Former Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks, credited as helping to bring legitimacy to a woebegone franchise when he took over in 1973, died Tuesday at age 79.
Fairbanks had been battling brain cancer, and died in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Highly respected for his work with the Oklahoma Sooners when the Patriots hired him as the franchise’s sixth coach, Fairbanks was with the team for six seasons, compiling a 46-39 regular-season record.
The Patriots also made two postseason appearances with Fairbanks at the helm, one more than they had in the 13 seasons preceding his tenure. But they lost both games, on the road against Oakland in 1976 and home against Houston in 1978.
That loss to the Oilers was his final game with the Patriots; by then, Fairbanks had agreed to become coach at the University of Colorado. Then-owner Billy Sullivan, upset that Fairbanks already had accepted another job, suspended Fairbanks for the final game of the 1978 regular season.
That messy end notwithstanding, Fairbanks’s legacy lived on with the team: he and defensive coordinator Hank Bullough popularized the 3-4, two-gap defense that Bill Belichick and other NFL coaches have been using since.
Fairbanks also served as his own personnel man.
“He pretty much ran the show,” Tim Fox, a first-round pick in 1976, said on Tuesday. “Jim Valek [who first was a special teams coach but then assistant general manager] was his high right hand man. Chuck was always accessible to players, and he was well-regarded by the players.
“He made Valek the ‘bad cop.’ In the locker room we called him Mr. No.”
Fairbanks had an “evil eye” Fox said, that he shot to players when he was irritated. He would squint and the eye would twitch a little, and when a player saw that he knew he was in trouble.
“He deserves a lot of credit. [Bill Parcells] and Belichick deserve credit, but he was the guy who made it a competitive football team,” Fox said. “And those were not easy times — it was before the [scouting] combine, before you had support staffs that you have today. A lot of the decisions he made, I think were gut decisions.”
Fox last saw Fairbanks in Arizona for Super Bowl XLII, and with some former teammates also on hand, they had an impromptu reunion.
Belichick had a tremendous amount of respect for Fairbanks. In 2007, Fairbanks addressed the Patriots players during practice in the regular season, and last September, on a day when Fairbanks was headed into surgery, he sent well wishes during a press conference.
“Chuck has been a good friend for a long time and he’s meant a lot to this organization,” Belichick said in September. “At the time he came here, he did a great job in turning the Patriots around, making them into one of the top teams in the AFC.’’
“Also, some of the things he brought to the Patriots and the league in the ’70s were things that stood the test of time and have been big principles in this league for many, many years and the disciples and the people that were with him, such as the 3-4 defense, the way he organized the draft, personnel meetings, things like that, and some of the great coaches that were here under Chuck.”
Indeed Fairbanks had a keen eye for talent on the field and the sidelines — Ron Erhardt, who coached the offensive backfield under Fairbanks, succeeded him as coach; offensive line coach Red Miller left New England to become the Broncos head coach in 1977; and receivers coach Ray Perkins went on to become offensive coordinator with the Chargers, then head coach with the Giants (where he hired a young man named Belichick as a defensive assistant).
In his first draft, Fairbanks had three first-round picks and selected John Hannah, Sam Cunningham and Darryl Stingley. He also drafted Steve Nelson, Steve Grogan, Mike Haynes, Pete Brock, Fox, Raymond Clayborn, and Stanley Morgan.
Hannah and Haynes are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame; four others are in the Pastriots’ hall of fame.
“The thing that impressed me — and this is not to take anything away from him because he was a great coach — but he surrounded himself with great coaches,” Fox said. “He was not afraid to bring guys in to challenge him.”
In 1975, the year before Fox was drafted, the Patriots won just three games, and in Fox’s first training camp, Fairbanks ran a tight ship.
“There was no collective bargaining agreement then. I remember we were in two a days for almost a month and a half straight – there were no rules or restrictions [on how much teams could practice],” he said. “But he had a very young team, and he felt like he needed to change things.”
The Patriots went 11-3 that season, at the time the highest win total in team history.
“As a Patriots season ticket-holder, I remember the excitement that was generated by the hiring of Chuck Fairbanks from the University of Oklahoma in 1973,” owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. “Coach Fairbanks gave the Patriots instant credibility.
“For Patriots fans of that era, Fairbanks was the Bill Parcells before Bill Parcells, meaning he did for the Patriots in the ’70s what Bill Parcells did for the team in the ’90s.
“It is a sad day for a generation of Patriots fans who enjoyed his era of coaching. My thoughts and prayers are with the Fairbanks family and all who mourn his loss.”
Danny Amendola has already made a connection with Tom Brady. The new receiver was on the field practicing with Brady at Southern Cal. A few days ago, Amendola told a St. Louis radio station he was “ready to get working” with Brady.
USC receivers coach Tee Martin, one of the six quarterbacks drafted before Brady in 2000, tweeted about the quarterback and Amendola getting some reps.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez was also reportedly in Southern California to get some offseason work in with Brady.