Chuck Fairbanks' comments about his future as a coach were as muted today as New Year's Eve celebrations in New England tonight.
He may be going to the University of Colorado, but he and his New England Patriots are not going to Miami for the Super Bowl, not even to Pittsburgh on Jan. 7 for the American Football Conference championship game against the Steelers (1 p.m., WRC-TV-4 and WBAL-TV-11).
The Houston Oilers won that privilege by beating the Patriots, 31-14, today. The issue was in doubt here in Schaefer Stadium for all of 8 minutes 12 seconds. By that time the Oilers were off to a 14-0 lead before Steve Grogan of the Patriots had completed his first pass.
The Oilers made it 21-0 by halftime, on Dan Pastorial's third touchdown throw, his second to tight end Mike Barber. Those strikes followed a 71-yard scoring shot to Ken Burrough. From there Fairbanks' travel plans were the last remaining source of suspense.
The burning question in the postgame interview was, "Have you decided on the Colorado situation?" He said, "I have no comment on that."
There was one more effort to shatter his grim composure: "Do you have a time schedule for a decision on Colorado?"
Fairbanks refrained from answering, helped by the appearance of Coach A. O. (Bum) Phillips of the Oilers.
Charles Sullivan, son of Patriot President William H. Sullivan Jr. and vice president of the club, was not reticent. He had said at halftime that Fairbanks prepared for the game as a "lame duck" coach and promised legal action to keep him from going to Colorado.
Fairbanks was asked after the game what effect the turmoil of announcing previously he was going to Colorado and then rejoining the team for the playoffs might have had on the Patriots today.
"There is no way of measuring that," he said. "This week the players were in a good frame of mind and worked intently"
Linebacker Steve Zabel agreed. "It was Earl Campbell and Dan Pastorini that disturbed us today," he quipped.
Asked about the effect on himself, Fairbanks said, "I'm sure there was some measure of distraction. I tried to prepare for the game as hard as I could. I tried to shelter myself from distraction as much as possible." He did not elaborate.
Asked if the Patriots were "flat" after two weeks since losing to Miami, the coach said, "I don't think we were flat. I think it was a benefit. We needed rest and to recover from injuries. A week ago, Steve Grogan could not even have attempted to play."
Grogan left the game with 18 seconds remaining to play in the first half, after being intercepted twice and completing only three of 12 passes for 38 yeards.
Grogan had an injured left knee and could not plant his foot properly to pass. Fairbanks said that after warming up before the second half Grogan said he didn't think he could do the job and suggested that Tom Owen replace him.
Owen threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to tight end Russ Francis, among 12 completions in 22 attempts, was intercepted once and sacked three times. Running back Andy Johnson, onetime University of Georgia quarterback, threw a 24-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Harold Jackson in the same fourth period.
The Patriots gained only 83 yards rushing, geting off only 20 attempts to 54 for Houston. Earl Campbell assured Houston quarterback Pastorini control with 118 yards in 27 carries.
Once more Pastorini played wearing a flak jacket to protect his injured ribs and hit on nine of his first 11 passes in the first half. He totaled 10 of 13 for three touchdowns and 184 yards in the first half; he threw only two passes in the second half and completed both.
"The Patriots blitzed us more than we expected," Pastorini said of two safety blitzes for sacks in the early going. "We expected a blitz when I hit Burrough for his long touchdown."
The veteran wide receiver took the ball away from New England's Mike Haynes on the left sideline at the Patriot 40 and pulled away to complete a 71-yard scoring play.
That stuned the Patriots, as well as more than 60,000 partisan fans, and two plays later, Grogan's pass off the old flea-flicker was intercepted by Mike Reinfeldt at the Houston one.
The Oilers appeared to be held on downs when Tim Wilson managed to reach only the seven on the third straight runing play. But New England was called for unnecessary roughness, giving the Oilers a fine down at the 22.
Eleven plays later, Pastorini completed a 99-yard scoring march with a scoring pass to Barber.
The Patriots rebounded by rolling from their 19 to a first down at the Houston 23, but on third down, Reinfeldt picked off a Grogan pass at his seven.
Reinfeldt's return and another unnecessary roughness penalty against the Patriots put the Oilers on the New England 49. Houston promptly moved to a touchdown with Pastorini hitting Barber on a 22-yard strike before finding his tight end again on a 13-yard scoring shot.
Barber said he got open for his touchdown catches "because the Patriots were double-teaming our wide receivers." Barber caught five passes for an aggregate of 83 yards and tight end Francis of New England eight for 101 yards.
Late in the third period, New England marched from its 25 to a first down at the Houston 24. Andy Johnson, working the halfback option to perfection, then lobbed a pass to Harold Jackson in the end zone for a touchdown.
In the fourth period, after a poor Houston punt against the wind, Owen passed 24 yards to Francis in the end zone for another New England score, cutting the deficit to 24-14.
However, New England's comeback hopes were dashed when Gregg Bingham intercepted an Owen pass and returned 19 yards to the Patriot 18. Campbell carried three times in a row and scored his insurance touchdown.
Grogan, who faces possible knee surgery, did not run as he had frequently. He carried just once for 16 yards.
Phillips said of the intra-AFC central showdown at Pittsburgh next Sunday. "I expect a knock-down, dragout fight with them. We'll sever diplomatic relations with them. That's what you do when you declare war on someone." CAPTION: Picture 1, Dan Pastorine (7) hands off to Earl Campbell in romp. United Press International; Picture 2, Coach Chuck Fairbanks and Patriots watch Oilers score. United Press International