Memphis’ Bowl Eligibility Throws Justin Fuente into Coaching Market


Jake Elliot’s game-winning field goal as time expired to beat an up-and-coming Temple team in Philadelphia on a Friday night didn’t just help Memphis achieve a solid win over a quality opponent.

No, it was much more than that; it was monumental.

Now in their third year under coach Justin Fuente, the Tigers are right in the thick of the American Athletic Conference race, and with a 6-3 (4-1) overall record, are bowl eligible for the first time since the 2008 season.

That’s great for the city of Memphis, for the athletic program, for the dedicated and passionate fans and alumni, and for the seniors that had won a total of nine games the three years prior.

“It feels good, it’s a great feeling (to be bowl eligible),” said redshirt junior wide receiver Mose Frazier, according to 247sports. “We’ve been talking about this since I got here three years ago, building a team and a program to get to this point. It just feels good to get to the point that we are right now, get to six wins and go bowling.”

It’s also great for Fuente, who is going to receive a handful of phone calls this offseason from Power Five schools offering him a boatload of cash to say sayonara to his first head coaching gig—which isn’t good for any of the people involved in the list previously mentioned.

Much like Fat Bastard’s, “I eat because I’m unhappy; I’m unhappy because I eat,” spiel, the life of a Group of Five program is a vicious cycle: Either you are bad and have to fire your coach, or you succeed and lose him to another program that has a lot more money than you.

From 2010-11 under Larry Porter’s tenure, Memphis went 3-21 (1-15 C-USA) and was outscored by an average of 27.4 points in its losses. The Tigers were one of the worst teams in college football and were outmatched in nearly every contest.

Insert the former TCU offensive coordinator that developed quarterback Andy Dalton and helped the Horned Frogs score 40.8 points per game in 2011 en route to an undefeated season, including a Rose Bowl win over the Wisconsin Badgers.

In 2012—Fuente’s first season with Memphis—the Tigers went 4-8 and were beaten by an average of 18.9 points in its eight losses, compared to 12.6 in 2013 (including the two-game collapse to in the season where it lost to Temple and Connecticut by a combined 55 points).

While competition was similar jumping from the C-USA to the AAC, it’s no argument that the latter was still better. Going toe-to-toe with quality bowl teams like Duke, Middle Tennessee, Central Florida, Houston, Cincinnati, and Louisville means a whole lot more than beating UAB 46-9.

“It’s not always the amount of time that’s magical. If a coach can coach, it’s usually apparent immediately in how players respond, how practices are conducted, etc.,” Phil Stukenborg of the Commercial Appeal told me via e-mail early Saturday morning. “While there were a few who wondered about Justin Fuente after his second team went 3-9, there were too many other signs the program was progressing.”

But here’s the real kicker: Fuente had 50 scholarship players when he arrived in 2012, and only 27 stayed on (compared to the average of 85 per FBS team). He was set up to fail, yet did the complete opposite.

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In Year 3, Memphis is on track to win nine regular season games (thanks to a vanilla latter schedule), which is something that hasn’t been accomplished by a Tiger team since the Billy Murphy era all the way back in 1963 when Lyndon Johnson was the President of the United States and a bottle of Coca-Cola cost a nickel.

Memphis defied all odds by nearly beating then-No. 11 UCLA at the Rose Bowl in Week 2, was within four points of SEC West power Ole Miss through three quarters in Week 5, and blew out the preseason conference favorite (Cincinnati) by a score of 41-14 in Week 6.

When it’s all said and done, this could go down as the best football season in Memphis school history—and Fuente might not even be around to celebrate it by late December.

There will be some notable programs with coaching vacancies to give Fuente a ring as soon as the regular season ends, and he will answer: North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, and Mississippi State are viable prospects, with potential vacancies at Arizona, Florida, LSU, South Carolina, and more.

You can also throw in the possibility of other G5 “stepping stone” schools that could pay him more and give him a better opportunity to succeed short-term.

Fuente currently has a base salary of $975,000, which makes him the 81st highest-paid coach in the country (9th in the American). Any of the listed schools above could at the very least double that with incentives.

Money, of course, is what makes this sport go ‘round.

There are only two ways Memphis can stay relevant and continue the momentum into 2015: 1. Fuente signs an extension with significant pay raise, or; 2. A.D. Tim Bowen makes another home run hire.

Unfortunately, neither of the two will be an easy—or realistic, for that matter—task.

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