The next phase of University of Memphis football officially began Thursday, Dec. 8. That’s when 35-year-old Justin Fuente, co-offensive coordinator at Texas Christian University, told media and fans gathered at an on-campus press conference, “This is going to be Memphis’ team. … I don’t care what school you went to, you live in the city, I want this to be your team.”
Fuente has never been a head coach. And his name did not come up in published reports about the university’s search for a new coach until word leaked out late Wednesday that he had been hired and that Memphis apparently had been close to hiring Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain.
Fuente will be paid $900,000 in 2012 as part of a five-year contract.
“I have hired some great leaders to run enterprises,” said Brad Martin, who co-chaired the university’s search committee with Willie Gregory. “This is a great leader.”
Fuente, who played quarterback at Oklahoma and Murray State, replaces Larry Porter, who was fired after going 3-21 overall, 1-15 in Conference USA, in two seasons.
Fuente graduated from Murray State in 1999 and spent six seasons as an Illinois State assistant before becoming TCU’s running backs coach in 2007.
In 2009, he was promoted to co-offensive coordinator. He has helped TCU to three straight Mountain West Conference championships, including the 2011 title. TCU will play Louisiana Tech Dec. 21 in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego, but Fuente said he would not coach in that game.
Martin said among the criteria for hiring a coach was either previous head coaching experience or a current position as coordinator, but that in the latter scenario they preferred an offensive coordinator.
The Cincinnati Bengals’ rookie quarterback Andy Dalton played under Fuente at TCU and became the school’s career leader in every major passing category. This season, TCU’s offense is among the national leaders with an average of 443.9 yards per game.
The U of M hired a search firm, Eastman & Beaudine Management Consultants of Plano, Texas, to assist the search committee headed by university president Shirley Raines. On Thursday, Raines said Fuente’s “energy and enthusiasm” were key factors in his selection and committee member Cato Johnson echoed that opinion.
“His passion, his organization and the fact he really wanted this job” counted for a lot, Johnson said.
Porter had played at Memphis but never came close to energizing his alma mater’s fan base. The 2011 season ended with just 2,500 fans at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium for the Tigers’ home finale. The next week at Southern Miss the season concluded with a 44-7 loss and Porter was gone.
“We’ve got to energize this community,” Fuente said, “that’s the first thing.”
Johnson agreed that Fuente becoming a recognizable name and face in the community is crucial, saying he needs to go from “Germantown to Boxtown … know the high schools and the high school coaches, visit the churches.”
Logistically, Fuente said recruiting players and assistants for his staff was the top priority. Johnson said they assured Fuente he will be able to hire the assistants he wants.
“We’re going to give him the resources,” Johnson said.
Fuente spoke optimistically, if cautiously, about what is possible at Memphis. He said he believes there are programs where it is just about impossible to win, but Memphis is not one of them because it can be competitive in Conference USA and because there are a lot of potential recruits in the region.
He drew a parallel to TCU, saying, “At the last place, we didn’t always have the biggest stick but we got it done.”
The new coach hastened to add, however, that the stick can’t “be a magic wand.”
Fuente is the 23rd head coach in Tigers history, dating back to 1912 when Clyde Wilson’s team went 1-2-1, and the lone victory coming when Memphis beat Bolton Agricultural College. The Tigers have not had a winning decade since the 1970s.
Of late, fans have complained about lopsided losses while playing a diluted schedule. In the second week of this season, the Tigers suffered a 47-3 pounding at Arkansas State – then coached by Hugh Freeze, who this week became the new coach at Ole Miss.
“Down the road, I’m not afraid of playing anyone,” Fuente said.
“But we need to be smart and build this thing the right way.”