With Fuente and Mendenhall, Virginia schools bring new dimension to one-sided rivalry
CHARLOTTE — Hours after accepting the Virginia Tech job, Justin Fuente found himself in Frank Beamer’s office — a space filled with the accumulation of the future Hall of Famer’s 29 years in Blacksburg — and the new Hokies coach was taken aback.
"As you can imagine, (there’s) just trinkets and signs from his farewell tour the last half of the season combined with national coach of the year trophies," Fuente recalled at Thursday’s start to the ACC Kickoff. "(He had a) Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award and Bear Bryant Award, all these national awards and just this great outpouring of love.
"It’s impressive (and) intimidating."
Seemingly sensing his replacement’s uneasiness, Beamer jumped up and rifled through his things. Fuente had played at Murray State — where he was named Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 1999 — the same school where Beamer was head coach from 1981-86, and Beamer held up a Racers Hall of Fame plaque.
‘Look, Justin," Beamer said to him, "I’m sure you’ve got one of these."
" I just didn’t have the heart to tell him," Fuente recalls, "that along with the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award and Bear Bryant Award (with the) Murray State Hall of Fame plaque, I didn’t have one of those either."
He’s never been a national coach of the year, nor is he a winner of 238 games (Beamer’s total, which is ninth most in FBS history), but in Fuente the Hokies scored one of the biggest victories in college football’s silly season.
That was a sentiment that was also felt throughout the ACC Coastal Division, with Miami bringing in Mark Richt, and — in a move that hit exceedingly close to home for Fuente and the Hokies — rival Virginia luring Bronco Mendenhall away from Virginia.
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At Memphis, the 39-year-old Fuente revitalized a program in his four seasons, going from 4-8 in his first year to winning 10 games in 2014 and nine in ’15. Mendenhall, did it better and bigger at a program outside the power conferences and one that operated with a strict honor code, winning 10 or more games five times at BYU and 99 overall over 11 seasons.
For the first time since 1974, when the Cavaliers hired Sonny Randle and Hokies tabbed Jimmy Sharpe, the Old Dominion State’s top programs have new coaches, and this time names that adds some serious bite to a rivalry that had grown exceedingly stale.
"There’s great excitement, I would assume, on both sides of the aisle," Fuente said. "It’s a neat time. … Fun and exciting times for both of us."
Virginia Tech has won 12 straight over Virginia, the longest streak by either team in a series that goes back to 1895 (which was a 38-0 Cavaliers win). Every indication is the Hokies will continue that domination, with Virginia returning six starters on offense and six on defense from a team that is coming off a 4-8 season in which it was 88th or lower in 12 major statistical categories including scoring offense (89th at 25.8 per game) and points allowed (96th with 32.2).
On the flip side, the Hokies figure to be division challenges again, bringing back eight on offense, led by a 1,000-yard rusher in sophomore Traven McMillian, a 1,100-yard receiver with junior Isaiah Ford and an NFL prospect at tight end with junior Bucky Hodges. But most importantly in Blacksburg, longtime Beamer collaborator Bud Foster — the architect of 15 top-15 defenses in 21 years — continues to be at the helm of the defense.
The state has clearly belonged to the Hokies, and whatever mindset had taken hold during the Mike London era — which included one bowl berth in six years — and 35 wins over the past eight years, it was evident when Mendenhall held his first team meeting.
He walked in to see a team he described as "dejected and desperate," and it forced the 50-year-old to change his approach to building up his new players.
The message shifted about five minutes in to ‘You can do this. You will do this and wait until you see how you feel when you realize you can do something hard,’" he said. "It’s been really fun to watch how they carry themselves believing that they’re capable. That’s come from a lot of inspiring and challenging them and then celebrating wildly when they do something."
He’s working to change a culture, including stripping away the numbers from the players’ jerseys. They have to earn them back, with everyone accumulating points for their work on and off the field, and players will pick numbers based on the amount of points earned.
"I told the players when they come out of fall camp, we’ll consider if they’ve earned numbers," Mendenhall said, before breaking into a smile and then a laugh. "I don’t know how many earned numbers. That would be a bugger for (the media) trying to figure out who made plays."
The Cavaliers and Hokies have hit reset together, and created a sense of high times for Virginia as a whole. The challenges, though, couldn’t be more different given what these coaches are stepping in to, with Fuente succeeding a legend and Mendenhall trying to get a program back to relevance.
There’s a reality that comes with that new era, especially in Blacksburg, one that’s built on the promise of what Fuente could develop.
An avid fisherman, Fuente there’s no tall tales from his exploits, "I don’t even have a good one to fib about," he said.
But in Memphis, a place where he had similarly had established the Tigers as a force in the American Athletic Conference, he had it all figured out.
"I kind of had it all laid out for myself in Memphis," he said. "I had all the good spots. I still am searching for that elusive 10-pound bass."
He has yet to grab rod and lure in Blacksburg, but from that end, he may be in the right place to make that big catch. Virginia Tech’s fanbase has to feel they already did in replacing Beamer, and in Charlottesville, they may not be far off.
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His book, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ is out now, and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners’ will be released Nov. 1, 2016.