CHARLOTTESVILLE — Former Colorado State Coach Sonny Lubick still has visions about the way Steve Fairchild can call a football game. Like the other day, when one of Lubick’s sons, Matt, the wide receivers coach at Oregon, asked about Fairchild’s offenses during the height of Lubick’s 15-year run in Fort Collins, Colo.
There was the 1997 Holiday Bowl, when the Rams put up 35 points and beat Missouri — “Man, we put on a show that night,” Sonny Lubick said — and the 1999 game between Colorado State and Colorado, when the Rams entered halftime up 28-0, the first time Lubick can remember the school’s bitter rival looking completely baffled.
But these days, now that his former offensive coordinator is running Virginia’s offense, Lubick also wonders if he appreciated Fairchild enough in the moment.
“He did a lot with not much on the O sometimes,” Lubick said. “He always had a great offensive mind, and sometimes as a coach when you’re there in the building, you don’t realize. But Steve was always thinking.”
Fairchild has quickly made the same impression at Virginia, where he is in his first season as offensive coordinator.
Coach Mike London describes Fairchild as “methodical,” with a knack for solving any defense. Quarterback David Watford considers him “a football genius.” But Fairchild, and the scheme he wants to deploy at Virginia, remain something of a mystery ahead of his first significant task in Charlottesville: keeping pace with No. 2 Oregon’s high-powered attack on Saturday at Scott Stadium.
Few on the East Coast realize that Fairchild, 55, has been at the forefront of offensive innovation for more than 35 years now. He reveals little unless asked, a former NFL coordinator who doesn’t boast about it.
This, though, is partly Fairchild’s own doing. Even Lubick calls him “introverted.” Former St. Louis Rams Coach Mike Martz, who coached Fairchild in college and later hired him as an NFL assistant, said this week there’s “a firmness to his personality.” Watford described his initial impression of Fairchild as follows: “He wasn’t gonna take any BS.”
Lubick noted that such a temperament could simply be a natural reaction to how things ended for Fairchild at Colorado State, where he succeeded Lubick as head coach but was fired in 2011 following three straight 3-9 seasons.
“This is a very difficult place to consistently win and I think it hurt him,” said Lubick, who still lives in Fort Collins, Colo. “But knowing him, once he got back into thinking and talking football all the time . . . everything else is forgotten. When Steve’s in that office drawing up plays and working on strategies and making decisions and doing those things, he’s a happy camper.”
The son of a chemist and World War II medic (Bill Fairchild died of a heart attack when Steve was just 10 years old), Fairchild was so adamant about being a college quarterback that, in 1976, he enrolled at San Diego Mesa Community College, where Martz was the offensive coordinator of a team that was throwing the ball more often than anybody those days.
Fairchild was named a junior college all-American honors two years in a row and earned a scholarship to Colorado State, where he finished second to BYU’s Jim McMahon in all-Western Athletic Conference voting.
“He was so intuitive about things that really he had a lot of impact on me and how I look at the passing game and how I coached quarterbacks,” Martz said. “He just did things you kind of take for granted when you later have to coach those things.”
Soon after his playing career ended, Fairchild began to work his way up the coaching ladder, with stops at New Mexico, San Diego State, Colorado State and the Buffalo Bills. In 2003, Martz hired his former pupil to be the Rams’ offensive coordinator, although Martz retained play-calling duties (a decision he admitted regretting this week).
“He was the only one who got it. He was outstanding at making adjustments,” Martz said.
Fairchild’s breadth of experiences put Virginia’s players at ease. “We weren’t going to have to adapt to him, that he was going to kind of adapt to us,” wide receiver Darius Jennings said he told them.
“I probably earlier in my career was a little more hard-headed in what I like to do and what I was familiar with, particularly in the NFL because you think everybody can do everything at that level,” Fairchild said this week. “I would say the flexibility, at least from my mind-set, is more now than ever.”
Known for his balanced approach, Fairchild describes his offense at Virginia as a collaborative effort that also involves associate head coach Tom O’Brien and assistant Larry Lewis, both former head coaches as well. Senior Tim Smith said the coaches have been showing the wide receivers film of Martz’s St. Louis Rams.
In Virginia’s 19-16 win over BYU last Saturday, the Cavaliers used both the pistol offense and pro-style elements, although Fairchild was the first to say the offense is far from a finished product after gaining just 223 yards.
He may try to push the tempo and still must identify consistent weapons. In the meantime, he’s relying on the development of a power rushing attack and Watford, a first-year starter who sounded a lot like Lubick when discussing Fairchild recently.
“He’s always going at 100 miles an hour,” Watford said. “And he’s always thinking of different ways to do certain plays.”