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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Coaching Moves

Fuente to Memphis; Good Luck to Fuente

Hello, Justin Fuente. And good luck. Fuente is going from the penthouse to the outhouse — from perhaps the nation’s best non-B.C.S. conference program to perhaps the nation’s worst. After five seasons under Gary Patterson at T.C.U., the last three as the Horned Frogs’ co-offensive coordinator, Fuente agreed to terms with Memphis to become that woebegone program’s third head coach since 2009. In doing so, Fuente replaces Larry Porter, the former L.S.U. running backs coach and recruiting wunderkind who won three games over his two seasons with the Tigers.

As Porter’s two-year record will suggest, Fuente is not walking into a good situation. Memphis went 2-10 this fall, making a one-game improvement over 2010 but failing to show any spark, let alone a pulse, throughout much of Conference USA play.

At least the Tigers won a conference game, beating Tulane — on the road, no less — by 16 points in October. That win, on Oct. 22, came 742 days after the program’s last win in conference play: Oct. 10, 2009, a 35-20 win over UTEP. What about the Tigers’ last road win against a Conference USA opponent?

Stop: be satisfied with the fact that Memphis has been bad, woefully bad, and that Fuente walks into town with little in his corner besides a nice career as an assistant at one of the nation’s premier non-B.C.S. conference programs. Under the co-direction of Fuente and Jarrett Anderson, T.C.U. has finished a combined 37-3, scoring 40 or more points 19 times.

Fuente impresses. He’s been an assistant under one of the nation’s best coaches. Then again, so was Porter. He has an offensive background. Then again, so did Porter. He’s acknowledged as a fairly strong recruiter with some familiarity with the region. Porter trumped him on both counts.

Don’t compare the two. Porter was overwhelmingly underwhelming, nearly to the point where it boggles the mind wondering what Memphis saw in him in the first place. A dynamic recruiter, a terrific position coach and a winner as an assistant? Undoubtedly. Head coach material? Once again, a non-B.C.S. conference also-ran threw its hat in the ring with a recruiter, not a coach.

Fuente is a coach. He’s not a head coach, but he’s a coach. Fuente has been a coordinator under some extremely bright lights for three seasons. He’s learned his trade under a coach who’s widely respected for making things happen without the built-in accommodations found at other programs that factor into the B.C.S. mix on a yearly basis — T.C.U. is no Alabama, though the Horned Frogs play like Alabama.

This is a nice segue into Memphis’s flirtation — mutual, by all accounts — with Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who was purported to have been oh-so-close to signing on the dotted line before taking his name out of contention.

The pair share quite a bit: both are coordinators at a place known for defense but sneakily efficient — even more so at T.C.U. — at putting points on the board in bunches.

Yet for all his charms, Fuente remains an unknown. Little is known about his personality, thanks to Patterson’s penchant for putting every little thing in and around his program on lockdown. His offensive philosophy may be his calling card, but is Fuente enough of a mastermind to keep pace with the high-scoring offenses of Conference USA?

His time at T.C.U. gave him a taste of making things happen with three-stars, not five-stars, but life has come easy for the Horned Frogs over the last decade. In other words, working at T.C.U. does not necessarily prepare a coach for life at Memphis. And life at Memphis? It’s not easy, and it’ll be nearly impossible for any coach, let alone a first-year coach, to come in and win immediately.

At least Memphis knows this. But Memphis also sees S.M.U. become relevant thanks to a sublime hire; Memphis also sees Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky turn things around against long odds.

But there’s a difference between the latter pair and Memphis: the Tigers have the built-in advantage of playing in a deep recruiting area and of having an athletic department committed to creating a winning product.

What does that mean to Fuente? Not a thing. He inherits a nice big-picture situation, but this team? The Tigers are a complete and utter mess, short on talent and depth and very long on inexperience. Fuente will need to get his hands dirty in this rebuilding job. Good luck, coach.

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  1. Michael says:

    Memphis has been one of those programs that really should be a whole lot better than it is, akin in some respects to UNLV or SDSU (until of late)- in a position in a state or region where there is room to expand, there is money to be gotten from donors and alums, and where the culture is strongly appealing to 17-year-old kids. It’s always been a bit of a puzzle why Memphis hasn’t been successful.

    On another note, Paul, I’m surprised not to have seen you comment on Pat Hill’s untimely firing by Fresno State. I thought you’d have a lot to say about that- or really, something to say about it. I was not surprised as the vitriol from Bulldog fans had become intense, but very disappointed nevertheless.

  2. Mark says:

    Excellent article but I have to disagree with you statement of “having an athletic department committed to creating a winning product”, this is only true of the basketball team.

    Memphis is a basketball town first and always will be, the adminstration has taken away from football to give more to basketball. Good luck to Coach Fuente, at least he will have a new AD and school president by next summer.

  3. Will says:

    Memphis stunk this year…no question. But they were very close to actually winning five games, blowing leads over MTSU, UAB & Marshall.

    Fuente definitely has his work cut out for him. It will be interesting to see the staff he puts together. But I don’t think Memphis is too far from 6-6 and a postseason berth, especially given next year’s schedule. Regardless, it’s a good hire for the Tigers.

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