Rocky start in the Rockies

Coach Chuck Fairbanks had a litigious time getting to Colorado from New England and then suffered through three straight losses before his Buffaloes upset Indiana
October 07, 1979

Standing together in the locker room, their voices rising lustily in chorus, the University of Colorado football team burst forth in song: "We will never give in/Shoulder to shoulder/We will fight! Fight! Fight!" A cheer went up and jerseys sailed through the air. Hands slapped hands, the whooping rose to a crescendo and a kind of controlled bedlam set in. In one corner, Head Coach Chuck Fairbanks flipped open a can of Sprite, surveyed the celebrants and managed the slightest of smiles.

"Well," he said finally, "it's a whole lot better than we've been doing. They played hard and I'm proud of 'em. They've been through a lot the last eight or nine months."

Indeed they had—especially the previous three weeks. The Buffaloes had just beaten Indiana University 17-16, their first win in 1979, but before that they had lost to Oregon and had been pasted by LSU and jolted by lowly Drake, the only university named after a track meet. "We needed this," said walk-on Fullback Willie Beebe. "Our last win was against the alumni back in May."

Furthermore, the Buffaloes went to Bloomington aware that Indiana was probably their last shot in quite a while at winning a football game. Oklahoma was next on the schedule, then Missouri, and Nebraska after that. Actually, Colorado had brought a six-game losing streak to Indiana, having dropped the last three games of the 1978 season. That turn of events, a disaster in a state where college football is taken as seriously as beef prices, led to the firing of Head Coach Bill Mallory and the hiring away of Fairbanks from the New England Patriots. And that led to months and months of turmoil, bitterness and controversy.

There were snickers galore last week when syndicated columnist Steve Harvey ranked Colorado No. 1 in his "Bottom Ten" ranking, writing: "There's just no telling how poorly Colorado would be faring this season if the school hadn't had the good sense last December to lure Coach Chuck Fairbanks away from the New England Patriots."

And what a tangled tale that was. The condensed version: last December, with the Pats on the verge of winning their division and a place in the playoffs, Colorado booster Jack Vickers visited Fairbanks in Boston and offered him a deal to coach the Buffaloes—a $45,000-a-year salary, with revenue from a television show and other benefits that could bring him $150,000 a year. Rumors of the offer surfaced, but Fairbanks denied them. So did representatives of the university. On the day before the last regular game of the NFL season, Fairbanks called on Billy Sullivan, the ailing owner of the Pats, to tell him he wanted out of the last four years of his $150,000-a-year contract. He would, he said, continue to coach New England through the playoffs and the Super Bowl, if it came to that, but he wanted to get his Colorado recruiting program under way and they needed him in Boulder.

Sullivan blew up, told Fairbanks he couldn't serve two masters, suspended him and wound up ordering him out of the locker room at the Orange Bowl, where the Pats were preparing to face the Dolphins. A nasty scene. Sullivan eventually reinstated his coach but the Pats, playing lackluster ball, were upset by Houston in the playoffs.

And then the litigation began. The Pats sued the university and the university sued the Pats, with New England getting an injunction preventing Colorado from hiring Fairbanks. At one remarkable point in the proceedings, Fairbanks explained to the court that it never occurred to him that he had to be released from his Pats' contract because he'd had three college jobs and left every one of them while still under contract.

The judge was incredulous. "The court cannot consider his idea of a contract, cannot accept it," he said.

At length, the litigation ground to a halt. The Flatirons Club, the 238-man booster group of which Vickers is president, paid $200,000 to the Pats on behalf of the university and Fairbanks agreed to give up some $105,000 due him in deferred payments from New England. One university regent protested the settlement vehemently. "My goal as a regent is to build a world-class university with a football program," said Sandy Kraemer, "not a world-class football program with a university.... It appears that the athletic program is being run by a booster club rather than by the university."

Fairbanks showed up in Colorado last April, too late for recruiting. Moreover, he found the football program to be in a precipitous decline. He had no running backs with breakaway speed, no top receivers or quarterbacks, but he did have injuries at key positions.

Fairbanks didn't promise instant success. He installed pro-type offenses and defenses, more sophisticated, complex and demanding of skills than Mallory's.

Senior Linebacker Bill Roe was among those caught in the transition. "Last year, when I played on the wide side of the field and there was a pass, I'd look for the tight end," he says. "This year, on some coverages, if the tight end comes straight out, I run past him and look for the wide receiver, depending on the coverage. Now I route-read the tight end. A lot more thinking is involved. This was New England's defense. In preseason we watched a lot of New England films. This is a big difference from last year; everybody's thinking a little bit instead of reacting."

In the first three games, and in parts of the fourth, the thinking was clearly woolly, the execution ragged. Oregon beat Colorado in the opener 33-19, and LSU then manhandled the Buffaloes 44-0. And before they got on the board against Drake, fans in the stands in Boulder were chanting, "Two-four-six-eight, score before we graduate!" Colorado did, but not enough, and down they went 13-9.

Not that the once prepotent Buffaloes weren't trying. On the morning of the Indiana game, Bill Roe sat on the floor of his room at the Holiday Inn in Bloomington and read Psalms 91 and 121 from the Gideon Bible to some of his teammates. "It's something we've been doing," he said.

As things turned out, they needed all the assistance, divine or otherwise, that they could get to beat Indiana. But there were moments when Colorado jelled and looked like a football team. A 16-year-old freshman, Split End Don Holmes, caught a pass to score the first touchdown. Holmes was recruited out of Miami (Fla.) Northwestern High School, having accelerated at the urging of his mother. Cornerback Mark Haynes was everywhere he was needed—making the first Buffalo interception of the year, recovering a fumble and charging in to block an extra-point attempt, a play that ultimately won the game. And Nose Guard Laval Short had 18 tackles—13 solos and five assists.

Had they lost to Indiana, the Buffaloes would have been facing the prospect of being 0-7 at the end of the month, but for now the pressure is off.

"Yeah," said Fairbanks. "For about a week."

PHOTOFairbanks with End Bob Niziolek and Quarterback Bill Solomon, who passed for a TD, ran for one.

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