Fuente producing major turnaround at Memphis
The blue-collar mentality that has made Memphis one of the season’s biggest surprises is apparent whenever the Tigers make a big play.
Nobody celebrates by himself.
Senior linebacker Charles Harris says that’s a message handed down by coach Justin Fuente, who has revitalized a program that went 5-31 in the three years before the former TCU offensive coordinator’s arrival. Memphis (8-3, 6-1 American) can clinch at least a share of the American Athletic Conference championship by winning Saturday against Connecticut (2-8, 1-5).
”He doesn’t want to see any chest puffing,” Harris said. ”He doesn’t want to see us pointing at the crowd and aiming for that solo attention. He says anytime we make a play or we score a touchdown, go find the nearest teammate and go celebrate with him. It’s just kind of become a habit now.”
They’re getting much more practice nowadays.
Memphis has won five straight games and could earn its first league title since claiming the Missouri Valley Conference crown in 1971. Memphis, which owns a half-game lead over Cincinnati (7-3, 5-1) and UCF (7-3, 5-1), is seeking its first six-game winning streak since 1969.
”It sounds like coach speak, but I felt like if we could get our kids to adhere to some very simple values about putting the team first and making good decisions, we had enough here to win some ballgames,” Fuente said. ”How many, I didn’t know. I still don’t know. We’re not done.”
Fuente says he saw plenty of potential in Memphis when he took over the program in December 2011.
Memphis reached a bowl as recently as 2008 and went a combined 24-13 from 2003-05 thanks primarily to DeAngelo Williams, whose 6,026 career yards rushing ranks fourth in Football Bowl Subdivision history.
”This program had not capitalized on the DeAngelo era and was kind of in my opinion kicking themselves for that and trying to make amends for that,” Fuente said.
Fuente needed time to rebuild. When he was hired, Memphis had only 51 scholarship players. The Tigers went 4-8 in 2012 and 3-9 last season. The Tigers had to adopt the workmanlike approach Fuente had brought with him from TCU.
It became obvious in September that Memphis had turned a corner. Memphis was tied in the fourth quarter of a 42-35 loss at UCLA and was within four points of Ole Miss in the fourth quarter before losing that game 24-3.
Memphis now is winning with a different formula than it used in the Williams years.
Quarterback Paxton Lynch hasn’t thrown an interception in 130 passes during the Tigers’ winning streak. Defensive end Martin Ifedi has a school-record 22 1/2 career sacks. But the Tigers don’t have anyone with Williams’ star power.
”There’s no superstar defensive player,” Fuente said. ”There’s no superstar offensive player. It’s just a group of kids that hadn’t had a whole lot of success before that decided to work really hard, put their own personal awards and accolades to the side and try to be the best team they can be.”