This time of year the Patriots Hall of Fame committee meets to decide who will be the newest inductees. Each of the past couple years a heated debate has been centered around Bill Parcells, but I think there’s an equal and less-discussed case to be made for Chuck Fairbanks for the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Last year I wrote a long piece why I don’t think Parcells should be in, but I understand the arguments of those who think he should be. No one was more excited when Parcells was hired than me. He instantly gave the team credibility, “drafted” a number of Patriots legends, introduced Bill Belichick to Robert Kraft and led the team to a Super Bowl loss. But generally, Parcells put the Pats back on the map and they haven’t really left the spotlight since he came to town.
Those are not insignificant accomplishments, but let’s also remember that the Pats were coming off just four losing seasons prior to Parcells. They had been to the Super Bowl in 1985. It’s not like this was the forever-worst team in the NFL. They were down for sure, but the Pats had been good before.
And a big part of being good before, something lost on many fans unaware of the team’s history, was Chuck Fairbanks whose career with the Patriots from 1973-1978 was incredibly similar, for both good and bad reasons, to Parcells’ tenure.
The Patriots had six-straight losing seasons prior to Fairbanks’ arrival, and hadn’t been to the playoffs in ten years. By 1976 the Patriots had their best team ever, handing the eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders their only loss of the season. Oakland would win the re-match in the playoffs in a hard fought game that featured a marginal roughing the passer penalty on Sugar Bear Hamilton on a third-and-18 incomplete pass that would set Oakland up for the 24-21 win.
But to this day, many believe the ’76 Pats teams was one of their best ever, even if they didn’t even make it to the Super Bowl. Before that, the Patriots truly were nobodies in the NFL landscape. If we really want to talk about a coach who put the Patriots on the map, Fairbanks would have to be the original choice.
Fairbanks also drafted six of the 22 players currently in the Patriots Hall of Fame — Steve Grogan, John Hannah, Sam Cunningham, Steve Nelson, Mike Haynes (also an NFL Hall of Famer) and Stanley Morgan. Parcells has five — Drew Bledsoe, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown and Ty Law.
A big feather in Parcells’ cap is bringing Bill Belichick into the Patriots organization in 1996, which sparked a friendship between the defensive coordinator and owner Robert Kraft that would lay the groundwork for Belichick’s hiring in 2000. But Fairbanks also had significant contributions that paid off down the line.
The first was his 3-4 defense, called the Fairbanks-Bullough, that Belichick would later use as his defensive foundation. And Fairbanks’ offensive system, the Erhardt-Perkins offense, named for Patriots offensive coaches Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins, and was also the foundation for the Patriots’ offense when Belichick took over with Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator.
If you want to say that Parcells set the table for the Patriots dynasty, you should also include Fairbanks, as both systems he and his coaching staff were formulating and refining in the 70s are still having an impact even today, 40 years later.
Finally comes the exits of both coaches, which were both filled with controversy. Parcells was negotiating to jump ship to the Jets the entire two weeks leading up to the Patriots’ Super Bowl appearance. Many fans find this unforgivable, to not only undermine the team as they head to the biggest game of their lives, but to also go to a hated rival, while also bringing along the Pats’ best player, Curtis Martin. It understandable why this has left a lingering bad taste in fans’ mouths.
Fairbanks had a controversial exit as well in similar fashion, having been caught negotiating with the the University of Colorado during the Patriots’ 1978 season, breaking his contract. He was suspended for the last game of the season, only to be brought back for New England’s first-ever home playoff game, but the second-seeded Pats were upset 31–14 by superstar running back Earl Campbell and his fifth-seeded Houston Oilers.
Both coaches are significant figures in Patriots history and had major impacts not only on Patriots teams long after they left, but on the NFL and the game of football itself. What Parcells has going for him is his personality and how enjoyable he was to cover for those who decide who goes into the Patriots Hall of Fame. Fairbanks came up in a different era, and didn’t have the entertaining quotes and razor-sharp personality that made Parcells legendary.
But for what they actually accomplished on the field and with the team, Chuck Fairbanks deserves as much consideration as Bill Parcells.