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VOL. 127 | NO. 13 | Friday, January 20, 2012

Fuente Looks to Build Program the ‘Right Way’

By Don Wade

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The coaching clock ticks ever faster, often with little or no regard for extenuating circumstances. Used to be, college football coaches could just about count on five years to build a program up, to prove what they could do with a team full of players that they had recruited and taught.

New Memphis football coach Justin Fuente is introduced with wife, Jenny, and daughters Caroline, 2 months, and Cecilia, 3, at the Tigers game against Murray State in December.
(Photo: AP Photo)

But that era of college football now seems as distant as the days of leather helmets and train rides. The pressure to win now isn’t just at the highest levels, but at non-BCS schools such as the University of Memphis. Larry Porter was one of Memphis’s own, had played here, but even he lasted just two seasons as coach after producing a 3-21 record and inspiring no hope that things were going to get better.

Naturally, fans were fed up. But even the Memphis players are ready to win yesterday.

“I don’t think people understand how hungry we are,” said senior defensive back Akeem Davis.

“We’re trying to win now,” said senior Cannon Smith, son of FedEx CEO Fred Smith. “This is our last year.”

It is against this backdrop that Justin Fuente, 35, left his co-offensive coordinator’s position at Texas Christian University, where winning is now habitual, to become coach of the Tigers. Two months after his hiring he says he accepted the job with “my eyes wide open.”

In other words, he looked at this football program, and others in dire straits, and decided positive change was still possible here. Even after 31 losses in the last three years (2-10 in Tommy West’s final season, and 1-11 and 2-10 under Porter).

More telling, Fuente said he’s not sure winning is possible at some of those other struggling programs.

“Some are hindered by location, some are hindered by financial support, some are hindered by facilities, some are hindered academically – you can’t get the guys you want into school,” he said. “It’s like the old economics class, too many barriers to entry.”

And the other part, the reason he believes winning is possible at Memphis?

“Tommy West won here,” Fuente said. “So it’s not like it’s been 50 years ago the last time they had a winning season.”

In fact, it has only been since 2008 that the Tigers played in a bowl (they finished 6-7) and only since 2007 that they were above .500 (7-6). No, that relative recent history doesn’t make them a threat to crash the Top 25, but it does offer hope. And hope is the commodity in which Fuente must trade with everyone – from returning players to recruits, from boosters to media, from his assistant coaches to team managers. And, of course, with himself.

“The safe bet would have been to stay at TCU,” he said, repeating a line that he seems to be adopting as his mantra. “But I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try this.”

Recruiting is in full force and Fuente’s first class will be important. But it won’t be as important as the second one when he has had a year to establish his brand, if you will. So this time next year, “I hope we’re a little further along,” he said.

Even so, he said he is encouraged by the recruits they have lined up. None more so than quarterback Jacob Karam, a transfer from Texas Tech. Offense matters and not just for gaining yards and scoring points, but for building that brand that does some of your recruiting for you.

“Everybody makes a big deal out of offensive football,” Fuente said. “It gets too much credit when you win and too much blame when you lose. I have in my mind what I’d love to be (offensively), but if we don’t have that yet we can’t just put a square peg in a round hole.

“The most important thing for us is we have to change the work ethic, the attitude, the accountability,” he said. “This is what we have to do just to give ourselves a chance.

“Those kids have to know that you know what you’re talking about,” the coach continued. “They have to know you care about them, their well-being outside of football. If you can do that, then you can continue to ask them for more.”

And from the players’ perspective?

“It’s usually a progression,” said Smith, who transferred from the University of Miami (Fla.) when West was here, started at quarterback in Porter’s first game, and last season played defensive back. “The coaching staff has to get to know us and we have to get to know them. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Time … he’s talking about any transition taking time. How much time will Fuente get in the instant messaging era? Impossible to know, but his plan is to build enough short-term belief to achieve long-term success.

“Hopefully, we do things the right way on the field and off the field and give people here confidence,” Fuente said. “I told (the assistant coaches) we’re way down in numbers and we’re really young. But I also told them we’re going to build this the way we want to build it. We’re not going to get into that quick-fix.”

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