implemented organizational approaches “that stood the test of time,” current coach Bill Belichick said last fall as Mr. Fairbanks, ailing with cancer, was headed into surgery.

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Mr. Fairbanks, who led the Patriots to the playoffs twice in six seasons before his departure to coach at the University of Colorado, died of brain cancer Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 79.

Arriving from the University of Oklahoma in 1973 to take over as New England’s sixth coach, Mr. Fairbanks compiled a 46-39 regular-season record with the Patriots. The team lost both playoff games he coached, but those two postseason appearances were two more than the Patriots had made in the previous 13 years.

“Coach Fairbanks gave the Patriots instant credibility,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement.

“He delivered the franchise’s first 11-win season in 1976 and earned a home playoff game after winning the division in 1978,” Kraft said. “It was the first time in franchise history that we hosted a playoff game. He introduced the 3-4 defense to the NFL during his Patriots tenure, which remains a part of his NFL legacy.”


By the end of his tenure, Mr. Fairbanks had also provided the Patriots and the team’s fans with ample off-field drama. As news broke in December 1978 that he had accepted the Colorado coaching job, Billy Sullivan, who then owned the Patriots, suspended Mr. Fairbanks for the last game of the season, saying he “could not serve two masters 2,000 miles apart.”

Mr. Fairbanks made his final New England coaching appearance as the team lost in the playoffs to Houston, but the Patriots and the University of Colorado continued a tug-of-war over his future that played out for months in and out of the courts. At one point, the university suggested it was prepared to go to the US Supreme Court to bring him to Boulder. A Colorado booster organization eventually paid a lump sum to the Patriots to help end the battle.

“I don’t think any of you can know how really pleased I am to be here,” Mr. Fairbanks said in April 1979 during a Denver news conference after the situation was resolved.

Born in Detroit, Charles Leo Fairbanks graduated in 1955 from Michigan State University, where he played football, and took his first coaching job that fall at Ishpeming High School in Michigan.

Three years later he entered the college ranks as an assistant coach at Arizona State, spending four years there followed by another four years as an assistant at the University of Houston.


Mr. Fairbanks moved to the University of Oklahoma in 1966 as an assistant coach, only to be promoted to the top job after head coach Jim Mackenzie, only 37, died of a heart attack in April 1967.

Though he coached the Oklahoma Sooners to three titles during the next six seasons in what was then known as the Big Eight Conference, Mr. Fairbanks missed securing a national title.

The anger of Oklahoma fans at his departure after the 1972 season to take the Patriots job foreshadowed what lay ahead when he left New England behind in 1979. NCAA rules violations during his tenure kept Oklahoma ineligible for bowl games for two years after Mr. Fairbanks left.

However, in Oklahoma, as with the Patriots, Mr. Fairbanks had a sharp eye for coaching assistants. His assistant Barry Switzer pushed Mr. Fairbanks to use a wishbone offense that helped turn Oklahoma into a powerhouse, and Switzer led the Sooners to national titles after succeeding Mr. Fairbanks.

Among those who served Mr. Fairbanks on New England’s coaching staff was Ron Erhardt, who succeeded him as coach. Red Miller, the offensive line coach, went on to coach the Denver Broncos, and Ray Perkins, the receivers coach, later was head coach of the New York Giants.

The players Mr. Fairbanks brought to the Patriots include John Hannah, Mike Haynes, Steve Grogan, Sam Cunningham, and Darryl Stingley.

In Colorado, Mr. Fairbanks met with little success, compiling a 7-26 record over three seasons. He left in 1982 to coach the New Jersey Generals. The Generals, part of the short-lived United States Football League, posted a 6-12 record in 1983 with Mr. Fairbanks as coach.

Mr. Fairbanks then left football to become a real estate developer in Arizona and California.

Information about a service for Mr. Fairbanks and his survivors was not immediately available.

In 1985, Mr. Fairbanks met with Globe columnist Will McDonough in LaQuinta, Calif., where his football career and the Patriots seemed more than a continent away. By then, Mr. Fairbanks was a vice president at a large development company, and the allure of coaching was fading fast.

“Once in a while, the urge comes back,” Mr. Fairbanks told McDonough. “Like when I’m watching a football game that’s really something, I feel myself getting excited again. But not that excited.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at