Hornets coach fro 1963-97, winner of 307 games in his prep football coaching career, member of Missouri, national football coaching halls of fame, passed away Oct. 26, 2019
“It was a day, an announcement everyone who follows Chillicothe High School football – although most wished otherwise – knew would come. But, when it did, its timing and finality jolted not only Chillicothe and Chillicotheans elsewhere, but football fans and coaches in many areas of the state.”
Not quite 21-1/2 years ago, with those words, this writer initiated the Constitution-Tribune’s August 1998 tribute article to Bob Fairchild – the local boy made very, very good – in the aftermath of his unexpected announcement of his retirement from coaching about six weeks earlier.
Today, although a couple of decades have passed, those words large rang equally true this past weekend in a different, more-somber context as word of the long-ailing legendary former CHS football head coach’s death at age 87 began to circulate.
A coach whose achievements in the sports arena almost certainly never will be duplicated in Chillicothe now belongs entirely to history, his passing from this life likely affording those who witnessed and experienced it a final occasion for to remember and revel in his incomparable coaching wizardry, remarkable staying power, and devotion to his native community.
The numbers leap off the printed page, some almost defying belief. A partial list includes:
• 307 games won – all but 20 of them at his alma mater.
• 38 years as a head coach – the last 35 at CHS.
• A minuscule two losing seasons in a span of nearly four decades.
• A career winning percentage of .792.
• Five state championships.
• 11 seasons of advancing to at least the state semifinals
• 61 players being accorded All-State recognition.
• 14 seasons of one loss or none.
• 19 conference championships in 35 seasons at CHS.
• 5 undefeated seasons (third-most in state history).
* 15 state playoffs qualifying squads.
That last number deserves a caveat, given the span of his career.
Most of the first decade of his career predates the beginning of state playoffs, which weren’t initiated until 1969 and, for the first few years, were far more restricted in the number of qualifiers.
Of the nine seasons he coached at Mound City (two years), Hamilton (one year), and Chillicothe before there were playoffs, his teams had either undefeated or 1-loss records seven times. Under the expanded systems in place the past several decades, it is likely at least a half-dozen more – and perhaps as many as 10 – of his 38 teams would have been state playoffs participants. That would boost the still-remarkable and enviable 15 playoffs teams he had well into the 20s.
No wonder that, back in 1998, Phil Willard, the former CHS Hornets star player just selected to be Fairchild’s immediate successor, described his former coach as “a great teacher, a genius at the game.”
Assuming the heavy mantle of becoming Hornets coach in Fairchild’s wake, Willard proved more than capable of carrying on his mentor’s legacy over the next 20 years, even in changing times and circumstances as many ancillary aspects of the game and sustaining a program’s success changed.
Now two years into his own retirement from coaching, having guided Chillicothe to a 144-76 record as Fairchild’s successor, Willard says his appreciation of what his late former coach and boss did and how he did it was only deepened by his own time in the CHS job.
“No. 1, it came down to the work ethic he had in preparation and detail,” Willard reflected for the C-T Monday.
“He was a master at watching film and picking out strengths and weaknesses of teams. I learned so much more, once I got to come back here to Chillicothe, about how he did that.
“He was just a master at putting players in the correct positions to make them successful and the team successful.”
While Fairchild had a well-deserved reputation as a firm taskmaster, disciplinarian, and perfectionist, Willard believes the fairness and consistency the legendary coach underpinned his demanding style fostered a trust with the players as they migrated through their Hornets careers.
That trust, along with the undeniable record of success, then allowed the coach to reap the “buy-in” from those players needed to sustain the program’s success. It was a lesson Willard learned and utilized to his teams’ advantage on multiple occasions, including arguably the two best squads he had in 2008 and 2017.
“I think it came down to the ‘team’ concept he promoted,” he said Monday.
“On most teams, you’re trying to put the best players on the field. Not always was that at a position they liked to play, but it might be in a position that was best for the team. He had a knack for convincing players that that was going to be best for the team.
“That’s another way he had success all the years he had here.”
That success – established and long sustsined by Fairchild and then continued by protegé Willard – could have been viewed as a too-daunting challenge by some potential “outside” candidates to succeed Willard after his departure following the 2017 season. However, eventual choice Tim Rulo says he was only too willing to embrace the weight of expectations the successes of Fairchild – extended then by Willard.
“Gosh, you want to become part of that culture,” the current Hornets coach said Monday night in the interim period between the 2019 Hornets’ outstanding 7-2 season and the start of the district playoffs in which Chillicothe looks to be a solid candidate to add to the 26 state-playoffs appearances to which his two predecessors led CHS teams.
Rulo said he rued that, by the time of his arrival, the legendary Fairchild’s health and living/care arrangements prevented him from getting to meet him. However, he says he counts himself fortunate to having been able to get a sense of the national and state football coaches Hall of Famer through interactions not only with Willard, but also from having met and worked with Fairchild’s eldest son Dzvid – himself a Missouri Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame member and multiple state-titles winner – through the coaches’ organization.
Looking back at Bob Fairchild’s career – in addition to his coaching and early years as a teacher, he spent over 20 years as CHS vice (assistant) principal/athletics director, it began in the fall of 1959 after his graduation that summer from Northwest Missouri State Teachers’ College (now Northwest Missouri State University) at Maryville.
Hired by northwest Missouri’s Skidmore High School as a history teacher and coach, he led that football-less school’s boys’ basketball team to 30 wins and an appearance in the Class S (smallest schools) state tournament before relocating to nearby Mound City to begin his football coaching career in 1960. After two years there and one back closer to home at Hamilton – coaching football, basketball, and track-and-field at each, he was sought out by Chillicothe school officials to take over the so-so CHS football program that, in the 1962 season under Harry Hayes, defined average with a 3-3-3 won-lost-tied record.
Inheriting a program with only one winning record in the previous six years, Fairchild immediately established himself and his successful “brand.”
His inaugural season in Chillicothe resulted in a 6-2-1 record, a mark he upgraded to 6-1-1, 8-1, and 9-0 the next three years. A tradition had been born and “Hornets Country” has been abuzz with football frenzy ever since.
When state playoffs were initiated in 1969, his third unbeaten team in five years somehow was not included in the very limited field of participants. The next year, not only would the determined coach and his squad not be denied a postseason berth, they would claim the first of CHS’ and Fairchild’s handful of state championships, going 11-0.
Two years later came a second crown and then a third in the decade of the 1970s came in perfect 12-0 fashion in 1978.
The early 1980s saw the only real lull of “the Bob Fairchild era,” with nothing better than a couple of 7-wins seasons in the first half of that decade. Then, when 1984 saw the first losing record in his 22 years at the Chillicothe helm, it was as if someone had poked a hibernating bear.
Seven years removed from the Hornets’ most-recent state championship, the 1985 team – obviously with many of the same players who’d been part of the 4-5 team the year before – suddenly jelled and went on a torrid run through its schedule. By the time of the season’s final snap, Fairchild had guided to the Hornets to their most wins ever in a single season – 13 – and back to the top of the state heap, gaining a fourth state title with a 13-1 mark.
That set off a scintillating run through the last half of a decade that had been been – by Chillicothe standards – disappointing during its first half. Beginning with that championship season, the Hornets had double-digits wins four times in five years (and nine the other year), reestablishing CHS football in the upper echelon of the sport in the state.
After sagging to a 5-4 log as the 1990s began, some might have wondered whether, nearing the end of his third decade at the helm, some of the fire in Fairchild’s belly had gone out. He had, after all, concluded his long career as a CHS administrator at the end of the 1990-91 school year.
The answer came loud and clear. The fire still burned.
Starting strong to dispel any lingering doubts from the prior fall’s disappointments, the 1991 Hornets mostly stacked up wins to the point that they once again were back in the state playoffs. Although defeated twice during the regular season, once they reached the postseason, they were unstoppable. On a late November Saturday afternoon at distant Herculaneum in southeast Missouri, CHS players hoisted Fairchild onto their shoulders for a ride off the field in celebration of his and Chillicothe’s fifth state crown.
A 10-1 season followed before 1993 saw only the second losing mark in the venerable coach’s historic career. It also was the last.
As a promising class of talented all-around athletes became juniors in 1996, CHS rebounded from three years of composite 17-14 football with another 10-2 campaign that ended in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs.
With a key player who’d missed the entire ’96 season with an injury back the next fall and an underclassman who had emerged as a standout while filling that player’s vacant spot, Fairchild’s 35th season held great professional promise.
With an outstanding roster heavily-populated with talented seniors and supported by many fine underclassmen, a sixth state title was on all Hornets fans’ radar. In addition, along the way, the coaching legend almost certainly would reach a history milestone – 300 coaching wins, a mark reached by only a relative handful of high school football coaches ever even to this day.
However, even as the personal 300th-win milestone was being reached in a 56-7 home win over St. Joseph: Benton on Oct. 3, fate was unfolding events that would sap the 65-year-old’s physical and emotional reserves.
The preceding April, his older brother Kenneth had died. Then, just after a new school year had begun, younger brother Rich – himself a state-title-winning coach at CHS in basketball and, on occasion, an assistant on his brother’s football coaching staff – had suddenly been taken ill with what soon was determined to be a brain tumor. As the CHS recounted in its story highlighting Bob’s 300th victory, it came at the end of a week in which he’d driven to Kansas City each day to be at his younger brother’s bedside following the surgery done to try to remove the tumor.
“Thinking about (winning 300) hasn’t been stressful,” the big brother stated after the win over Benton. “… The thing that has been toughest this week has been what Rich has gone through, with having brain surgery and now looking ahead to the recovery period.”
Absorbing only one regular-season loss, the Hornets cruised through the rest of October and into the state playoffs, regularly winning by big margins to keep the sense of a destiny of another state title high.
However, on the road at St. Louis in the semifinals, Chillicothe could not solve the Mary Institute/Country Day School Rams, dropping a highly-competitive contest to finish the year just short of the goal with an 11-2 mark.
Given the length of his coaching career, his age, and the strains of his brother’s illness, more than a few wondered whether Bob might announce he was retiring at the team’s postseason awards event, but he did not, instead making remarks about the challenges that would need to be met by 1998 season returning players to remain in contention for the great success to which the Hornets were accustomed.
As the winter passed and melted into spring, though, the scales began tipping toward departure from the coaching post.
Even as his brother’s grave prognosis occasionally was brightened by hopeful signs, only to soon fade back to a bleaker outlook, Bob Fairchild went through surgery for prostate cancer and found himself spending more and more time contemplating whether he still had the will to go coaching. After Rich succumbed to his brain cancer in May 1998, those doubts intensified, though he continued to resist.
As the school year ended in late May, Bob had the usual summer training and instruction plans for the next season’s football Hornets in place and put them into motion, taking many squad members to a team camp at the University of Missouri-Columbia in early June.
Either while there or shortly upon returning home, he subsequently told the C-T, he realized he no longer was ready to commit to all that would be entailed in continuing on for another season.
“Just about everybody I had talked to about this the past six weeks or so wanted me to stay on,” he shared with C-T reporters in an interview prior to making public his decision to retire. “My wife never asked me to quit, but whenever we’d talk about it, she wouldn’t try to talk me out of it. She talked about the apprehension I would go through preparing for each year and whether I needed to keep going through that.”
“But it was really my decision.”
Yet, he admitted there still had been some doubts about his choice right up until the last minute.
Asked, in that chat with the paper’s personnel the day he made his retirement public, when he actually made an irrevocable decision, he candidly disclosed, “When I walked into (the C-T) office and told you. Until I actually came out and said it, it was probably still a case of ‘I think this is what I’m going to do.’”
That lingering sense of uncertainty didn’t go away even after he stepped aside, he revealed to this reporter about five years later upon the occasion of his highly-deserved induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame at Springfield.
As time had passed since his official departure from the sidelines, the emotional pain of the losses of his brothers in a short span of time had subsided in intensity and his own health had steadied following his own cancer scare.
As that happened, he shared, his hunger for coaching had returned and grown to the point he wished he opted for a different alternative back in the summer of 1998.
“I wish I’d asked (Chillicothe school officials) if I could take a year off and then seen how I felt about coming back to coach,” Fairchild revealed. “If they had agreed to that, I think I probably would have” returned to coaching after a year’s sabbatical.
Easing any lingering disappointment he had over not going that route likely was eased by his being able to amply scratch his coaching “itch” to a significant degree, through his many visits and consultations with Willard, as well as being a trusted resource for son Dave, who – after his own short-lived coaching retirement in the early 2000s – had returned to the Hamilton program he had led for many years.
His strategic and analytical football acumen still as sharp as ever, Bob Fairchild was able to observe – and help when asked – as his son’s Hamilton program, the same one he’d led for a year before starting his historic Chillicothe tenure, emerged as one of the state’s premier programs over the past dozen years. As his father watched with pride from close by, Dave Fairchild guided Hamilton to state titles in 2009, 2010, and 2012, further cementing the Fairchild name in Missouri high school football lore a half-century after Bob Fairchild began putting it there.