The Frank Beamer replacement question has always had my interest, even before this season. I knew Frank’s time was short, so who would be the guy to eventually step up? Bud? Lefty? Shane? Well, what if it was none of them? What if Whit saw the hand he had and mucked the whole thing and went for new blood, or at least, skipped over most of his current hand to draw new cards. So I zeroed in on a couple of potential replacements and I’ve kept a running tally of how those decisions are going. When the editor of this site approached me for my input on this article series, I decided to supply a name that had really gone in a positive direction. I’d zeroed in on one guy I really liked, and the more I read, the more I liked him. At the point I learned of him he was just the guy turning a program around. Now he’s leading a ranked team to an undefeated season with a win over an SEC team with MUCH higher rated recruits than he’d ever get where he was. That team is a former C-USA/AAC laughingstock called Memphis. That man is Justin Fuente.
Who is Justin Fuente?
Justin Fuente is currently the yearly special, the hot ticket on the market. Going after him would be putting us in the conversation for the guy everyone’s bidding on, but how did he get there?
Fuente is a younger guy, only 39 years old, and yet he’s already proving to be successful in his first stint as a head coach. Fuente was born in Oklahoma, graduating from Union High School in Tulsa. He was a very accomplished quarterback, Offensive Player of the Year as rated by the Oklahoman. He signed with the Sooners out of high school, but after a couple years there, transferred away to the Racers of Murray State University. If that name sounds familiar to you, and it should, that was Frank’s old stomping grounds and Foster’s alma mater. This was years after they had left, of course, but it could be an interesting coincidence or useful tie. His career at Murray State made him a finalist for the Walter Payton Award- the Heisman Trophy for FCS level competition- and he still holds multiple Murray State passing records.
He signed with the Oklahoma Wranglers of the Arena Football League for a year, but never saw any action. He immediately jumped to coaching, and moved to Illinois State where he coached quarterbacks under his old head coach, Denver Johnson, who had taken over that job after leaving Murray State. From there, he jumped to RB coach at TCU, and then became quarterback coach and co-offensive coordinator as well. It was during his time as co-coordinator that the Horned Frogs went to the Rose Bowl, went undefeated, and Andy Dalton played himself into a 2nd round pick. Players that also were developed under Fuente’s watch as OC include Casey Pachall, Marcus Cannon, Jeremy Kerley, and Josh Boyce. There were two undefeated TCU regular seasons (yes, their defense was very good and part of it, but their offense had also been impressive). Their 2010 Rose Bowl season, they led the Mountain West in scoring offense with 43.3 points per game.
After the 2011 season, the University of Memphis offered him a head coaching job, which he accepted. His first two years weren’t so strong, as would be expected of a man trying to rescue a team that had gone bust under Larry Porter. Porter had continued the fall that had started at the tail end of Tommy West’s run. In three consecutive seasons under those two, the program had gone 2-10, 1-11, 2-10. Fuente proceeded to go 4-8 and 3-9. Last year, however, the recruiting he had done and the coaching his staff had done started to pay off. Memphis won the Miami Beach Bowl to reach 10-3 and tie for first in the AAC. So far this year, they are 7-0, ranked 16th in the AP and Coaches Polls, beat the 18th/21st ranked Ole Miss Rebels (who have recruited better than Memphis EASILY), and are heading for another AAC championship in a surprisingly crowded field including Temple and Houston, both of which are also undefeated.
(for more on Fuente, here's his official Memphis bio: linked here.)
Why would Fuente head to Virginia Tech?
The good news for us is Virginia Tech is a definite step up in money, fanbase, and facilities from Memphis. The prestige of the Virginia Tech football program is DEFINITELY greater. And while it would be difficult in replacing the college football hall of famer that is Frank Beamer, Blacksburg is a place where you can still get fairly good recruits, play in a competitive conference (one that has stumbling blocks on the OTHER side of the conference), and possibly settle in for a long-term stay. We’d definitely be able to pay to give him a raise. Right now he is making about $1.4 million dollars and has a $500,000 buyout, which is NOT insanely expensive when you consider we’d also be hiring new coaches (for more information on his contract, click here). He’d also be following a legend from his Murray State alma mater, if that matters to him. Taking Frank’s role here might be considered a privilege. He’s also got a slight history of being able to move around to other places- he is an Oklahoman, but he’s gone to Illinois State, Murray State, Texas Christian, and Memphis so it’s unlikely that he’s overly attached to the point of not being drawn away. You’re also going to another no-nonsense school. Fuente is apparently a no-nonsense guy. Get the job done right, be a good guy, move forward. He’s very much in line with what we expect in a coach and we’re in line with what he would expect from a university.
Why wouldn’t Fuente come to or stay in Blacksburg?
A couple of reasons, some more valid than others.
One, if the fellow Murray State call isn’t that strong and he holds no attachment to that, and that’s likely minor if any reason. But the next couple are extremely important.
Two, if Oklahoma folds up shop on Big Game Bob after several disappointing seasons, he could be the first guy to go from Normal (Illinois State) to Norman in his coaching career in a short time. This year Oklahoma is 6-1, so unless they completely detonate, it’s unlikely, but Oklahoma has a greater history than Virginia Tech, even recently. If they came knocking, he could go walking. Maybe he's not AS attached since he transferred away from there, but the possibility could exist.
Three, we also could be involved in a bidding war for his services. Maryland has Kevin Plank money if they want to throw it at him. Miami has the U tradition and prime recruiting territory. South Carolina is in the SEC. USC, is well, USC (though I’m not so sure they’re going to go all the way across the country to pull Memphis’s head coach for their football team). That doesn’t count Rutgers, UCF, and Illinois. But outside USC, all of these programs have potential flaws that could put them in a greater hole than VT: Maryland generally doesn’t care a ton about football and generally recruits poorly, Miami has no money and their facilities stink and their fanbase hates going to their games, and South Carolina is in the lower couple rungs of the SEC ladder and their athletic department is in MASSIVE debt. At this point, he of course is an attractive candidate, and there are definitely other jobs that could be open, but each of these schools has issues that might sway his thinking toward the Appalachian Mountains.
Four, maybe our prestige has slipped lower than we think, and he views it as a lateral move or only a slight rise and wishes to continue on with Memphis or hold on for a better job than Virginia Tech. In my opinion that would be really terrible and pessimistic to say, but that’s not exactly impossible.
How would this work out?
If Fuente was the guy, we’d first have to make an interesting decision involving our current staff. If you fire EVERYONE, you might lose plenty of the roster. Many of the current players are very involved with the current coaching staff, and unless Fuente holds some sway or maintains some of the old staff members as continuity links or for their recruiting ties to help him out, he could have to start the process of building a roster from scratch again. It might do him well to retain someone like Bryan Stinespring for his connection to a lot of the players on the roster and help with recruiting Virginia.
Now, the interesting part is where Bud Foster were to sit in all this. If Foster didn’t like the move, he could of course be granted his release and we’d pay him off and so forth. That would be what it is. But Foster could decide to stay (that is being discussed as a thought with other candidates such as Rich Rod, but with Fuente it might be dicey considering the age and experience gap and the unfamiliarity), along with Gray or other coaches (though Lefty would sure as heck be gone). Since Memphis currently isn’t exactly known as having a good defense, Fuente might jump at the chance to have Foster on his staff. Tech’s relationship with Bud is a conversation for another article, but in my opinion, if you wanted to keep Foster as the DC, there’s a valid argument to be made that this could work out.
So, in the end, why go for Fuente?
I believe Justin Fuente is the next big rising star in coaching, if he isn’t THE rising star already. I think that he’s got experience with an offense that works at a major college level, and he’s got enough youth and vigor to get a lot of the coaching duties done with speed and energy that this program has lacked of late. I think that he’s been around, seen plenty in his time, and I think that being an ex-Gary Patterson coach connects him to one of the better coaching staffs in the country at this moment. He’s got ties all over the Midwest and into Texas, and has some experience working the eastern seaboard now that he’s been at Memphis for the past three and a half years and was in Kentucky for a few in college. I think he’s got the right attitude and aptitude mix to get Tech flying right- he’s recovered a worse program in Memphis and gotten them to better heights. He’s exactly the kind of coach that this fan base can get behind. In a lot of ways? I think he could be the offensive version of Frank Beamer. And if you’re going to replace a legend, let’s go out and see if we can make one cut from similar cloth.