The Kansas University football program and the city of Lawrence bid farewell to one of their most relentless promoters this afternoon by celebrating the life of Don Fambrough at First Christian Church with pastor David Rivers presiding.
Every seat upstairs and downstairs was taken and many in the audience alternately broke out into laughter and reached for tissue as stories were shared about a great storyteller, friend and mentor to so many.
Former All-American quarterback David Jaynes, former Kansan sportswriter and Baby Jay for a year Tracee Hamilton, and former All-Conference lineman David Lawrence were selected by Fambrough’s sons Bob and Preston and charged with, according to Preston, speaking for “hundreds of young people who found in Don Fambrough a second father.”
All three speakers were up to the challenge, sharing insights into a man they considered a lifelong friend first, a football coach second.
KU football coach Turner Gill and KU legend John Hadl, whose freshman football coach was Fambrough, and several former players were among those in attendance.
Aiming his opening remarks at Fambrough’s sons, Jaynes, who made the trip from Los Angeles with wife Barbara, said, “Of all the honors and recognitions I’ve received over the years, being asked to speak here today is the highest honor I’ve ever received. Period.”
Jaynes skillfully portrayed a coach who nurtured his players’ confidence by empowering them to make important decisions and shared that his relationship grew into friendship through the years and at times mirrored that of a father-son bond.
Jaynes also showed how Fambrough, a native Texan, had definite ideas about the location of the universe’s center.
“For 18 years, I’ve lived in Los Angeles and during that time I’ve talked with him at least once a month,” Jaynes said. “Not once did he ask me what was going on in L.A. I used to complain about it to Barbara: ‘If he’d just ask me about L.A., we’d have a lot more fun.’ He only cared about what was going on in Lawrence. This was his place.”
After his sophomore year, Jaynes toured the banquet circuit with Fambrough and heard him tell the same story every time. In the story, Jaynes called a timeout with KU facing a fourth-and-20, trailing 7-0 to Missouri in the fourth quarter. During the timeout, Fambrough told his audiences, Jaynes asked him what play to run, and Fambrough told him, “You’re a sophomore. You have two years of scholarship remaining. Well, I only have one year left on my contract. You call the damn play.”
Every audience roared with laughter.
“Now, I was only a sophomore and granted, most of the games were a complete blur to me, but even at that, I knew this never happened,” Jaynes said. “I never said anything to anyone. After every function he would walk up to me with a big smile, pat me on the back, and give me a wink. It was like he was saying, ‘Isn’t this the most fun anyone could have?’ ”
Jaynes’ sophomore year coincided with Fambrough’s first as head coach at the university he served as a player and assistant coach. He heard the first of Fambrough’s decades worth of pregame Missouri speeches.
“If you haven’t heard one,” Jaynes said, “they are all they are made out to be. Fire and brimstone, war, life and death, there was even a little bit of truth thrown in.”
Lawrence traced what he believed to be the origin of the speech growing in intensity in recent years.
“Fam was an entertainer. He knew when something needed a little uptick,” Lawrence said. “In the 1990s, Kansas and Missouri the football teams weren’t very good and the rivalry started to die out a little bit, at least on our side, so Fam took that Missouri speech and kind of tweaked it a little bit. It went from PG-13 to R. Fans loved it. It did increase the rivalry and it increased the gate as well.”
It wasn’t until turning the pages of one of the scrapbooks Fambrough’s mother had compiled that he learned Fambrough was named Texas High School Player of the year as a senior, when he led Longview High to the state title.
“By today’s standards,” Lawrence said, “that’s probably going to get you on the Longhorn Television Network.”
Lawrence captured what close friends considered to be Fambrough’s greatest gift, the ability to identify something positive in a person and highlight it to make that person feel better about himself or herself.
Even when chewing out a player — the long ones would result in Fambrough circling all the way around the player — the coach made sure it “always ended with him putting an arm around your neck and saying something good that made you feel good,” Lawrence said.
His compliments during practice, Lawrence said, usually started with the words, “You might.”
“And it wasn’t just limited to the good players,” Lawrence said. “We’d be working on the punt team in the middle of practice and the backup punter gets a good one off and he’d say, ‘Tom Jones, you might be the best backup punter in the nation.’ He made us feel so good hearing what we might be, we never stopped to consider we might not be.”
Two firings as KU’s football coach didn’t extinguish Fambrough’s love for his university. Lawrence said that when rumors of a mass exodus by players after Fambrough’s second firing hit the coach’s ears, he quickly took action.
“He assembled them together and said in no uncertain terms that under no circumstances is anybody going to leave this program,” Lawrence related. “This is my university, the greatest university in America, and you are not going to leave here or you are going to have to deal with me. The man was all in. There’s no question about that. He gave one for the team, time and again.”
Even for those on the outside of the team, looking in, Hamilton shared.
In 1981, when female reporters tended not to get equal treatment as males by the teams they covered, Hamilton had been banned from the coaches press conference.
“I saw this little gal sitting on the steps crying her eyes out,” was how Fambrough always started the story. When she shared with the coach she had driven all the way to Tulsa to cover the game and was denied equal access to quotes, Fambrough asked which players she would like to interview and pulled them all off the bus to talk to her.
“I got my quotes and I also got a friend for life,” Hamilton said. “Don’t get me wrong, Fam was not a woman’s-libber. He absolutely wouldn’t allow me in the locker room and all the tears in the world wouldn’t have changed that. ‘There are naked old men in there, dammit. They don’t want you looking at them.’ He told me that once and I had to laugh. I didn’t really want to look at them either.”
All the speakers showed why it takes more than a winning percentage to capture a football coach’s value.
“I could have played for Bear Bryant,” Jaynes said. “Instead I played for another legend. Never once have I second-guessed that decision.”
Lawrence, while highlighting Fambrough’s undying loyalty for all things KU, also made sure everyone knew where his university ranked to Fambrough.
“His love for Kansas, as great as it was, always took a back seat to Del,” Lawrence said of Fambrough’s widow, whose death preceeded her husband’s by 10 weeks shy of 10 years.
The Fambrough family requests that memorial contributions be made to Lawrence School Foundation for the Don & Del Fambrough Scholarship Fund or Douglas County Visiting Nurses, Rehabilitation and Hospice Care.