University of Memphis Magazine
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Spring 12 Features



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'Up-and-down' Career Ride
Ready to Earn his Stripes

U of M football has struggled as of late, but new football coach Justin Fuente has a proven way of battling through adversity.

By: Greg Russell

The football sailed perfectly into the receiver’s hands — not once, but time and time again. For the young passer, at least in his mind, this was the worst possible scenario. Whether he liked it or not, Justin Fuente had just earned himself a job as quarterback.

"I didn’t want to play the position. I didn’t like the role," says Fuente, new University of Memphis head football coach. "I wanted to play tight end, maybe defensive end."

"Justin was a rough and tumble kind of guy — he was always roughing and tumbling around the neighborhood with the older kids," recalls his dad, Jim Fuente. "He wanted to play something more physical, like defensive lineman, but definitely not quarterback."

Fate, though, has a funny way of snatching one dream in midair and replacing it with another.

Fuente, as a sixth-grader, was helping his team’s quarterback warm up during the first-ever padded football practice of his life. Only problem, as he tossed the ball back to the quarterback, coaches observed that his passes seemed effortless, accurate, certainly more on target than anyone else’s on the team.

New University of Memphis football coach Justin Fuente comes to Memphis by way of Texas Christian University, where he was credited for the Horned Frogs’high-powered offense that consistently put the team in the Top 25 and won the 2011 Rose Bowl. (Middle) Fuente with his 4-year-old daughter, Cecilia. (Right) A young Fuente with high school coach and mentor Bill Blankenship, who is now head coach at Tulsa.
New University of Memphis football coach Justin Fuente comes to Memphis by way of Texas Christian University, where he was credited for the Horned Frogs’ high-powered offense that consistently put the team in the Top 25 and won the 2011 Rose Bowl. (Middle) Fuente with his 4-year-old daughter, Cecilia. (Right) A young Fuente with high school coach and mentor Bill Blankenship, who is now head coach at Tulsa.

The wrong place at the wrong time for a player wanting to play side-opposite the offense?

In the grand scheme of things, "No," says Justin. As records began to fall, first at Tulsa’s Union High School and then at Murray State, the young quarterback began to cherish the leadership role he backed into, a role that would define his future.

Formula for success

Jim Fuente is driving home from his job in Tulsa, Okla., to suburban Broken Arrow when he recalls, with a chuckle, Justin’s earliest foray into football.

"I held him out in fifth grade, you know, because of all the contact," Jim says. "I thought sixth grade was too early, too, but he finally talked me into it. I think that was the best day of his life."

Depending on what happens in the next few years, Tiger Nation may want to send Mr. Fuente a big "thank you" for finally relenting.

Fuente is charged with doing what many before him have failed to do: produce a consistently winning Tiger football product. With Memphis headed to the BIG EAST Conference in 2013, the role has become even more magnified since he took the job in early December. Those who first watched Fuente blossom into a prolific quarterback and then excel as an assistant coach believe Memphis hired the right man.

"To get a measure of Justin, I think you just have to look what he has done in the past," says his high school coach, Bill Blankenship, now the head coach at C-USA rival Tulsa. "Everything he’s done, he’s been a success at. From a college football star at Murray State to his coaching job at Texas Christian, he’s done it all at a high level.

"He is a fine person, too, someone you can trust to do the best job he can do. I have three sons, but I consider him my fourth. That’s how much I think of him."

Says Jim, "You won’t find anyone who is as competitive as Justin is. He really understands the business part of it, too. I think you have to be proud of the recruiting job he did with so little time."

Fuente signed a 27-member class on national signing day Feb. 1, heavy on defensive backs, offensive linemen and tight ends. The list also revealed three of Fuente’s strategic recruitment areas: Texas, Florida and Memphis.

"Coming into this program, there wasn’t an area that didn’t need to be addressed," Fuente says. "I am tickled to death to sign these kids. I feel like they are going to represent us well."

Fuente has promised an open-door policy and has plans to draw the community back into the program. Above, he visits with U of M business and finance vice president David Zettergren, Law School professor Larry Pivnick and Lambuth Campus and University College dean Dan Lattimore.
Fuente has promised an open-door policy and has plans to draw the community back into the program. Above, he visits with U of M business and finance vice president David Zettergren, Law School professor Larry Pivnick and Lambuth Campus and University College dean Dan Lattimore.

Included on the list was Coral Springs (Fla.) High defensive back Dion Witty, a player coveted by four Big Ten schools including Purdue. Also signing were quarterbacks Paxton Lynch of Deltona, Fla., and Will Gross of Memphis Melrose. They’ll join last year’s starter, Taylor Reed, as well as Texas Tech transfer Jacob Karam in a battle for signal caller.

"We’ll be a quarterback-driven offense," Fuente says. "Leadership ability will play an important role in who our quarterback is. Look at the NFL. Teams spend millions of dollars on quarterbacks who can’t play. They have all the physical attributes, but they are not very good — it’s a hard thing to figure out. I will spend a lot of time with our quarterbacks just talking to them (to see what’s in their heads)."

There might even be a Rob Gronkowski-type twist to the offense. Fuente signed highly regarded tight ends Kerwin Harrison of Lakeland, Fla., and Daniel Montiel of Arlington, Texas.

"I see that as a position that enables you to manipulate the defense," Fuente says. "It gives the offense multiple looks. I envision down the road that we will use multiple tight ends in multiple sets. It’s a big part of the future of what we’ll do offensively."

Winning at Memphis won’t be easy, an "uphill battle" as his father terms it. The Tigers have won only three games the past two seasons. Attendance has dwindled.
"But Justin is confident he can win there," Jim says.

Fortunately for the Tigers, Fuente knows a little something about fighting through adversity.

Out of high school, he signed with the Oklahoma Sooners, and despite breaking an OU record for touchdown passes as a freshman, he found Norman wasn’t the place for him as the team struggled his sophomore season in 1997, a year he went 2-3 as a starter.

"When I left OU, it was absolutely a tough time," Fuente says. "I didn’t really want to leave. My high school friends went there. It was only two hours from my home. I knew a lot of people there, but it wasn’t a good situation."

"Oklahoma was his ‘dream team,’ but by his second year he had become the lightning rod at OU," says Blankenship. "It was a low point in his career. He was shouldering more than his fair share of the blame for the team’s woes."

After much soul searching, Fuente made a move to a smaller, lower profile school in Kentucky.

"Going to Murray State was the best thing I ever did," says Fuente. "It forced me to become a grownup, it forced me to step outside myself and socialize. I had never matured in that way before."

He didn’t do too badly on the football field, either. Fuente set 11 school records and was named Ohio Valley Conference offensive player of the year in 1999. He was a finalist, too, for the Walter Payton Award for Division 1-AA national player of the year.

Fuente spent six seasons at Illinois State as an assistant coach before joining TCU as the running backs coach in 2007. He soon became offensive coordinator, known for innovative play-calling for a team that consistently found its way into the Top 25.

Right time at the right place

Destiny, like it had years earlier when he was a burly sixth-grader in Oklahoma, seemed to find its way back into Fuente’s life last December. After interviewing for the Memphis job and sure he wasn’t going to get it, he began writing thank-you notes to the search committee and even called his dad to let him know that someone else had gotten the job. But a few hours later, Fuente, having "greatly impressed" a couple of Memphis’ biggest supporters, emerged as the leading candidate. Not having seen the Tigers’ facilities, he asked if he could visit Memphis before accepting. He flew in and was impressed by what Memphis had to offer. He accepted hours later.

Fuente is steadfast in his belief Memphis can field a winner. He says fans will return with a winning product on the field.

"I do know the people here are ready to commit the resources to make it happen," he says. "We have the financial support and facility support is on the way.

"Fans, they will come back. They are hungry for success. It may take a little time, but we will give them that."

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