Football vs. Tulsa; photos by Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
With confetti swirling, the University of Memphis football program savored an American Athletic Conference championship to close out the 2014 regular season. Weeks later, the Tigers were back on a podium and celebrating another championship as Memphis defeated BYU 55-48 in double overtime to win the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl.
Memphis' first conference title in more than 40 years along with the come-from-behind bowl victory are certainly mile markers on the road the Tigers are traveling under Justin Fuente who begins his fourth season as head coach in 2015.
Unquestionably, the Tigers have made momentous strides in Fuente's first three seasons. He inherited a program which had won just five combined games (2009-11) in the three years prior to his arrival.
When he was named the University's 23rd head football coach on Dec. 8, 2011, Fuente was not only charged with rebuilding Memphis' football program but simultaneously having oversight in the program's step up in competition. In his second year, the Tigers began play in the American Athletic Conference.
The year following the transition to The American, Memphis celebrated a conference title inside Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. And then the Tigers celebrated again in Miami as the team won for the 10th time during the season and equaled a school record for victories which was established in 1938.
Fuente's efforts in building the Memphis program did not go unnoticed. The Football Writers Association of America, in conjunction with the Allstate Sugar Bowl, named him one of eight finalists for the 2014 Eddie Robinson Award.
He was also named the American Athletic Conference's 2014 Coach of the Year, a unanimous choice of his peers. The Tennessee Sports Writers Association named him its College Football Coach of the Year.
Fuente's team also received a number of honors from the conference as Tank Jakes shared the league's Co-Defensive Player of the Year and Jake Elliott was named the Special Teams Player of the Year. The Tigers had six players named to the league's first team - offensive lineman Al Bond, tight end Alan Cross, defensive lineman Martin Ifedi and cornerback Bobby McCain along with Elliott and Jakes. An additional four players received second team honors.
In two years as the Tigers' starting quarterback Paxton Lynch, a member of Fuente's original signing class, has become only the third Memphis player to pass for over 5,000 yards in a career. The 35 touchdowns he was responsible for in 2014 shattered the previous school season record of 26.
Offensively, Memphis scored 471 points in 2014, shattering the old school record of 430 points set in 2004. Defensively, Memphis allowed just 19.5 points per game which ranked 11th in FBS Football.
With a seven-game winning streak to conclude the 2014 season, Memphis ended the year with the fourth-longest win streak in FBS Football. Only national champion Ohio State as well as New Year's Six Bowl winner Boise State and TCU ended the year with longer win streaks.
Memphis closed out the 2014 season ranked in the top-25 of both the AP and USA Today/Amway Coaches Polls, a first for the program.
The University of Memphis’ seven-win gain from 2013 to 2014 was the third-best improvement for FBS Football programs in 2014. The improvement also represented the ninth-best improvement ever by an FBS team. Going from one league win to seven, the Tigers had a six-win improvement in league play alone.
Fuente's team continues to be built on four pillars - 1) Academic Integrity, 2) Social Responsibility, 3) Individual Accountability and 4) Competitive Excellence.
Going into the 2014 season, Memphis Football had recorded the highest grade point average in program history. The Tigers' 2014 roster included four college graduates and that total jumped to 12 degree-holding players who played in the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl as another eight student-athletes earned their diplomas from the University of Memphis following the 2014 fall semester.
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.
Much of the groundwork for the University of Memphis program's current success was attained during Fuente's first two seasons as the Tigers' head coach.
Fuente knew the challenges the program would face when the team began play in The American. In his second season as head coach, the Tigers finished in the bottom half of the league standings in the new conference but it was well apparent the program was headed in the right direction.
In 2013, Memphis faced the third-toughest schedule among American Athletic Conference programs, playing seven opponents who advanced to bowl games. Games lost to bowl-bound opponents were decided by just eight points per game.
Memphis Football continued to make major strides in Year Two under Fuente.
Defensively, the Tigers were ranked No. 39 in total defense (370.7 ypg allowed) and No. 12 against the run (116.3 ypg allowed). Offensively, Paxton Lynch passed for over 2,000 yards, becoming just the second rookie in program history to do so. It was just the 10th time overall a quarterback has passed for over 2,000 yards in a season.
Memphis' special teams featured Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hornsey, who won the award annually presented to collegiate football's top punter, and Elliott, who was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, which is presented to the nation's top place kicker, as well as one of the nation's top kick returners.
Memphis had three players named to the All-American Athletic Conference Team - Elliott, Hornsey and Ifedi.
In Fuente's first season in 2012, the Tigers posted their best finish since 2008 and won more conference games than the previous three seasons combined but Memphis' then new head coach began building a foundation months prior to his rookie season.
One of the first items Fuente put in place upon being named the head football coach at the University of Memphis was "The Tiger Code." The code consists of three elements - 1) Fundamentally Sound, 2) Physically Fit and 3) Mentally Tough.
In addition to instilling the Tiger Code and installing a new off-season conditioning 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 Fuente's first season, the group of leaders served as a conduit between the coaching staff and the team.
While breeding a new culture within the program, Fuente shared his vision for Memphis Football as a speaker for a variety of civic groups while also making the rounds on television morning shows and the area's talk radio circuit. He and his staff conducted the school's first Women's Clinic in an effort to educate female fans as well as further build the program's fan base.
Memphis posted a 4-8 overall record and was 4-4 in league play in its final season as a member of Conference USA in 2012. The Tigers' efforts did not go unrecognized. Athlon Sports' College Football Preview Magazine had Fuente No. 5 in the publication's ranking of new coaches from 2012, and in 2013 Athlon ranked him No. 6 among coaches under 40.
The Tigers averaged 318.33 yards of total offense during the 2012 season. The season total represented a 44-yard improvement from the 2011 season. Memphis came close to doubling its rushing average, improving its rushing total to 151.75 yards per game in 2012. Memphis' fourth-down efficiency percentage ranked among the Top 10 in FBS Football.
Defensively, Memphis led Conference USA in total defense in league games played in 2012, giving up just 331.6 yards per game. UM lowered its total yardage allowed in conference games from the previous season by 30 percent.
For the year, Memphis ranked 48th nationally in defense (383.58 yards per game). The Tigers made a 69-position improvement from the 2011 season. The UM defense ranked 36th nationally in quarterback sacks, more than doubling the number of sacks it had in 2012 (29) from the 2011 season (14).
The Tigers' special teams also made striking improvements during Fuente's first season.
Memphis ranked among the nation's Top 20 in kickoff return yardage defense and punt return average. UM punter Tom Hornsey ranked 19th nationally in punting.
Six UM student-athletes were recognized as first or second-team All-Conference USA selections or named to the C-USA All-Freshman team. It was the most all-conference selections for the program since 2005 (eight).
Fuente previously served five seasons on Gary Patterson's staff at TCU from 2007-11. Fuente joined the TCU football coaching staff in February of 2007 as running backs coach and was promoted to co-offensive coordinator in February of 2009. As part of his promotion, he moved to coaching the Horned Frogs quarterbacks.
A native of Tulsa, Okla., the dynamic play-caller helped guide TCU's program to consecutive BCS bowl game appearances with a 2011 Rose Bowl victory over No. 5-ranked Wisconsin that followed an appearance in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl. From 2008-10, TCU was the only program in the country that finished in the top-10 in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls all three campaigns.
In Fuente's three seasons as offensive coordinator, TCU set single-season school records for touchdowns, points scored and first downs, while also ranking among the nation's most productive offensive units. From 2009-11, the Horned Frogs won 36 of 39 contests, including a 24-game win streak in the Mountain West Conference (MWC).
Credited with developing some of the top quarterbacks in TCU history, Fuente coached 2012 NFL Pro Bowl selection Andy Dalton and 2011 TCU starter Casey Pachall. 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.
Under Fuente's tutelage, Dalton became TCU's career leader in every major passing category. The 2011 NFL Draft second-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals also set Mountain West Conference all-time marks for total offense (11,925 yards) and plays from scrimmage (1,730). The two-time MWC Offensive Player of the Year and three-time bowl game MVP, Dalton finished ninth in 2010 Heisman Trophy voting. He was a finalist for the Manning, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm and Bobby Bowden awards, while also being a semifinalist for the Davey O'Brien and Maxwell honors.
As a sophomore in 2011, Pachall broke Andy Dalton's single-season TCU records for completions (228), completion percentage (66.5) and yards (2,921). Pachall threw for 473 yards against Boise State, the second-highest, single-game total in school history. He threw only seven interceptions in 2011 and helped rally TCU from fourth-quarter deficits three times, including the 31-24 win over Louisiana Tech in the Poinsettia Bowl, a bowl in which Fuente did not coach.
The 2011 Horned Frogs became the first team to win the Mountain West championship three-consecutive seasons. TCU finished the year at 11-2 and ranked No. 13/14 in the final polls. The Horned Frogs ranked among the national leaders in total offense with their average of 440.2 yards per game.
In 2010, Fuente helped direct TCU to 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 points per game), sixth in passing efficiency (166.9), 10th in rushing (247.4 yards per game) and 12th in total offense (476.9 yards per game).
In his first season as co-offensive coordinator, Fuente helped direct a record-setting 2009 TCU attack. The Horned Frogs established then single-season school marks for points scored (498), total offense (5,937 yards), touchdowns (65) and first downs (311).
TCU ranked fifth nationally in rushing offense (239.5 yards per game) and scoring (38.3 points per game), while placing seventh in total offense (456.7 yards per game) and eighth in passing efficiency (154.1).
With Fuente as running backs coach in 2008, the Horned Frogs had a "running back-by-committee" attack. TCU ranked 12th nationally in rushing, despite not having a player ranked among the top-96 rushers in the country. TCU's 220.2 yards per game rushing was its highest mark since 2000 when LaDainian Tomlinson keyed a Frogs ground game that averaged 275.6 yards per game. During that 2008 campaign, Fuente helped develop tailback Aaron Brown into being a 2009 NFL Draft sixth-round selection of the Detroit Lions.
Fuente made the move to TCU after spending six seasons as quarterbacks coach at Illinois State. His final three years saw him double as the Redbirds offensive coordinator. Under Fuente's direction, Illinois State ranked in the top-10 nationally in total offense in 2005 and 2006. The Redbirds ranked eighth in 2006 with an average of 397.5 yards per game, after ranking fifth in both total offense (477.6 yards) and scoring (39.2 points) in 2005.
Fuente coached Redbirds quarterback Luke Drone to All-Gateway Conference first team honors, as he led the league in passing (227.8 yards per game) and total offense (231.6 yards per game). Running back Pierre Rembert set an Illinois State single-season record with 1,743 yards, while also ranking sixth nationally in rushing with 134.1 yards per contest. As a college quarterback, Fuente played two seasons (1996-97) at Oklahoma under then-Sooners offensive coordinator Dick Winder.
Fuente set an Oklahoma freshman record with 11 touchdown passes. He transferred to Murray State for his final two years of eligibility. Fuente set 11 school records at Murray State, including total offense and passing yards in a game and season. In 1999, he was the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) Offensive Player of the Year and a Walter Payton Award finalist, given annually to the nation's top player in Division I-AA. Fuente is a 1999 graduate of Murray State.
Following his collegiate career, Fuente played professionally with the Oklahoma Wranglers in the Arena League. Fuente and his wife, Jenny, have three daughters, Cecilia, Caroline and Charlotte.
The Fuente File
Date of Birth:
July 30, 1976 in Tulsa, Okla.
Murray State, 1999; bachelor's degree in finance
University of Oklahoma (QB) 1996-97; Murray State (QB) 1998-99
Wife - Jenny; Daughters - Cecilia, Caroline a Charlotte
2004-06 (Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks)
2007-08 (Running Backs)
2009-11 (Co-Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks)
2012- (Head Coach)
Guided the University of Memphis to its first conference title in more than 40 years as the Tigers posted a 7-1 record in its second season as a member of the American Athletic Conference in 2014
Led Memphis to a 55-48, double-overtime win over BYU in the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl
Coached Memphis to seven straight wins to end the season as the Tigers finished the year with the fourth-longest, current win streak in FBS football and finished with a seven-win gain from 2013, one of the top-nine turnarounds all-time
Memphis finished the 2014 season ranked in the top-25 of the final AP and USA Today/Amway Coaches Polls, a first for the program
The Football Writers Association of American, in conjuction with the Allstate Sugar Bowl, named him one of eight finalists for the 2014 Eddie Robinson Award
Was also named the American Athletic Conference's 2014 Coach of the Year, a unanimous choice of his peers
In 2013, steered the Memphis program into the American Athletic Conference while facing the league's third-toughest schedule
Led Memphis to a 4-8 mark in his first season as the Tigers' head coach, marking the team's best finish since 2008
At 4-4 in Conference USA play, Fuente helped lead the Tigers to more conference wins in 2012 than the previous three seasons combined
His first year as co-offensive coordinator at TCU, the team set school records for points (498), yards (5,937), touchdown's (65) and first downs (311)
With only two returning offensive starters in 2011, Fuente led the TCU offense to an average of 41.67 points and 10-2 record
Fuente was elevated to co-offensive coordinator prior to the 2009 season
Over the last three years, the Horned Frogs have averaged 226.79 passing yards per game and 232.36 rushing yards per game
Under Fuente's tutelage, quarterback Andy Dalton became TCU's career leader in every major passing record
Fuente moved to TCU after spending the previous six seasons as quarterback coach at Illiniois State, where he also served as offensive coordinator for three years
TCU has scored at least 27 points in its last 31 regular season games under Fuente's offense
TCU was the only school in the nation to have two different QB's rank in the top 10 in passing efficiency over the last three seasons
TCU is 49-5 in its last 54 games and 35-3 since Fuente was elevated to co-offensive coordinator
Fuente led TCU to a 13-0 record in 2010, including a 21-19 victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl
Played final two seasons at Murray State (1998-99) after transferring from Oklahoma
Helped lead the Racers to consecutive 7-4 records
Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year (1999)
Walter Payton Award finalist (1999), given annually to the nation's top player in Division I-AA
In only two years at Murray State, name appears on career passing charts for yardage (3rd, 6,392), attempts (4th, 793), completions (4th, 458), touchdowns (2nd, 50)
Had five games with at least four touchdown passes
Still holds Murray State record for most 300-yard passing games (10), including a 553-yard performance versus Southern Illinois in 1999 (2nd highest single-game passing performance in school history)
As a senior in 1999, set school season records for passing yards (3,498), attempts (400), completions (240) and touchdowns (27)