Justin Fuente
Memphis Athletics

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Justin Fuente understands that he got the job because Memphis football is in bad shape.

“There are a lot of challenges,” he admits, “but there are a lot of positives, too. It’s not like it’s been 30 years since they ever won.”

Well, no, but even though Memphis went to bowl games in 2003, ’04, ’05, ’07 and ’08, it’s never been a football powerhouse, despite being in an area that produces talent with a fan base hungry for success.

Especially considering that 2007 marked the school’s last winning season and the past two years the Tigers finished a combined 3-21.

Clearly Fuente, 35, has his work cut out for him.

“The community, the athletic department, everybody is dedicated to getting this thing going,” Fuente says. “That’s what’s got me excited.”

This is his first head-coaching job. Fuente is from Tulsa. He played at Oklahoma and transferred and graduated from Murray State. His first coaching job was at Illinois State, where he worked with quarterbacks and was elevated to offensive coordinator from 2004-06. Then he went to TCU, where he first coached running backs and then the past three seasons was the co-offensive coordinator and QBs coach.

At TCU, the team set just about every school offensive record under Fuente.

“I was in a good job. I wasn’t in any hurry. We had just bought a house in Fort Worth that I was ready to live in a long time,” he says. “We were ready to settle in at TCU. When this deal came open I looked at it long and hard. I couldn’t really find a reason not to do it. The only reason is that they haven’t won here in recent history. But I think they have the things here in place to get the job done.”

Fuente replaced Larry Porter, who came to Memphis from LSU and is now on staff at Arizona State. He finished 1-11 in 2010 and 2-10 last season.

Before him was Tommy West, who took the Tigers to a 9-4 finished in his third season, 2003, but went on a steady decline after that and after nine seasons and a record of 49-61, was replaced by Porter. For that matter, you have to go back to 1973 to find the last time Memphis won as many as eight games.

Nonetheless, as Fuente hit the ground running, he was able to hire a staff pretty quickly, get into recruiting and prepare for spring. And then Memphis got the boost last week that in 2013 it will leave Conference USA for the Big East.

“The timing of this was really excellent,” Fuente says. “I was given the tools and resources to hire a quality staff.”

Among the additions were Darrell Dickey as offensive coordinator. He came from Texas State but previously had been at, among others, New Mexico, Utah State, North Texas and LSU. His father, Jim was head coach at Kansas State from 1978-85, and Dickey played for him. What’s more, he coached at Memphis before.

And, although Fuente is an offensive guy with great credentials, he expects to work well with Dickey.

“We had a long talk about offense. I’m going to be heavily involved in the offense and calling plays and all, but coach Dickey and I have a great understanding of how that’s going to work. I don’t want the wheels to stop when I step out of the room.

“I also value his opinion. As a coordinator I never ran it as a dictatorship. It was never like that. It was always open to sharing ideas and concepts and I imagine it won’t be much different.”

Fuente’s defensive coordinator is Barry Odom, who spent the past nine years at his alma mater, Missouri.

Now they have to turn things around and Fuente is counting on relying on much of what he learned from Gary Patterson at TCU, understanding that in today’s college football world, it all starts with defense.

“I learned from a great defensive mind and I think that’s why I have a different view of it from a lot of offensive guys when they get a head job,” Fuente says. “I’m not saying that I can put that (TCU) defense in, but hopefully do the things that prepared that defense.

”We have a philosophy offensively and a philosophy defensively, but we’re not going to steer to extremes a that detriment of the other side.”

Accordingly, he wasn’t sure how things will break down.

There are two ways to look at [rebuilding,] which is ‘Poor me,’ or we get to build it with our guys.
-- Memphis head coach Justin Fuente

“I love throwing the ball on first down, but I know if we end up throwing the ball too much it’s because we’re behind, which is not a good thing,” Fuente says. “I would love to run the ball. We have an old saying, which is we run the ball to win and throw the ball to score. That summarizes what we believe offensively.”

That will start with an inexperienced quarterback situation.

“It’s pretty thin,” Fuente says dryly.

Jacob Karam is a redshirt-junior transfer from Texas Tech who was highly touted coming out of Friendswood, Texas. He played in one game in 2010 and in five last season at Texas Tech.

“He’ll be eligible to play immediately. I’m excited about him,” Fuente says. “He jumped in with both feet and went to the front of the line, but he’ll have to learn a new system.”

Also in the mix will be sophomore Taylor Reed, who completed 169 passes in 295 attempts last season for the Tigers, including 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.

“He’s coming off an injury, so he’s not been out there running, but I’m encouraged by him and seems to be a great kid,” Fuente says. “So I’m excited about those two guys.”

Clearly the Memphis offense needs all the help it can get. The Tigers were outscored 421-195 last season and averaged 190 yards in the air. But Fuente is not jumping the gun.

“We haven’t been done anything yet. We’ve been involved in the running groups and we have a long way to go, from an accountability level, to a discipline level, to responsibility, work ethic and toughness level.”

What’s more, he said he isn’t concerned about the past. “I didn’t watch a whole lot of (2011) video, to be honest with you. I’ve intentionally not. I wanted those guys to come in with truly a blank slate.”

The slate opens on Wednesday with a spring practice that runs through April 4. In that time will be a spring game on March 31 and time off of more than a week in early March to match the university’s spring break.

There will be plenty to work on.

“Oh, my gosh, and we knew this coming in, but our numbers are way low,” Fuentes says, happy to have some junior-college transfers. “We won’t be at 85 scholarships next year and there will be a bunch of freshmen.

“There are two ways to look at that, which is ‘Poor me,’ or we get to build it with our guys. We don’t have a lot of seniors next year which means we get a chance to mold a young team.”

Memphis opens its schedule on September 1 against Tennessee-Martin.