By: Steve Balestrieri
Chuck Fairbanks, the coach who turned around the New England Patriots franchise in the mid-1970s lost his battle with brain cancer on Tuesday, He was 79.
Fairbanks came to the Patriots in 1973 from the college ranks at Oklahoma where he ran a Wishbone offense and the patented Bud Wilkinson 3-4 defense and installed a little bit of both on a moribund Patriots franchise that was floundering in the late 60s and early 70s.
He completely revamped the way the Patriots scouted for the NFL Draft and even rated personnel. After the team traded away virtually the entire draft in 1972, Fairbanks’ Patriots first draft in 1973 immediately produced dividends, his first three picks that year were HOFer John Hannah, Sam Cunningham and Darryl Stingley, he later added ‘Sugar Bear’ Ray Hamilton.
Drafting Their Way To Success
In 1974 he added team HOFer Steve Nelson, Andy Johnson and Sam Hunt. Russ Francis, Steve Grogan, were added in 1975, Mike Haynes, Pete Brock and Tim Fox came on board in 1976. And Raymond Clayborn, Stanley Morgan,Horace Ivory, and Don Hasselback were added in 1977. All would play key roles for the team during the period while Fairbanks coached the Patriots.
Like Bill Belichick after him, Fairbanks inherited a team in disarray. Steve Nelson arrived as a rookie in 1974 having never even been to New England prior to being drafted. In an interview he did with me a few years ago, he spoke about that time.
“It was a much different game and era back then” Nelson said. “Training camp would start at the end of June; we had six pre-season games back then”. He added, “Chuck Fairbanks really wanted to see who wanted to play football, and our season wouldn’t even begin until mid-September”.
Speaking further Nelson said, “Fairbanks was a no-nonsense kind of coach, brilliant always seemed to be ahead of the game. He had a great deal of confidence in his assistant coaches and gave them a great deal of responsibility.”
In 1973, still getting rid of the dead weight from previous regimes, the Patriots went 5-9 but changes were coming.
Fairbanks Turns the Tide
In 1974, taking advantage of a league-wide players’ strike during training camp and preseason, Fairbanks and then defensive coordinator Hank Bullough installed an innovative new system, known today as the Fairbanks-Bullough 3–4, or the 3–4 two-gap system.
The Patriots under Bill Belichick still used the Fairbanks 3-4 two gap system until the 2011 season. I told Nelson I had read somewhere that Bill Belichick had spoken about Fairbanks in 2009 and had said that the Patriots terminology for the 3-4 Defense they run then was virtually the same as he had run 35 years ago and that Fairbanks could come in today and make all the defensive calls with little difficulty. “I didn’t know that” he said “but it wouldn’t surprise me.”
The 1974 Patriots raced out to a 6–1 start culminated with a last minute win over the Vikings and Fran Tarkenton before injuries derailed the season and the team finished at 7-7. The following year 1975, was even worse, injury wise and the Patriots limped to lowly 3-11. But the pieces that were being put in place were soon to produce dividends.
The Patriots of 1976 were arguably the best team the organization produced until the Belichick Super Bowl teams of the early 2000s. In consecutive weeks, they beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh and then annihilated the Raiders 48-17 in Foxboro enroute to an 11-3 finish.
A trip to Oakland ensued in the playoffs and the Patriots were ahead 21-10 in the fourth quarter. But a mugging on a key third down that went uncalled on Russ Francis stalled a drive and then the now infamous phantom roughing the passer penalty on Ray Hamilton called by Ben Dreith, an admitted Raiders fan set the Silver and Black up for a go ahead touchdown with less than a minute remaining.
The Raiders would then travel to Pittsburgh and defeated a beat-up Steelers’ team enroute to the Super Bowl win over Minnesota. The loss still stings for Patriots of that generation. “Well, Francis got mugged by Villapiano” Nelson said. “But there was more, and once they got the ball back, we all had a feeling that the refs were going to make sure we didn’t win, but they (Raiders) were, a really great team”.
Nelson added, “If you remember, the rules back then, you were able to hit the QB a lot more than you are allowed to today. “That wouldn’t have been roughing the QB today, never mind back then.”
Forced Out in 1978
The Patriots under Fairbanks remained one of the league’s better teams and in 1978 again rolled to a 11-3 record while setting the league record for rushing yards as a team (3165) that remains the best ever. But the Sullivan family, according to John Hannah undercut Fairbanks forcing him to go against contracts he approved of.
This led to his being fired prior to the playoff game against the Houston Oilers and the team not surprisingly was handed its lunch in the Patriots home playoff game 31-14. Fairbanks went on to coach at Colorado and never again coached in the NFL.
But coaches like Belichick and Bill Parcells recognized what a great eye for talent he still had and would still come calling. “Chuck Fairbanks was one of the best talent evaluators ever” Nelson said. “He knew what would work and always could pick out great players to fit the team”.
“Bill Parcells would bring him in to training camps in Dallas to give his opinion on players” Nelson added. “He is still a great talent evaluator.”
“Our practices were always physical and intense under Fairbanks” Nelson said. “We used to practice at field in Foxboro near the Wrentham line and we would have to get dressed in our uniforms and drive our own cars over to the practice field.” He laughed and pointed over at the Patriots modern facility in the background, “its just a little different now”.
The game may have changed over the years, but Fairbanks’ influence on it did not. The Patriots won three Super Bowls using the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 two gap defense. And they nearly one another in 2007 utilizing the same, his legacy is one of unrequited success in New England. But to those who saw the franchise rebound from a laughing stock to one of the league’s powers at the time, you have to shake your head and wonder for all the things that could have been…. Another owner, another time and the franchise may have been much different.
“I loved playing for Fairbanks” Nelson said.