By: Bob George/
April 02, 2013

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In the 53-year history of the New England Patriots, the coaching tenure of Chuck Fairbanks may go down as incredibly underrated, thanks largely to the Bills Parcells and Belichick.

Parcells is widely hailed as being the man who made the Patriots relevant, and Belichick is the man who made the Patriots champions. Parcells took a woebegone Patriot team in 1993 and turned them into AFC Champions by year four. Belichick won three Super Bowls in four years with the Patriots, and has kept them in close range of a fourth Super Bowl title ever since without actually winning it. Parcells is finally being borne off to football's Valhalla, and Belichick will follow several years from now.

But if you truly care about the entire history of the Patriots, even those times when the team was a laughingstock, you have to care about the Fairbanks era. During a time when the Red Sox were winning an AL pennant and narrowly missing out on 2-3 others, when the Celtics were in the midst of the Havlicek-Cowens-White era and winning titles 12 and 13, and when the Bruins were in five Stanley Cup finals with two wins and three losses, Fairbanks elevated the Patriots to greatness and allowed them to sit at the same table as the other three area teams. The Patriots of the 1970s became not only relevant, but a terrific team, fun to watch, and every bit as intense in emotion and passion as the other three teams.

And those of you who put as many birthday candles on your cakes as Yours Truly might agree with these next two statements.

Fairbanks, not Belichick, should have been the first Super Bowl winning head coach in Patriot history.

And the 1976 Patriots were the best team in franchise history.

Fairbanks died on Monday at age 79 in Scottsdale, Arizona of brain cancer. Nationally, Fairbanks is being remembered for his 1967-72 tenure at the University of Oklahoma more than his 1973-78 tenure in Foxborough (thank goodness his 1979-81 University of Colorado tenure doesn't warrant such adulation, ditto for his USFL gig in the Meadowlands). Fairbanks had his great rivalry with Nebraska, and the 1971 game between the two schools at Norman, Oklahoma remains one of the best ever in college football history. Fairbanks adapted the University of Texas wishbone at the behest of his successor, Barry Switzer, and the Sooners were one of the best offensive juggernauts in recent college football memory.

The Patriots in 1973 were in need of a complete makeover. John Mazur had just given way to interim head coach Phil Bengston, and Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett was having a miserable time in the NFL thanks to nobody around him who could run, block or catch a football. Bengston was cast aside at the end of the 1972 season, and the Patriots began a search for a new head coach.

Their first target was Joe Paterno of Penn State. JoePa, long before he became associated with linebacker coach Jerry Sandusky's deviant sexual behaviour, dismissed the Patriots out of hand and expressed strident disdain over wanting to coach the Patriots. Billy Sullivan had to look elsewhere for his new head coach, and he found him in Norman, Oklahoma.

Fairbanks at the time was every bit the high profile head coach Paterno was. Oklahoma was about to come into NCAA sanctions and several years of no bowl games, so Fairbanks leaving Oklahoma was a good deal for him. Fairbanks took over the Patriots as head coach and general manager for the 1973 season. At no time did Fairbanks ever complain about grocery shopping, and no one complained about his shopping acumen for that matter.

His first visit to NFL's Stop & Shop was pretty good. The 1973 draft produced no less than John Hannah, Sam "Bam" Cunningham and Darryl Stingley all in the first round, then Raymond Hamilton came along in the 14th round. The next year saw Steve Nelson, Andy Johnson and Sam Hunt come to the northeast. In 1975, Fairbanks scored big with Russ Francis, Rod Shoate and Steve Grogan.

1976 was when Fairbanks seemed to be suddenly morphing into Red Auerbach. Fairbanks the coach took the bold step of replacing Plunkett with the rookie Grogan at quarterback the year before. So, Fairbanks the general manager made perhaps the best trade in Patriot history when he dealt Plunkett to the 49ers for two 1976 first round picks and backup quarterback Tom Owen. With their own pick at five, Fairbanks took Mike Haynes. With the other two first round picks acquired from San Francisco, Fairbanks took Pete Brock and Tim Fox. The 1976 Patriots were loaded, and were ready to scale new NFL heights never before seen at Schaefer Stadium.

The 1976 Patriots remain one of the best teams in franchise history, the best according to this writer. While the teams of the 2000s managed to pluck the ripe and falling plums thanks largely to the best head coach and quarterback in team history, the 1976 Patriots were overall better balanced and the only team to beat the eventual champion Oakland Raiders. The rushing attack, offensive line and secondary were the best in team history, and the defensive line and linebackers weren't that far behind.

If not for that putrid roughing the passer call against Hamilton in the Divisional Playoff game at Oakland, the Patriots would have won Super Bowl XI that year. The Patriots defeated Oakland 48-17 in a September meeting at Schaefer Stadium which was a complete domination, and should have beaten the Raiders in the playoff rematch out at Oakland. But the Raiders were able to parlay that "penalty" into a 24-21 win and a Super Bowl win three weeks hence. Ken Stabler, the Oakland quarterback back then, acknowledges that the Patriots beat his Raiders up pretty badly in their one and only loss, and practically admits that Ben Dreith made a bad call on Hamilton.

The Patriots missed the playoffs in 1977 because of some strange tiebreaker fluke which rewarded the Colts for purposely losing a home game in December against the awful Detroit Lions (which is why Patriot fans also hate referee Fred Silva and Colt QB Bert Jones, and why they added a second Wild Card in 1978). In 1978, the Patriots wound up winning their first outright division title in team history (they were a Wild Card in 1976), clinching at home on a late field goal by David Posey, filling in for the injured John Smith.

But Fairbanks by now had become persona non grata in Foxborough. In a scene eerily similar to Michigan basketball in 1989, when Bill Frieder was fired and Steve Fisher was hired when Frieder accepted a job at Arizona State and Bo Schembechler declared "A Michigan Man will coach Michigan!" (Fisher led Michigan to the NCAA Championship that year), Fairbanks was suspended by Sullivan for the season finale for accepting a job for 1979 at Colorado. Fairbanks was reinstated for the playoffs, but the Patriots wound up losing to Houston, 31-14 (they would not lose a home playoff game again until 2009). Fairbanks went to Boulder, Colorado, then to the USFL, never seeing the success he enjoyed in Foxborough ever again.

Fairbanks had just taken the Patriots on a six-year run of sustained greatness, starting slow and building up to the playoff years of 1976 and 1978. The Patriots were one of the elite teams in the NFL by the time Fairbanks left for Colorado, albeit suffering losses as galling as the Red Sox were to the Yankees around that time. The Patriots would go into decline, culminating with a horrid 1-15 1981 season, and would not achieve greatness again until Raymond Berry took the Patriots to Super Bowl XX seven years after Fairbanks left. In retrospect, Fairbanks made a career misstep by leaving Foxborough when he did, despite some squabbles with Sullivan over contracts. The Patriots were riding sky high under Fairbanks, and despite the Stingley tragedy marking his final year in Foxborough, Fairbanks was in charge of one of the great reclamation projects in NFL history, maybe even bigger and better than the one Parcells pulled off two decades after Fairbanks.

The Patriots before Fairbanks were forgettable, lousy, boring and just downright bad. It took Fairbanks four years before making the playoffs, but his footprint was all over the Patriots. Impending greatness was visible as early as 1974, when the team began 6-1 with some epic wins over Miami, Minnesota and the LA Rams before going 1-6 over the last seven games. But Fairbanks was a great head coach, and his body of work in Foxborough is remarkable.

And 1976 was the greatest. A Super Bowl champion robbed of a title because of a bad official's call. A great team, the best in team history, authored by Fairbanks. Patriot fans of today won't agree, and that's fine. But if you saw both the 1976 Patriots and the 2000s Patriots, you have to at least pause to consider.

Fairbanks was big time. He's at the table with both Bills. And that's one very special table.