illustration by Matt Wiseman
Justin Fuente can’t lose. Whatever fates or forces play a role in the direction of a college football program, they have all smiled upon this 36-year-old rookie head coach. When Fuente sprints onto the Liberty Bowl field to open the Memphis Tigers’ 2012 football season, he’ll do so with the wind at his back, the turf rising to meet his every stride. Smiles and laughter, wine and song to ensue.
This gives you pause? A first-year coach calling the shots for a program that has gone 5-31 over the last three seasons . . . blessed? Read on.
Fuente isn’t following Bear Bryant.
Larry Porter is a gentleman, a man of faith, and a proud University of Memphis alum. But by the only measure that matters — wins and losses — he was a miserable football coach. Three wins in 24 games. Over two years, Porter’s teams lost by an average score of 37-15. Midway through the 2011 season, those of us in the Liberty Bowl press box were elated when a game was in reach at halftime. (Such was the case three times, and the Tigers lost two of those contests.) If Porter was generally weak on the sidelines, he had an absolute blind spot when it came to public relations. Whether or not a football coach enjoys chatting with media types, he must recognize those reporters and cameras as conduits for his program, for his message, for his style. When things went poorly on the field for Larry Porter’s Tigers, he found but a small brigade of supporters to help boost the general spirits of a sagging program. And the coach of the Memphis Tigers needs an army of supporters. Fuente will have that (at least for now).
The playing field is now (almost) level.
For the first time in 64 years, Memphis will not face a team from the mighty Southeastern Conference. Sure, Ole Miss and Mississippi State might give the Liberty Bowl its biggest crowds. But at what price? Since the Tigers upset Peyton Manning and the 6th-ranked Tennessee Vols on November 9, 1996, Memphis has gone 2-25 against SEC competition. Read that again: two wins in 27 games. And the gap is not closing. The margin (in points on the scoreboard) of the Tigers’ last six SEC losses: 17, 31, 28, 42, 36, 45.
This is like hosting a dinner party and filling your house to watch Uncle Bob get beaten with a stick. The local “SEC rivalry” has done nothing but damage the chances of landing a prize recruit for Memphis. When I asked the new coach about the lack of an SEC team on this year’s schedule, Fuente smiled at me . . . and raised his right thumb.
Big East (and playoff?), here we come!
Whine if you want about the “watered-down” Big East. It’s a basketball league with football as an afterthought. No more Syracuse or Pitt. Four Conference USA defectors (including Memphis). Now, consider the alternative: Being left in C-USA, hoping against all odds that the Big 12 might invite the U of M to compete with Texas, Oklahoma, and friends.
The Big East is a great move for Fuente’s program for two reasons: (1) It’s more firmly on the radar as the new playoff system (four teams starting in 2014) is evaluated and, certainly, expanded; and (2) it’s winnable. If (when!) Fuente does his job, the Tigers will have to fend off the likes of Louisville (make that three reasons), Cincinnati, and Houston to win the program’s first major conference title. If you ask me, that beats chasing Longhorns and Sooners in circles.
Meet the new boss.
Fuente actually arrived in Memphis six months before the man to whom he’ll answer, new Tiger athletic director Tom Bowen. There should be some playground security in this dynamic, with each man really having to establish credentials simultaneously. Bowen helped resuscitate a moribund program at San Jose State. Which should mean he’ll be a nice guy to have in the back of the room as Fuente plots strategy for winning games and selling his program.
The funniest line in Honeymoon in Vegas (a very funny movie) came from the parachuting Elvis impersonator quoting this city’s most famous son: “There ain’t nothin’ in this whole wide world foolproof ’cept Coupe de Villes and hookers.” I’d like to add a third virtual certainty: A successful Memphis football coach in Justin Fuente. He can’t lose.
Frank Murtaugh is the managing editor of Memphis magazine.