COLUMN: Fuente a fit for Memphis

Full disclosure: I have no idea how newly-named University of Memphis football coach Justin Fuente will fare in the coming weeks and months.

Full disclosure: I have no idea how newly-named University of Memphis football coach Justin Fuente will fare in the coming weeks and months.

I have not an inkling if he'll win two, three, or six games next season.

I'm not sure if he'll be the next coach fired after two years or the first to move on to a better job because he improved the comatose Memphis program.

What I do know, though, is that Fuente, 35, will have more of a chance at this place than any of the coaches who came before him.

See, the current Memphis administration never fully grasped the notion of properly building a football program. It takes a time and financial investment, something exiting athletic director R.C. Johnson wasn't consistently willing to put forth.

Now, after 16 years, Johnson is on his way out. He had no hand in the hire of Fuente. That was left up to the Memphis search committee, spearheaded by co-chairs Brad Martin, the former CEO of Saks, and Willie Gregory.

Fuente signed a five-year deal valued at $900,000 annually, which includes national championship incentives. Sounds crazy, right? And it is. But for the first time in as long as I can remember, there are actual aspirations for the Tigers football team. There are goals, even if they're far too lofty.

Fuente will have more intrinsic support than any of his predecessors. The new athletic director, whomever it may be, will understand football and its importance in the landscape of college athletics. He will have facilities and he will be the beneficiary of a community that, believe it or not, is desperate for a figure to stand behind.

Whatever went down with Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and whichever side walked away first is irrelevant. The committee made the move on Fuente, and now, the entire fate of a limping football program rests on the shoulders of a first-time head coach.

And you know what? That might not be such a bad thing.

"The search committee and I were impressed with Justin Fuente," Memphis president Shirley C. Raines said at Fuente's introductory press conference. "We were impressed with his exciting ideas, his energy, and his enthusiasm."

Exciting ideas? Enthusiasm? What novel concepts.

Here's the reality: Memphis was in no position to hire a simple football coach. They had to hire a politician, a visionary. Someone people could literally rally around. Someone who could invite a community that has so clearly abandoned its university's football team.

Fuente was an attractive candidate for a litany of reasons. He's an offensive mind. He's set records offensively pretty much everywhere he's been. He's widely respected.

Memphis has wasted no time, and at this point, it can't afford to. Across town, there are electronic billboards featuring Fuente cradling a Memphis football helmet. The text that is splashed across the blue background reads, "His first play will be a reverse."

To be clear, a full reversal won't happen in one play. It will happen over the course of many plays, many months, and probably many years.

And yes, for those of you keeping score, these are some of the same things we said about the last guy.

But the last guy had no idea about how to send the right message. Rather than opening up his program and welcoming the community, he ran an air-tight program and alienated the very people he needed more than anything — the fans.

So when he compiled a 3-21 record in his two seasons, he found himself mostly alone. In his final home game as the coach at Memphis, Larry Porter and his team played in front of an estimated crowd of 2,500 fans.

Fuente knows how far away the fan support has drifted. Reaching out to the community was among the first of his bullet points last Thursday.

"We're gonna reach out to the community," Fuente said. "This is going to be Memphis' team. This is University of Memphis football, but this is the city of Memphis. I don't care what school you went to. You live in this city, I want this to be your team."

OK, so how do you do that, Justin?

"I'm gonna get out and beat pots and pans in the streets if I have to," he said. "If I have to speak at every boy scout meeting — whatever we have to do."

Fuente understands the odds are stacked against him in the form of 55,000 empty seats at the Liberty Bowl.

But almost more importantly, Memphis as an administration finally realizes it, and it appears that it's willing to act on what has become a caricature of a FBS football program.

"I gotta tell you, this is a big challenge, and I am so ready for this challenge," Fuente said. "I've been dreaming of this moment for a long, long time."

Memphis fans have been dreaming of being competitive within Conference USA for several years now. And it's perfectly within reason that Fuente will never win a C-USA championship, but he'll have more resources allotted to him than anyone before to do just that.

"We're going to be well-coached, we're going to be disciplined," Fuente said. "We're gonna build this thing the right way from the ground up."

For Memphis football, the ground is a good place to start.


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