Virginia Tech football: Justin Fuente named new head coach of Hokies
BLACKSBURG, Va. – Virginia Tech President Dr. Timothy D. Sands, Director of Athletics Whit Babcock and the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors announced Sunday that Justin Fuente has formally accepted an offer to become Virginia Tech’s head football coach. Fuente will be officially introduced at a Monday press conference.
The 39-year-old Fuente joins the Hokies after leading a remarkable resurgence during his four seasons as head coach at the University of Memphis. In 2014, after leading the Tigers to their first conference championship since 1971 and the most wins in Memphis history over a two-year period, Fuente was the unanimous selection as American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.
Under Fuente’s leadership, Memphis enjoyed a 15-game winning streak over a 12-month span starting in October 2014. That victory string included a 37-24 win over No. 13 Ole Miss on Oct. 17 of this year, marking the highest-ranked opponent that Memphis had ever defeated. Memphis outscored its opponents by an average margin of 20.7 points per game during that run of 15 consecutive wins, scoring 652 points (43.5 ppg), while allowing only 341 (22.7 ppg).
“This is an exciting day for Virginia Tech,” President Sands said. “Having just ended our regular season with another win over UVA under our remarkable coach Frank Beamer, we can all celebrate our season and Coach Beamer’s tenure with a bowl game while we welcome Justin Fuente as our new football coach. I want to thank our Athletics Director Whit Babcock for his leadership and commitment to a football program and an athletics department with integrity and a focus on the holistic development of our student-athletes. I am looking forward to a bright future for our football program under the direction of Coach Fuente. He has demonstrated a commitment to excellence, integrity and the values that Hokies espouse.”
Regarded as one of the rising stars on the college coaching scene, Fuente inherited a Memphis program that had compiled a 5-31 record in the three seasons (2009-11) prior to his arrival. He systematically brought the Tigers back to respectability and postseason prominence, leading Memphis to a 19-6 record in his final two campaigns. Memphis posted a 9-3 regular season mark in 2015, capped by a 63-0 win vs. SMU in Fuente’s finale as the Tigers’ head coach. The Tigers concluded a 10-3 season in 2014 with a 55-48 double-overtime triumph over BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl.
“We are thrilled to welcome Justin, Jenny and their three daughters into our Virginia Tech family,” Babcock said. “We identified Coach Fuente as a top candidate early in our process. As our conversations progressed, we then met in person and it became obvious he is the right person to lead our football program. He possesses wisdom beyond his years, as well as a refreshing sense of humility and a calm confidence.
“Justin is a very impressive individual who also happens to be one of the brightest offensive minds in college football,” Babcock continued. “He elevated Memphis to unprecedented heights. His recruiting philosophy is progressive and comprehensive. Coach Fuente has displayed tremendous talent in evaluating players and developing young men as they strive to reach their full potential. Simply put, Coach Fuente exudes all the qualities that Hokies hold near and dear. We are excited to officially welcome Justin Fuente as the leader of the Virginia Tech football program.”
On the strength of a seven-game winning streak to close out the 2014 campaign, Memphis registered its first 10-win season since 1938. Memphis scored 471 points in 2014, shattering the old school record of 430 points set in 2004, while allowing a mere 19.5 points per game, a figure that ranked 11th among FBS squads. The Tigers also went +11 (31 takeaways/20 giveaways) in the turnover column in 2014, finishing the campaign ranked in both The AP Top 25 and in the USA Today/Amway Coaches Polls, a first in school history.
Memphis made seven-win improvement from the previous year in Fuente’s third season at Memphis in 2014, the ninth-best leap ever made by an FBS team. Based on that performance, the Football Writers Association of America, in conjunction with the Allstate Sugar Bowl, named Fuente one of eight finalists for the 2014 Eddie Robinson Award. His fellow coaches unanimously named him the American Athletic Conference's 2014 Coach of the Year, while the Tennessee Sports Writers Association named him its College Football Coach of the Year.
Fuente’s squad led Conference USA in total defense in league games in 2012, giving up just 331.6 yards per game. The Tigers also excelled on special teams under Fuente as Tom Hornsey won the 2013 Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top collegiate punter. Meanwhile, kicker Jake Elliott developed into one of the most consistent scoring threats, making 77.6 percent of his field goals, including seven career field goals of 50 yards or longer.
Fuente has asked longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster to remain at Virginia Tech as the Hokies’ defensive coordinator, and Foster has agreed to continue in that capacity for Tech. Dating back to 1996, no FBS program has recorded more sacks or interceptions than Virginia Tech under Foster’s direction.
“I’ve been privileged to work for a legendary coach who always did it the right way,” Foster said. “I enjoyed that chapter and the success we’ve had, however, I am equally excited for the next chapter and working for Justin. Justin and I share a vision for the future of our program. After spending time together, I’m convinced he’s the right person to continue building on the standard we’ve established at Virginia Tech. I’m truly looking forward to working with him and supporting him.”
Fuente earned a well-deserved reputation not only as a top recruiter, but also as one of football’s most innovative offensive minds during a record-setting five-year stint on head coach Gary Patterson’s staff at TCU (2007-11). The Tulsa, Oklahoma, native served as a dynamic play caller, quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator during his final three seasons with the Horned Frogs.
During that three-season stretch, TCU produced a 36-3 overall record and went on a 24-game win streak in the Mountain West Conference. From 2008-10, TCU was the only program in the country that finished in the Top 10 in both The AP Poll and USA Today Coaches Poll all three of those campaigns. TCU also made back-to-back appearances in BCS bowls with Fuente on the staff, registering a 2011 Rose Bowl victory over No. 5 Wisconsin in addition to a berth in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl.
Fuente’s prowess mentoring quarterbacks is well documented. In addition to Memphis all-conference quarterback Paxton Lynch, Cincinnati Bengals’ two-time Pro Bowl QB Andy Dalton flourished under his Fuente’s tutelage. From 2009-10, Dalton led TCU to a 25-1 record after completing 63.8 percent (408 of 639) of his passes for 5,613 yards with 50 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He also set the Mountain West career record for total offense (11,925 yards).
TCU was the only school in the nation to have two different quarterbacks rank in the top 10 in the country in passing efficiency from 2009-11. After Dalton completed his career as TCU’s career leader in virtually every passing category, QB Casey Pachall picked up where Dalton left off. In 2011, Pachall led TCU to an 11-2 mark, completing 66.5 percent of his throws (228 of 343) with 25 TDs and seven INTs.
With Fuente calling the plays and Dalton triggering the TCU offense in 2010, TCU set single-season school marks in touchdowns (73), points scored (541), total offense (6,199 yards) and first downs (327). The Horned Frogs ranked fourth nationally in scoring (41.6 ppg), sixth in passing efficiency (166.9), 10th in rushing (247.4 ypg) and 12th in total offense (476.9 ypg).
Opulent offensive numbers led by a talented signal caller continued when Fuente moved to Memphis. A member of his inaugural signing class at Memphis, Lynch became a three-year starting quarterback for the Tigers, throwing for 8,757 career yards and 59 touchdowns. Lynch tied an FBS record with seven touchdown passes in the first half vs. SMU on Nov. 28, giving him a school-record 28 TD passes on the 2015 season.
Fuente’s tenure at Memphis was marked by four driving principles – academic integrity, social responsibility, individual accountability and competitive excellence. One of the first items Fuente installed upon his arrival at the University of Memphis was the three-part “Tiger Code” – being fundamentally sound, physically fit and mentally tough. In addition to a new off-season training regiment program, Fuente selected 10 student-athletes to form his first leadership council. The group best exemplified being student-athletes and living by the Tiger Code. During his first season, the group of leaders served as a conduit between the coaching staff and the team.
Consistent academic achievement was another trademark of Memphis football under Fuente. Tigers’ football student-athletes recorded the highest cumulative grade-point average in program history entering the 2014 season.
A total of 12 Memphis student-athletes had already earned their undergraduate degrees before participating in the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl. Senior linebacker Charles Harris was named to the Capital One Academic All-District 3 NCAA Division I Football Team to highlight the program's academic accomplishments during the 2014 campaign.
Fuente’s initial coaching post came at Illinois State, where he coached quarterbacks (2001-03) before adding offensive coordinator duties to his responsibilities (2004-06). Under his direction, the Redbirds ranked among FCS squads in total offense (397.5 ypg) after ranking fifth in both total offense (477.6 ypg) and scoring (39.2 ppg) in 2005.
A product of one of the nation’s most storied prep football programs at Tulsa’s Union High School, Fuente played quarterback for two seasons (1996-97) at the University of Oklahoma, where he set an OU freshman record with 11 TD passes. He transferred to Murray State for his final two years of eligibility, setting 11 school records. In 1999, he earned Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year and was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award. He went on to play professionally for the Arena Football League’s Oklahoma Wranglers.
A 1999 graduate of Murray State with a degree in finance, Fuente and his wife, Jenny, have three daughters – Cecilia, Caroline and Charlotte.