Former Oklahoma coach Chuck Fairbanks, who coached against Nebraska in 1971’s “Game of the Century,” died Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 79.
The cause was brain cancer, said Pete Moris, a spokesman for the Oklahoma athletic department.
Known for being a savvy player evaluator, a shrewd recruiter and a practice-field taskmaster, Fairbanks went to Oklahoma as an assistant in 1966 and took over when his predecessor, Jim Mackenzie, died of a heart attack in April 1967 at 37.
In his first year, Fairbanks led the Sooners to a 10-1 record and the championship of the conference then known as the Big Eight. Though the team lost four games the next three seasons, it won the conference title again in 1968.
In 1970 Fairbanks’ assistant, Barry Switzer, who would eventually become his successor, prevailed on him to install the innovative wishbone offense.
It took a season for the Sooners to perfect it, but in 1971, with quarterback Jack Mildren running the offense and the speedy running back Greg Pruitt slicing through defenses, they led the nation in scoring and yards gained, whipped Auburn in the Sugar Bowl and finished second in the polls.
A national title eluded the Sooners when, in the 10th game of the season, they lost to league rival Nebraska 35-31 in a wildly exciting contest often called the Game of the Century. Nebraska went undefeated and won the national championship.
After the 1972 season, during which Oklahoma was again 11-1 and again finished second in the polls (to Southern California), Fairbanks accepted a job as the coach and general manager of the Patriots.
He left Sooners fans feeling betrayed, especially after the NCAA unearthed 14 rules violations at Oklahoma during Fairbanks’ tenure, including tampering with an academic transcript, and punished the university by ordering forfeits of several games and rendering powerful Sooners teams ineligible for bowl games for two years.
Fairbanks left the Patriots in 1978 to take over at the University of Colorado, another Big Eight school. He was 7-26 in three seasons with the Buffaloes, including a humiliating 82-42 loss in 1980 to Oklahoma and his former pupil, Switzer.