That’s all it took for former Memphis football coach Justin Fuente to initially struggle, succeed and depart for Blacksburg, Virginia.
If it seems Fuente went through the ultimate college football cycle so rapidly, it’s because he did.
No one should be surprised Fuente is off to Virginia Tech. It’s a Power Five coaching job, one in which he’ll be able to compete for ACC Championships and a spot in the College Football Playoff. While Memphis was a playoff contender this season, albeit briefly, it wasn’t going to be year-in-and-year-out.
The fact Memphis and Fuente parted in this fashion shows the great work both put into turning around a football program on life support. The Tigers have a 19-6 record over the past two seasons, with an AAC Championship, a bowl victory with another bowl game next month. That’s not to mention all the quality wins – and blowout victories – Memphis has accumulated, including the biggest one in program history, the 37-24 victory over Ole Miss Oct. 17.
People and the city of Memphis care about Tiger football again, which is far and away Fuente’s biggest success during his tenure. People are sad a Memphis football coach is leaving; think about the other Tiger football coaches in your lifetime. How many were you sad to see go, probably none of them.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Fuente’s tenure was there was no middle ground season. There was no 6-7, 6-6, 7-5 season in which Memphis barely clinched a bowl birth. The Tigers went from a three-wins to a 10-wins in the blink of an eye. We all know how amazing of a turnaround it was, that 10-win team never lost back-to-back games, but to think there was no 6-6 season makes the turnaround all the more incredible.
As Fuente repeatedly pointed out during his time in the Bluff City, there were signs of growth but it wasn’t always shown in the win-loss column. The defense slowly grew into one of the best in the country by his third season before eight starters graduated last season. Paxton Lynch, who’s now a potential NFL first round draft pick, struggled in his freshman campaign, but Fuente’s decision to give him those snaps eventually drove the Tigers’ turnaround and Lynch helped lead the best Tiger offense in program history.
Once the players bought in, the fans bought in, and the numbers reflected that. The record attendance, more than 43,000 were at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium per game this season, was highlighted by fantastic crowds for the Cincinnati, Ole Miss and Navy games.
However, the end was near when The Commercial Appeal reported Fuente had received a contract extension and didn't sign it, the Fuente era was virtually over. His success at Memphis led to other schools wanting Fuente to help them win ball games, enter Virginia Tech.
Fuente and Memphis football showed winning here is still possible and that star players can develop – and thrive here – Lynch on Saturday showed why he was as good as any quarterback in the country this season. Seven touchdown passes on nine completions is unheard of at any level, regardless of the opponent, Fuente helped make that possible.
Sustaining this success is also possible on the Memphis end. If Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen makes the right hire, the program will be okay going forward. Will the Tigers win nine to 10 games a season, probably not, but it can be a good, solid football program for a long time if the right coach and staff are put in place.
It’s okay to be sad that Fuente left, but you should also appreciate what he did for this football program far more and that should be enough to keep you interested and hopeful in Tiger football going forward.
And it only took four years.
Memphis coach Justin Fuente after the Tigers defeated Missouri State in the season opener.