VOL. 8 | NO. 34 | Saturday, August 15, 2015
They were tossing around numbers, trying to guess the win total for the 2015 University of Memphis football season.
In the not-too-distant past, the two Highland Hundred members and longtime season-ticket holders might have been able to add their guesses together and still come up short of the six victories needed for their favorite team to be bowl-eligible.
“We’ll win at least eight, maybe nine,” Larry Force, 75, was saying as the first practice of the 2015 season was getting underway Aug. 6 on the Park Avenue campus fields.
His friend, Danny Mohundro, 67, threw out the number 10, which is how many games the Tigers won last season. It tied the school record set back in 1938.
So, yeah, it was an historic 2014 season as Memphis captured a share of the American Athletic Conference title, Justin Fuente was named AAC Coach of the Year, and the Tigers beat BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl and snagged the 25th spot in the final Associated Press poll of the season.
But maybe more telling is the list of teams the Tigers left behind, that received fewer votes than Memphis and finished outside the Top 25: Notre Dame, Nebraska, LSU, Oklahoma and Texas A&M.
So any discussion of the 2015 season is framed differently. Old assumptions are now up for inspection. The buzz in the air isn’t just from the cicadas.
“We probably can’t beat Ole Miss … maybe,” Force said, looking way down the road to that Oct. 17 home game, and then looking at the first road game on Sept. 12: “I don’t know about Kansas.”
If Memphis football could be reduced to a single word in these giddy days leading up to Tiger Lane tailgating and the season opener against Missouri State on Saturday night, Sept. 5, at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, it would be anticipation.
For it is anticipation that separates good college football from bad college football.
And it is Fuente, the third-year, 39-year-old head coach, who has restored anticipation to the Memphis masses.
“Fuente,” Mohundro said, “he’s the real deal.”
The Right Choice
In December 2011, a search committee headed by then-university president Shirley Raines and co-chaired by Brad Martin and Willie Gregory, chose Fuente, then just 35 and co-offensive coordinator at TCU, to be the U of M’s 23rd head football coach.
He inherited a team that had won three games in the previous two seasons under Larry Porter and had just 50 scholarship players.
“I think we can get it done, I really do,” Fuente said upon introduction. “One thing I’ll say is we’re not going to wave a magic wand. We’re going to have to roll up our sleeves.”
Today, Fuente makes every list of rising young college football coaches. If there is a gray cloud looming on the Memphis football horizon, it is that another take-notice season could result in a bigger program presenting Fuente with an offer too good to refuse.
“I remember his first day here. He’s come a long way as a coach – from black hair to gray hair,” joked senior tight end Alan Cross. “If he gets a bigger job, congratulations. He’s earned it.”
“Obviously, speculation happens,” said Tom Bowen, U of M’s director of athletics. “That’s just the nature of sports in America.”
Complacency also is the nature of sports in America and is the first opponent on this year’s schedule.
With a young star coach in Justin Fuente, the University of Memphis football team is aiming to produce an encore to last year's 10-win season.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
One of Fuente’s talking points is that “success can be very dangerous” and his players at least are heeding the warning in their public comments.
“All that (good) stuff that happened last year is in the past,” said junior quarterback Paxton Lynch. “We need to see what we can do with this year’s team.”
While Fuente and the players are busy grinding on the practice field, it’s hard not to celebrate the positive effects of last season beyond the goal posts.
Season tickets already have eclipsed 2014 totals, Bowen says, with an official number to be released later this month. Longtime diehards, such as Mohundro and Force, are – as always – in the fold.
The university also has added the 901 Club, a perk-enhanced program for season-ticket holders (deadline Aug. 16) that includes special access, such as to the first practice and an Aug. 29 “chalk talk” with Fuente. The program also comes with priority purchasing power for the first AAC Championship Game, which will be held at the home field of the team with the best record in league games.
Craig White, 35, a Memphis alum, is one of the new season-ticket holders. It wasn’t the 901 Club that moved him to act.
“The product this year is worthy of investment,” he said.
And that is, well, Mighty-Sound-of-the-South music to Bowen’s ears. In the past, many Memphians kind of kept track of the Tigers, but really followed another college football team more closely – be it an SEC or Big Ten school, or maybe even Bowen’s alma mater, Notre Dame.
“You can root for all kinds of teams,” Bowen said with a smile. “But if you’re a Memphian, you gotta have a little place in your heart for the Tigers.”
In the Tunnel
For Fuente, this is maybe the best part. Preseason camp is a coach’s time with his staff and players. Sure, there will be post-practice interviews with media, but they will be shorter conversations, more about specific position battles and less about the abstract view of the larger season and a final record or poll ranking.
A coach cannot control those things – at least not the way fans and media believe he can – and coaches do not like philosophical conversations about things that cannot be managed.
“It’s awesome. I love it,” Fuente told The Daily News when discussing the “purity” of preseason camp. “Like, I used to not have to shave when I was an assistant. Now, I shave a little bit. I mean, you don’t ever dress up, you get home late, and you leave early in the morning.
“It’s all football. There’s nothing else. The (players) aren’t in school at that time. We have no other obligation. We just coach football and try to develop a team.”
Fuente is married and has three daughters. After last season’s bowl victory, he enjoyed going back to Oklahoma around the holidays, taking his family to spend time with his “folks,” as he always calls his mom and dad. It was then, and only then, he permitted himself to breathe and reflect on the successes.
But now he is careful even talking about that time because he is going into the tunnel of camp. He understands, when they all emerge from the tunnel Sept. 5, that last season’s record is about as relevant as yesterday’s breakfast.
Every day, over and over, practice rep by practice rep, the beast of preparation must be fed.
“In this business, you better find that fire pretty quickly or you’re gonna get lapped again,” Fuente said. “Yes, there is an exhale – like job well done, pat yourself on the back and walk around with a smile, but there’s also the horrifying realization that Charles Harris isn’t here, Bobby McCain’s gone, and we better get to work on developing the young guys because the 2015 season will be here before you know it.”
Harris and McCain were two of the eight starters on defense who are not back. If there is a worry about this year’s team, it is how a younger, largely untried, defense will hold up. Especially in the season’s first few weeks.
All of that figures into the obsessive-compulsive nature of preseason camp. There is work that has to be done that, really, only the head coach and his assistants can understand at the deepest layers. And there is not enough time; there is never enough time.
“I’m a huge golf fan and the PGA Championship will go on during camp and I will have no clue,” Fuente said. “I won’t watch one shot. But the British Open, I watch every shot. It’s just you get isolated from everything. I’ve called home before and said, ‘What’s going on? Why aren’t the kids at school?’ And (wife Jenny) has said, ‘It’s Saturday.’
“It’s Day 7 of camp or Day 9 of camp. The calendar doesn’t matter. It’s just … camp.”
Countdown to Kickoff and Beyond
Soon enough, the calendar will matter. Also, the wins and losses.
“Now the target’s on our back,” senior defensive back Reggis Ball said. “People are working to come at our throne, at our house, and take our championship away.”
That’s a misnomer because you can’t un-win a championship. But Lynch notes that last season’s AAC title was shared with UCF and Cincinnati, which like the Tigers went 7-1.
“It hurts that we were co-champions,” Lynch said. “So this year, hopefully, we’ll be the only ones with a trophy.”
Yes, that’s how much the local landscape has changed. But beyond Memphis, the college athletic environment continues to undergo seismic shifts driven by the Power Five conferences of college football – Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, PAC-12 and SEC.
When money was distributed after last college football season, each SEC school received a record $31.2 million. Memphis, as a school in The American, received around $2.9 million. As the financial gap widens, so does the urgency to fill any Power Five voids.
The Big 12, despite its name, currently has just 10 members and is the one Power Five league into which Memphis might – might – fit. There also is competition from BYU, Boise State and many other AAC schools for any potential openings.
“You cannot, in any way, wait for opportunity,” Bowen said of future expansion in Power Five conferences. “And I can tell you that neither (university president M. David Rudd), nor myself, nor anybody in the corporate community, nor any of our large supporters, want us to wait. They want us to be proactive, and we are.”
Part of being proactive is evidenced in the current capital campaign that is about to enter its public phase and ultimately will include a new indoor practice facility for football and a new practice facility for men’s basketball.
All of this, however, is far removed from the football business at hand, the moment-to-moment work in preseason practices, the grandest dreams that fans allow themselves to dream before the first kickoff of the season.
And that hope, for the first time in a long time, feels as tangible as a football cradled in a running back’s arms.
“It’s nice to have anticipation of a good season,” season-ticket holder Larry Force said on Day 1 of camp. “A winning season.”