Born in Detroit, Fairbanks graduated from Michigan State University in 1955, following three years of football with the Spartans. That fall, he began the first of three years as head coach of Ishpeming High School in Michigan. In 1958, he accepted an assistant coaching position at Arizona State University in Tempe, spending four years there under former Spartan teammate Frank Kush before moving on for another four-year stint at the University of Houston under Bill Yeoman from 1962 to 1965. In 1966, he accepted an assistant coaching position at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
Following the death of 37 year-old Sooner head coach Jim Mackenzie in April 1967, Fairbanks was promoted to head coach four days later at age 33. He had nearly left for another assistant position at Missouri under Dan Devine, but decided to stay in Norman when Mackenzie moved him to offensive coordinator after the 1966 season. Over the next six years, Fairbanks led Oklahoma to three Big Eight Conference titles, with 11–1 records in each of his final two seasons. Three months after his mid-contract departure to the New England Patriots of the NFL, Oklahoma was forced to forfeit nine games from the 1972 season after evidence of recruiting violations involving altered transcripts of student-athletes surfaced. Fairbanks denied any knowledge of this. The scandal under his watch made Sooners ineligible for bowl games or the national championship for two years after he left. After the probation ended, however, the Sooners, under his successor Barry Switzer, won consecutive national titles in 1974–75.
On January 26, 1973, Fairbanks was named head coach of the New England of the NFL. His first NFL draft that year included John Hannah, Sam Cunningham, Ray Hamilton and Darryl Stingley, the first of a solid run of drafts through Fairbanks’ tenure with the team. He went 5–9 in his first year in New England. The 1974 season was marred by a league-wide players’ strike during training camp and preseason, which actually helped the Patriots as Fairbanks and defensive coordinator Hank Bullough were installing a new system (today known as the Fairbanks-Bullough 3–4, or the 3–4 two-gap system). They got a lot done because so many players who were not part of the NFL Players’ Association, and eighteen first-year players made the roster. The Patriots stormed to a 6–1 start before other teams caught up with them and they finished 7–7.
Fairbanks then had a falling-out with quarterback Jim Plunkett, who was traded for important draft picks to San Francisco, and suffered when hardball negotiating tactics by Patriot ownership led to a team-wide player strike that cancelled a preseason game with the New York Jets. The team never recovered and fell to 3–11 in 1975, but Fairbanks planted an important seed for the future by drafting quarterback Steve Grogan, who saw his first serious game action later that year.
Fairbanks’ Patriots erupted to 11–3 in 1976, a reversal of the 3–11 mark from the year before, and took on the 13–1 Oakland Raiders in the first round of the NFL playoffs. New England entered the fourth quarter with a 21–10 lead, but a controversial roughing-the-passer call on defensive end Ray Hamilton by referee Ben Dreith wiped out a late incompletion by the Raiders and Raider quarterback Ken Stabler’s dive into the endzone with eight seconds left gave Oakland a 24-21 comeback victory. Although Dreith insisted after the game that he had to call the penalty because he saw Hamilton hit Stabler on the head, replays showed that “Sugar Bear” had made no illegal contact. The call was condemned for years thereafter, and remained a bitter memory for the Patriots as the Raiders went on to win Super Bowl XI.
In 1977, contract squabbles between the Sullivan family and offensive linemen John Hannah and Leon Gray led to discord within the team. The incident soured Fairbanks on Chuck Sullivan, who as the eldest son of team owner Billy Sullivan controlled the team’s finances and had forced Fairbanks to renege on his proposed contracts with Hannah and Gray. Hannah, denied Fairbanks’ promised contract by the ownership team, later contended that the Sullivans “took Chuck’s authority away and turned him into a liar.” The Patriots narrowly missed making the playoffs on the last weekend of the regular season.
The following year in 1978 tragedy struck during the preseason as Stingley suffered paralysis following a violent hit by Jack Tatum at Oakland; Fairbanks had worked out a contract extension with Stingley before the game but the following Monday Chuck Sullivan reneged on the deal. Fairbanks was livid and resolved to leave the team after the season. The Patriots raced to an 11-4 record and won the AFC East title. They seemed poised to challenge for a Super Bowl berth, but just prior to the final regular season game Sullivan suspended Fairbanks for again breaking a contract by agreeing become head coach for the University of Colorado in 1979. Fairbanks was reinstated for the team’s first playoff game (and the franchise’s first-ever home playoff game), but the second-seeded Patriots were upset 31–14 by superstar running back Earl Campbell and his fifth-seed Houston Oilers.
Unwilling to let him leave with as few consequences for his actions as had the Sooners, New England sued Fairbanks for breach of contract. During discovery for the suit, he admitted recruiting for Colorado while still working for the Patriots, who won an injunction preventing him from leaving. But on April 2, 1979, a group of CU boosters (Flatirons Club) bought out his contract, making it possible for him to leave the Patriots. Paul Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated’s dean of professional football writers, speculated that the animus surrounding Fairbanks’ departure from New England stemmed from the fact that, unlike the late-season departure of New York Jets coach Lou Holtz for Arkansas in 1976, “no one” felt Fairbanks “was a really nice guy.”
The legal battle to make Fairbanks the Buffaloes’ head coach proved not be worth the effort when he compiled a dismal 7–26 record (.212) in three seasons for Colorado (3–8, 1–10, 3–8). His predecessor’s worst record was 6–5 in 1978. His time at CU was tumultuous period for the football and athletic program, headed by former head coach Eddie Crowder. Fairbanks has been routinely and incorrectly credited for the unpopular color switch from black to blue uniforms in 1981, his final season at Colorado. The color change was mandated by CU’s Board of Regents to reflect “the Colorado sky at 9,000 feet (2,700 m),” but did not win fan support. (The school’s official colors are silver and gold, and the CU teams traditionally wore black and gold since 1959.) A darker shade of blue was introduced in 1984, but black jerseys were restored for the Oklahoma and Nebraska games in Boulder, and for all home games starting in 1985.
Fairbanks resigned from CU on June 1, 1982, to accept the head coaching position with the New Jersey Generals of the fledgling USFL. Even before coaching his first game in the new league, Fairbanks once again found himself immersed in controversy. Georgia junior Herschel Walker, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, signed with the Generals on February 23, 1983, violating the NCAA’s then-unwritten rule against signing players who were still college-eligible. His time in New Jersey, like his tenure at Colorado, was met with little success on the field as the Generals finished the 1983 USFL season at 6–12. The poor showing led to Fairbanks’ firing. The innovative but scandal-marred coach never again coached either collegiately or professionally, and moved on to real estate and golf-course development, creating PGA West and launching many other successful California and Arizona ventures. Fairbanks died at the age of 79 from brain cancer on April 2, 2013.
- June, 10, 1933
- Detroit, Michigan
- April, 02, 2013
- Scottsdale, Arizona