I’ve got my first piece of advice for Memphis mayor-elect Jim Strickland: Buy Justin Fuente lunch. Matter of fact, with more than a month until Strickland’s first term as mayor begins, he’d do well to meet the University of Memphis football coach for a weekly pow-wow. Nothing formal. No agenda. Just a conversation between leaders on the nature of overcoming formidable challenges. Because one of these men has become the personification of establishing new standards for what seemed (not that long ago) a lost cause. Have lunch with the coach, Mr. Strickland. And do more listening than talking.
Before I go further, let’s clarify: Running a major U.S. city is considerably harder than running a football program. Justin Fuente has yet to balance the cost of paving streets with those for policing the same streets. And whatever budget problems the U of M athletic department may face, they pale in comparison with those of a city with a shrinking tax base and citizens largely opposed to even a hint of paying more for the services their city provides. If I were to guess, Strickland would switch jobs with Fuente long before the coach would give thought to such role reversal. (Strickland’s predecessor, it should be noted, has been far more competent at his job than was Fuente’s.)
Some lessons can be taken from the Justin Fuente Story in Memphis. A program that rested at the bottom of the FBS barrel in 2011 now finds itself in the Top 25, with crowds in excess of 40,000 now routine at the Liberty Bowl. All of this under the watch of a 39-year-old man who had never held a program’s top job before moving to Memphis. How has Fuente done it? And what could a city mayor take from his formula? Here are three components — they’re not secrets — to Fuente’s success.
◗ He didn’t listen. At Fuente’s introductory press conference shortly after the Tigers’ 2011 season (2-10), a veteran Memphis journalist noted how many men he’d seen take the Memphis job, explain a vision for success, and ultimately land, at best, in mediocrity. What made Fuente different? To the rookie coach’s credit, he graciously said, essentially, “I don’t know.” How could he, having no baseline for his own performance as a head coach? But Fuente had a plan. And it began with forgetting what’s happened before. Focus on what can be done moving forward, as individuals and as a program. Cynicism can be contagious if it’s allowed in the room. Building and selling a football program — or a city, for that matter — requires a short memory if tough times are to be put in the past tense. Justin Fuente had nothing to do with Memphis football before the 2012 season. He embraced that.
◗ He counts small victories. Among Fuente’s opening remarks after the upset of Ole Miss last month: “We’re bowl-eligible, and I’m happy about that.” Let me speak for the entire pool of reporters in that room: No one was thinking “bowl-eligible!” No one but Fuente. We were thinking, 13 wins in a row . . . Top 25 . . . can this team go undefeated? . . . is a New Year’s Six bowl game possible? Fuente doesn’t allow any big-picture projections to interfere with his team’s task at hand: winning the next game. It’s as hopelessly cliché as it gets: One game at a time. “We have to go 1-0 this week.” Well, the Memphis Tigers went 1-0 for the equivalent of an entire season, 13 games (at press time). Bowl-eligibility in these parts was once a goal to be achieved around Thanksgiving. That goal was secured this season two weeks before Halloween. Budget policy, crime-fighting, better schools, talent retention . . . these are major challenges for a city. Our new mayor needs to find small wins when he can, and emphasize each of those wins as steps in the direction we must go.
◗ He got lucky. Paxton Lynch took a Memphis scholarship because Florida State didn’t offer him one. Or Miami. Or Alabama. Or Michigan or UCLA. Having thrown 13 touchdown passes (and but one interception) in his team’s first six wins this season, Lynch has made a national name for himself. The junior quarterback has stirred Heisman Trophy talk — in Memphis! — and is making the across-the-field throws that have NFL scouts grabbing their cell phones. Fuente recognized the possibilities in recruiting Lynch and had the patience to redshirt him as a freshman in 2012, allowing a year of development — in body and mind — for the raw talent. A football team will go as far as its quarterback can take it. Here’s hoping mayor-elect Strickland can find an overlooked gem (somewhere, anywhere) who can approach problem-solving a little differently and perhaps make a throw into the corner of that metaphorical end zone a town calls prosperity. It can happen. We’ve seen it at the Liberty Bowl. After all, luck is merely where preparation meets opportunity.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the October 22nd issue of the Memphis Flyer.