It was a postmortem that sounded like a lot of other postmortems from Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
“Our guys battled their tails off,” University of Memphis coach Justin Fuente said after his team lost, 34-21, to Cincinnati on Wednesday, Oct. 30. “Again, our margin for error is not very big.”
The bottom-line numbers: Memphis is 1-6, 0-4 in the American Athletic Conference. Against Cincinnati, the Tigers lost the turnover contest 2-1 and it was too much. Running back Marqui Warford’s second-quarter fumble turned into a 19-yard Cincinnati touchdown on the very next play. Freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch’s fourth-quarter interception under pressure gave the Bearcats a short field and also was cashed for seven points.
“It is a tougher conference,” said Tigers defensive back Bobby McCain, who had the interception. “We want to win. Regardless if it’s the Dallas Cowboys or Christian Brothers High School.”
University of Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch (12) calls a play against Cincinnati Bearcats during the first quarter at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
(Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports)
When Justin Fuente and his wife, Jenny, met at Illinois State, where he was an assistant football coach and she was an assistant volleyball coach, they would trade stories about their teams and players. They also were so busy they hardly saw each other.
“That was our trial,” Jenny said of the coaching and family life that was to come. Justin would spend five years at TCU as an assistant and then accept the Memphis job before the 2012 season. On the home front, the Fuentes have three daughters ages 5, 2, and 3 months. At the start of the journey they probably never saw themselves in Memphis, Justin trying to rise up a perpetually down program.
“This is a big mountain that we’re climbing,” Fuente said. “But in a year and a half we are in every single football game with a chance to win at the end. Now have we gotten over the hump? No … but it’s never as good as it seems and it’s never as bad as it seems.”
Or, when considering all those assistant coaches out there still waiting for a chance, maybe it is actually better than it seems.
“Many people would like to be in our shoes,” Jenny said. “We don’t take it for granted.”
Fuente does not listen to sports talk radio, which is to say his approach is the exact opposite of Tigers basketball coach Josh Pastner.
“There are a lot of people that can do it the other way – and Josh is one – and can separate it and not have it influence their decision-making,” Fuente said. “I tell you why I don’t, and it’s not because I don’t like it or have anything against it. I do not want my judgment clouded by opinions that are not fully informed with what’s going on. I don’t want, on third and six or on fourth and two, to be even in the back of my mind, worried about anything other than what is best for the team. So I just inoculate myself from that.”
Count on more talk about the Tigers quarterbacks with some fans and media members renewing their call for Fuente to play senior Jacob Karam in the wake of Lynch’s can’t-make-that-throw interception midway through the fourth quarter. But know this: the Tigers dropped a lot of catchable balls Wednesday night.
“Paxton, he put the ball on target,” said running back Brandon Hayes.
And lest anyone doubt, players believe Fuente is building this thing the right way.
“We respond to his intensity level,” said junior linebacker Terry Redden. “I’m bought into what he’s got going.”
Most nights, the coach sleeps just fine. The last loss, the always-maddening turnovers, and the ever-frustrating penalties do not stalk him.
“When I was a (quarterback) at the University of Oklahoma we were going through some tough times and I could not sleep,” Fuente said. “I would get mad and my mind would start to race. I left and went to Murray State, but I still had those same (issues). And a guy gave me a book, ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.’”
It was one of those life-changing moments. Although the truth is, as head coach at the U of M, Fuente has to sweat all the stuff. He refuses to accept “stress” as a description for what he sometimes feels, but he cherishes the decompression time he gets each week – whether it’s jogging with Adam Lechtenberg, Tiger football’s director of player personnel, taking his oldest daughter fishing or getting a few quiet moments at home to catch up on the day’s events with Jenny after the girls are asleep.
Perhaps it helps that Jenny, as a former coach, understands better than most that her husband can only have so much control over the numbers that go up on the scoreboard.
“You have 18-to-21-year-olds in charge out there,” she said with a laugh. “You have highs with the wins and lows with the losses. But each week is a new week.”
A new chance to win and, yes, a new chance to be disappointed.
“I told them today,” Fuente said, “I’m never going to coach a game where I dance around the word ‘win’ during the week because I don’t want you to be disappointed if we don’t.
“We are not going to coach like that.”