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Helmsman roundtable: Fuente’s off to Blacksburg

<p>Former Memphis football coach Justin Fuente</p>
Former Memphis football coach Justin Fuente

Former University of Memphis football coach Justin Fuente was officially introduced as Virginia Tech’s replacement for Frank Beamer on Monday. The Daily Helmsman asked its two sports reporters, Austin Reynolds and J.T. Mullen, their thoughts on Fuente’s departure, his success and whom they would pick to be next coach of Tiger football.

Are you shocked Fuente decided on VA Tech? Is it a "step up" in your opinion?

AR: No, I'm not shocked. There were better jobs available, such as USC, but I'm not so sure that's a great fit for Fuente. He doesn't seem like a California kind of guy at all, but at Virginia Tech it seems like he'll fit in nicely. And yes, it's a big enough step up. Virginia Tech is a legit big time job. It might not be as big of a name as USC or Texas, but you can absolutely go to the playoffs and win national championships there.

JM: This isn’t shocking at all. It’s a great fit for Fuente. It’s a power conference job, in which the pressure won’t be as high because a lack of recent success, you have all the resources you need, one of the best fan bases in the country, and the small town atmosphere fits his blue collar style. All of these factors make this a great jump for Fuente. He also got a pay raise and a greater chance to win big. This is definitely a good move for Fuente.

Did Fuente reach his ceiling at Memphis?

AR: No, but he came about as close as you can get. Fuente showed the ceiling at Memphis can be a New Year's Six bowl game. If the Tigers could've won even two of those three games against Temple, Houston or Navy they probably would've made it there. But it's so, so incredibly difficult, and the fact that they even had a chance in the final weeks of the season is remarkable.

JM: I truly believe next season could have been the best season yet under Fuente depending on one big if: Paxton Lynch staying for his senior year. Other than that, Fuente took one of the nation’s worst programs and made them a Top 25 caliber team who won 19 games in two years. There isn’t much more he could do her.

What could he have done better while he was here?

AR: He could've not gone on that three-game losing streak at the end of this season, but that really feels like nitpicking and he doesn't deserve that. Fuente is the best head coach this program has ever seen. You can't ask for a whole lot more than what he's done.

JM: There isn’t much anyone could have done better than what Fuente did in his time here. Maybe recruiting. Fuente never pulled four or five-star recruits, but he was able to find the diamond-in-the-rough, blue-collar player who would play in his system. So there wasn’t much he could have done better.

Fuente said after the SMU game this program's recent success is "sustainable.” Do you believe that's the case?

AR: Yes, but it all starts with making the right hire to replace him. Ever since Tom Bowen took over as Memphis' athletic director the school has shown that it cares about football, and they're pumping money into the program. It's a complete 180 from what was happening before the Fuente era. I'm not saying everything will continue as it has the last two years because that's unrealistic, there's going to be bumps in the road, but with the right hire the success can absolutely be sustainable.

JM: That’s hard to say. I think that depends on the coach who replaces him and the quarterback that replaces Lynch (if he decides to enter the NFL draft). I think the city, University, and fan base has gathered around the program. The support and resources are there. Now it’s just about finding the right guy to build off of what Fuente started.

How successful can Fuente be at VA Tech?

AR: Anything is possible at Virginia Tech. He can compete for ACC Championships, and even playoff appearances. People like to point out that the ACC is the weakest of the Power Five conferences, but at the end of the day it's still Power Five, and they still have respect from the playoff committee. Clemson is in the ACC and they're No. 1 in the country right now. Virginia Tech is a quality program, and Fuente can do anything there.

JM: There is not ceiling on how well he can do there. I expect Fuente to be there for a very long time, and with his track record I believe VT fans are going to really enjoy the Fuente era.

If you could be Tom Bowen for this coaching hire who would you bring in and why?

AR: Of candidates I would consider realistic, I would go after Barry Odom. He's the defensive coordinator at Missouri, and held the same role under Fuente a year ago when the Tigers had one of the top defenses in the conference. He spent three years working with Fuente here, so he's seen first hand what works and what it takes to win here, and his work with the defenses and Memphis last season and at Missouri this year speaks for itself. Memphis should definitely see what's out there, but Odom is probably the guy.

JM: In a perfect world you would have to go after Mark Richt, but this is by no way a perfect world and that just isn’t happening. They are coming from two of the biggest programs in the country and realistically Memphis would be a major step down. If I’m Bowen I’m looking at the top assistants in the country and using the same search firm they used to hire Fuente.

Finally, 20 years from now Justin Fuente's legacy in Memphis will be?

AR: I see two possible scenarios. In one, Fuente is seen as the guy that took control of one of the worst programs in college football, turned it around, and kick started a long run of competence on the gridiron. I'm not saying Memphis will dominate college football for 20 years, and I don't think anybody expects that, but they can be competent and consistently going to bowl games.

The other scenario is that Fuente is seen as giving Memphis football the best two seasons the program has ever seen, and then the team regressed back towards perpetual mediocrity after he left. Either way, Fuente is a legend here. Hopefully it's in the first way, rather than the second.

JM: He will be remembered as the coach who brought Memphis out of the depths and had the two of the most successful years in program history.

Former Memphis football coach Justin Fuente

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