Don Fambrough, 88, beloved former Kansas University football player, assistant coach and two-time head coach, died Saturday morning after hitting his head in a fall.
Once a player for Fambrough and a longtime friend, Pat Henderson of the Williams Fund, on Saturday morning stopped by the house run by visiting nurses where Fambrough was staying to deliver him his parking pass for the KU football season that opened Saturday night.
One day after enjoying Fambrough’s company at a Quarterback Club gathering at the football complex, Henderson was greeted by a nurse who informed him that his old coach had taken a serious fall. Henderson went to the hospital, and there he learned in the cafeteria from Fambrough’s son Preston that the popular coach had hit his head on a tree after falling while walking his beloved dog, Bo, and had not survived.
At Friday’s Quarterback Club event, Fambrough repeatedly voiced the opinion, “This team is going to surprise people.”
He made sure everyone knew he believed in athletic director Sheahon Zenger and second-year football coach Turner Gill.
It wasn’t always that way. Fambrough temporarily had soured on the program after the ouster of his friend Mark Mangino as head football coach.
“He was back to being himself and really looking forward to the season,” Henderson said of Fambrough’s mood at the coffee gathering.
Fambrough is survived by his two sons, Preston and Robert, and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.
The coach compiled a 36-49-5 record in eight seasons in two stints as KU’s head coach. He developed a tradition of talking to the KU players in advance of the Missouri game and continued it through 2009. During that talk spiced with salty language, Fambrough gave the players a history lesson regarding Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence, with his own little twist. He told players Quantrill was a Missouri graduate.
When one player wrote that as a fact on a test, his professor urged Fambrough to teach football and leave the history lessons to the professors.
Known as “Coach Fam,” he was beloved by most faculty, fans and especially former players, several of whom visited him regularly.
“Don Fambrough is a Jayhawk legend,” KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said in a statement. “As an alumnus and a storied and salty football coach, Fambrough had an unbridled passion for the University of Kansas. On behalf of the entire Jayhawk nation, I honor his memory and extend the deepest condolences to his family, friends and generation after generation of KU fans he touched.”
Said Zenger in a statement: “He wore his passion for KU on his sleeve, and every day he proudly demonstrated his love for Kansas Football and Kansas Athletics. He loved his players, they played their hearts out for him. We will all miss him greatly.”
Kansas basketball coach Bill Self, speaking in the press box shortly before kickoff, captured the qualities that made Fambrough so loved.
“He was a guy’s guy, without question,” Self said. “He loved KU as much probably as anybody who has ever coached here in any sport, and he had absolutely no problem sharing his opinion and not softening it when it comes to the University of Missouri. Those are three very positive qualities, the way I see it.
“It’s a big loss obviously to his family and to the KU family, primarily to the football program. He was definitely someone that the football team knew of and respected and was kind of the source of the tradition that exists here.”
After learning of Fambrough’s death, Mangino issued a statement through a public-relations specialist.
It read: “KU football lost its biggest supporter and greatest ambassador with the passing of Don Fambrough. He dedicated his life to the program as a coach, administrator, and loyal fan. Our players and coaches greatly appreciated his enthusiasm and words of wisdom.”
Mangino preferred his practices take place in private, but Fambrough always was welcome, and Mangino often found him pacing back and forth, waiting for the gates to be opened.
“Each practice day for eight seasons he greeted me on the practice field, told a good joke and said, ‘Have a great practice.’ I will always remember how much he enjoyed being on the practice field every single day,” Mangino said. “He will be truly missed.”
Fambrough had spent many days and nights during the past 15 months staying either at Lawrence Memorial Hospital or Brandon Woods, recuperating from health problems, and consistently entertained those who assisted in his care with stories from his football days, most of them painting Missouri coaches as evil. His anti-Missouri stance, which started during his playing days, intensified throughout his life.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Fambrough once told the Journal-World, “a lot of nice people go to the University of Missouri. But when they spend time there, something happens to them because by the time they graduate, none of them are any good.”
Although Fambrough’s Missouri rants were delivered in a way to draw laughs, the source of them was anything but funny to him. Fambrough blamed then-Missouri coach Don Faurot for convincing the Big 6 to make a rule retroactive that would declare him and four teammates, including Fambrough’s best friend, KU legend Ray Evans, ineligible for the final year of their football careers. While they served together in the Air Force — vertigo ended Fambrough’s dream of becoming a pilot — Evans convinced Fambrough to transfer from Texas to Kansas after the war ended.
“We’re the good guys, and they’re the bad guys,” Fambrough said of the border feud that dates to pre-Civil War days. “It’s as simple as that.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there was his dog, Bo. Fambrough even credited him with saving his life in May of 2010. Days after fracturing his hip, Fambrough told the story from his hospital bed of what his dog did for him.
“I slipped in my bathroom and cracked my hip,” Fambrough said. “I experienced pain playing football, but never anything like that. Bo kept licking my face, making sure I stayed awake.”
Thanks to his dog, Fambrough said, he was able to crawl across the floor to reach a phone to call his son.
“That’s about as good as you can go out, taking his dog, Bo, for a walk, looking forward to the football opener,” Henderson said. “Other than dying on the 50-yard line, I don’t think he would have asked for much more.”