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VOL. 129 | NO. 250 | Wednesday, December 24, 2014

This Year: Accomplished

Tigers’ bowl win caps historic 10-win season

By Don Wade

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Late in what already was an improbable and wondrous season, University of Memphis linebacker Charles Harris was talking about the contrast between life before Justin Fuente became the Tigers’ head coach and life after Fuente became head coach.

University of Memphis coach Justin Fuente holds up the trophy after the Tigers beat BYU 55-48 in two overtimes. Memphis finished 10-3 and Fuente was named conference Coach of the Year. 

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

“It was a drastic change,” Harris said. “The way his coaching staff approached us and the way the previous coaching staff approached us. Not saying anything negative, it was just a noticeable difference.”

That difference is now even more noticeable after the Tigers topped their season with a double-overtime 55-48 victory over Brigham Young University in the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl on Monday, Dec. 22.

The season that the U of M marketing department promoted with the theme, “Wait Till This Year,” now ends with the Tigers 10-3. It was the program’s first 10-win season since 1938.

Such a turnaround was perhaps difficult to imagine given that in Fuente’s first two seasons Memphis won a combined seven games. Now, Fuente is the American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.

Drastic change takes time.

“It wasn’t always pretty,” Fuente said, speaking of the bowl game just played.

Yet, his statement is true in a larger sense. Fuente stuck with young Paxton Lynch as quarterback last year even as he struggled and the team struggled. It paid off as Lynch became one of the best quarterbacks in The American. In microform, Fuente stuck with Lynch again during the bowl game despite the quarterback throwing three interceptions.

When the day was done, Lynch had set a school record by being responsible for seven touchdowns in one game – four passing and three rushing. None was more incredible than the 5-yard pass to Keiwone Malone with less than a minute left in regulation. Incredible because, as Lynch admitted later, he was trying to get the ball to tight end Alan Cross.

“Probably the craziest game I’ve been a part of,” Lynch said.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all crazy-good. It wasn’t just about Lynch’s heroics, or Tiger kicker Jake Elliott’s booming 54-yard field goal that tied the score in the first overtime to keep the game alive.

After the Tigers sealed the victory in the second overtime with defensive back DeShaughn Terry’s interception of a Chris Stewart pass, the celebration began. And almost immediately thereafter, a real brawl between the two teams.

Television replays caught players from both sides throwing punches, taking cheap shots, and even swinging helmets. BYU defensive back Kai Nacua (No. 12), who could be seen trying to catch up as Roderick Proctor caught what would be the game-winning 11-yard TD earlier in the second overtime, was seen on camera throwing punches at Cross from behind. Nacua’s face already was bloodied.

It was a physical game throughout, with ESPN’s broadcasting crew calling the game “chippy” and Fuente acknowledging there was trash-talking.

On Tuesday, University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen released the following statement: “We have not had the opportunity to review the multitude of videos from the unfortunate altercation that took place immediately after the game. In the next few days, Coach Fuente and I will review any and all video we can and will take appropriate disciplinary measures for those involved. I know we all regret that this incident detracted from an otherwise incredibly exciting and hard fought game. Hopefully, it will be a learning lesson for both teams.”

Fuente clearly was shaken by the events after the game.

“I don’t know what happened at the end, first of all, so I don’t know how upset I am,” he said. “It’s not who we are. It’s not what we want to represent.”

What they wanted to represent came before, from the season-opening victory, through competitive efforts at UCLA and Ole Miss, through this seven-game winning streak, through earning a share of the conference title, and finally through winning this bowl game to “go 1-0” one final time.

And if you don’t think their accomplishments have registered beyond Memphis, consider that on Tuesday Missouri coach Gary Pinkel announced that he had hired away Memphis defensive coordinator Barry Odom to fill the same position at the SEC school.

Memphis football is again relevant.

“We made history,” Malone said.

That’s a drastic change.

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