Justin Fuente has a gold shamrock — a paperweight — on the front of his desk in his new office in the University of Memphis Athletic Office Building. He discovered the talisman at his parents' house in Oklahoma, and it reminded him of a similar one a former coach passed around to rub for good luck. In taking command of a football program that has gone 5-31 over the last three years, Fuente can use every ounce of luck he might find. (A thick skin and solid jaw will be important, too. The new coach enjoyed a 35-3 stretch over the last three seasons as co-offensive coordinator at TCU, essentially the inverse of the Memphis mark.)
Hired last December to replace Larry Porter (3-21 in his two seasons at the helm), the 36-year-old Fuente relishes being in command for the first time in his career and seems to have embraced the climb ahead.
"It's been a lot of fun," he says. "Busy, obviously. It's fun to wake up every day with the challenge of building a program. From the coaching staff to the strength staff. Molding the players. Our [scholarship] numbers are so low that we have an opportunity to build the program in our own image."
Fuente arrived in Memphis with little name recognition outside the TCU circle. And no one was more surprised by the Tiger job offer than the candidate himself. Recalls Fuente, "I interviewed in New York City and flew back that night to Fort Worth. Slept like a baby, and went back to work the next day at TCU. About mid-morning, all heck started breaking loose. I went to practice that afternoon. And flew back to Memphis that night.
"I was sitting up in bed, having taken the job. And I was making a plan of things I needed to make sure and do quickly. It really hit me when it was two days before I got to the first thing on that plan. The first day was all meet and greet. I thought I'd do a press conference, then go to my desk and get to work. It occurred to me, holy cow. You can't just go checking things off. You get things mostly the way you want them but just have to get over the hump. I have to make lists. There's some small pleasure in marking things off the list."
With the success he had at a program outside the power conferences, Fuente feels he brings a unique mind-set to the Memphis job. And he tosses out the recent losing skid in describing what he finds attractive about the opportunity.
"First of all," he says, "we're located among great athletes, and we have easy access to athletes in other states, including Texas. I thought support here was a big thing, too. People talk about the lack of fan attendance the last couple of years. But it wasn't that long ago that Tommy West had this thing going pretty well, and they were going to bowl games. For whatever reason, they didn't capitalize on it. But they had it rolling, and the support was there. This is still the southeast United States, and football is important. I felt like if we did a good job, we'd get that support.
"A third thing, I felt like there was a commitment from the university to go do this thing correctly. I felt like they had had enough. They'd already started several projects. They'd finished a weight room and recruiting lounge. They had a locker-room renovation project approved and ready to go. We're going to add to that a captain's lounge and a few other things on the south campus."
As for his relative anonymity, Fuente dismisses any negative factor.
"I don't know if it's an advantage, but it gives you a blank slate," he says. "No one has a preconceived notion of what you should or should not be, because nobody really knows you. You have the opportunity to make those impressions. And it displays the courage that [U of M president] Dr. [Shirley] Raines had to hire someone she feels is the best person for the job and not the best name."
The first indication that Fuente's gold shamrock may indeed have influence came two months after he was hired, when Memphis was (finally) welcomed to the Big East Conference, a move that will be made prior to the 2013 football season.
"I felt like the program is in a conference [Conference USA] it can compete in," Fuente says. "I didn't know they'd be moving to the Big East. But it would be a good opportunity for us, because there's no dominant program in that league. I came from TCU, where the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma make it hard for other schools to compete. The SEC, same thing: LSU, Alabama, and Florida. I felt like if we landed in the Big East, we had the opportunity to be on equal ground with other teams.
"Alabama and LSU are going to get players. We need to find the right type of kids who can look past the glitz and glamour and do the right thing for themselves. But when you recruit, it's the other schools you have to compete against. At TCU, it was Oklahoma State, Missouri, Baylor we were competing with. We won't be at a competitive disadvantage in [the Big East]."
Priority list in hand, Fuente has approached his first season with a big-picture view of the Tiger program's shortcomings. Take care of the larger issues, and many of the details that lead to wins should fall into place.
"First thing is the health of the team," he says. "Kids have been through a lot. Mental and emotional health. The word we've used the most here is accountability. I'm not sure we've been accountable as a group to each other or fully invested in the program.
"There are four fundamental pillars to our program: academic integrity, social responsibility, individual accountability, and competitive excellence. We have focused largely on individual accountability. In a nutshell, we don't make excuses. I'm not interested in your side of the story, that your alarm didn't go off. We have to take some pride in wearing blue and gray for Memphis. During spring break, we're Memphis Tigers, just as we are in the fall."
Fuente has named 10 players to what he calls a leadership council. The group includes three sophomores and a redshirt freshman, receiver Tyriq Patrick.
What to expect on the field this fall? The Tigers are without a returning star. Senior offensive tackle Jordan Devey is the only Memphis player named to C-USA's preseason all-conference team. The top returning rushers — Jerrell Rhodes and Artaves Gibson — combined for 346 yards last season. (A poor month for DeAngelo Williams not so long ago.) Marcus Rucker tops the depth chart at wide receiver, and he caught all of 20 passes last season. On the defensive side, seniors Akeem Davis (defensive back) and Kenyata Johnson (linebacker) may be the only veteran difference-makers.
Which brings us to the rookies. Fuente opened eyes by signing three tight ends in his first recruiting class. Whether or not we see them on the field remains to be seen, but the stocking up at a recently under-utilized position would indicate the Tiger offense is, at the very least, transforming.
"I think you can be really versatile when you have tight ends on your team," Fuente says. "It's a developmental position, though. You can't just throw freshmen out there and expect them to play.
"A lot of people try and make this game out to be fancier than it really is. There are competitive advantages with x's and o's. But whatever type of offense you run, you eventually have to block people. To move the line of scrimmage. If you look at the best teams over the last 20 years, they had the best linemen. They give you the foundation of your team, from work ethic to toughness. And a good running game travels everywhere."
Texas Tech transfer Jacob Karam (who will play as a junior, having already graduated from his former school) takes over at quarterback after both of last year's signal-callers — Taylor Reed and Andy Summerlin — transferred. And he's drawn rave reviews, from his new teammates to the coach who convinced him Memphis is a place where he can thrive.
"I'm excited about Jacob Karam," Fuente says. "He's older, he's mature, he's highly intelligent. He graduated from college in two-and-a-half years. He can play piano by ear. He says he can see the music. Conceptualize.
"He needs to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. Sometimes he doesn't know when to fold 'em. But I'm encouraged by his character, his leadership, competitiveness, and talent level. If you watched him work out right now, you'd think he's been here three years. I actually got a letter from the president of Texas Tech when he left, telling me what a great kid he was."
During his time at TCU, Fuente helped groom Andy Dalton, who can now be seen on fall Sundays, starting for the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals. Karam may not have Dalton's ceiling as a quarterback, but he'll be expected to do many of the things Fuente expected of his star in Fort Worth.
"Offensively," Fuente notes, "we try to run the ball to win games and throw the ball to score points. I like to throw the ball down the field. This will be the same offense we ran at TCU. The caveat is we don't have the tight ends; we have to fit what we've got."
This year's schedule — starting with UT-Martin Saturday at the Liberty Bowl — may be one more hint of that gold shamrock's true weight. The top two C-USA teams on the schedule — UCF and Southern Miss — have to come to Memphis and not before the Tigers have played six games under the new coaching staff. And for the first time since 1948, the Tigers do not face an opponent from the mighty SEC. Fuente smiles (and actually throws up a thumb) when this void is noted.
"People need to understand," he stresses, "this program isn't ready to play [the SEC] yet. I don't mind playing them, but right now ... we're building this program. Eventually, we'll play them. We'll have plenty of good games on the schedule. You need to get your program going and be prepared to play anyone. But right now, we need to be intelligent about what we're doing. We need to build this thing the right way."