Coach Justin Fuente turns around downtrodden Memphis program
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) People can’t seem to get enough of Memphis coach Justin Fuente these days.
His cellphone is rings so much his wife has a tough time reaching him.
”I actually called my wife and said, `If you need me call the front desk. I’m turning this thing off,”’ Fuente said. ”I (turned) it off and put it in the drawer.”
Fuente has only himself to blame.
He’s turned around a program given up for dead, transforming downtrodden Memphis – which won only three games combined in the two seasons before Fuente was hired four years ago – into a title contender. The undefeated Tigers are enjoying the highest ranking in school history after upsetting then-No. 13 Mississippi last week.
Next up for Fuente and his 6-0 Tigers ranked 18th in the country is a matchup Friday night at Tulsa (3-3).
What he’s done at Memphis is impressive, especially considering the Tigers nearly hired Jim McElwain, then the Alabama offensive coordinator, instead of Fuente in December 2011. McElwain isn’t doing too bad at Florida with the Gators No. 13 nationally, but Memphis is pleased with its decision.
Fuente went from co-offensive coordinator at TCU to taking over a program that had gone 3-21 in two seasons under Larry Porter, a skid that drained Memphis’ already dwindling fan base. It had gotten so bad school leadership fired Porter even though he was an alum.
Gary Patterson hired Fuente at TCU and isn’t surprised that Fuente has turned around Memphis. He credits Fuente’s patience and hiring a good coaching staff with helping him.
”Even though he was a quarterback ., I think he has some toughness to him, and I think he’s brought that to Memphis,” Patterson said.
It wasn’t an easy road to Memphis.
Fuente, 39, is a Tulsa native who played quarterback at Oklahoma before transferring to Murray State. He also played part of two seasons as a backup for the Oklahoma Wranglers of the Arena Football League. That led him into coaching, and he started at Illinois State working with quarterbacks. Patterson hired him in 2007 to coach TCU running backs before making him co-offensive coordinator in 2009.
When Fuente arrived at Memphis, his first challenge was changing the Tigers’ mentality as a Conference USA doormat. He inherited a team with little pride, work ethic, chemistry or talent. He started by making his players pick trash off the floor, maintaining the locker room and wearing Memphis gear.
”There was a core group of kids when we were trying to make them do that, that said: `Ok, coach, whatever it is, we’ll do it.’ We slowly built that group to be big enough to win,” Fuente said.
With little talent, Fuente also developed walk-ons into key players. His top three receivers this season – Anthony Miller, Mose Frazier and Phil Mayhue – all are former walk-ons. Another, Alan Cross, holds the record for most touchdown receptions (13) by a Memphis tight end.
Another critical decision came in Fuente’s second season, choosing a redshirt freshman to start at quarterback over popular senior Jacob Karam. The coach turned the offense over Paxton Lynch, who has developed into a potential future NFL prospect.
Results followed after Fuente made the move at quarterback.
The Tigers won four games in Fuente’s inaugural season. In his third season, the Tigers earned a share of the 2014 American Athletic Conference title, and a double-overtime victory over BYU in the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl and a No. 25 ranking in the final poll – matching the school’s highest ranking until now.
His success has raised questions about his future at Memphis.
During his weekly coach’s conference call, he faced questions from reporters covering schools with vacancies, like South Carolina. Fuente has talked with Patterson and former Texas coach Mack Brown for advice on handling the distractions and attention – Justin Timberlake was singing the Tigers fight song.
As he handles the hoopla, Fuente also is trying to keep the Tigers focused.
”We’ve accomplished some great things,” the coach said, ”but those are gone and we have to continue to move forward.”