It was a bittersweet day for fans of Memphis Football.
The Tigers beat SMU 63-0 for their 9th win of the season, but during the game, ESPN reported that Justin Fuente has accepted the head coaching job at Virginia Tech.
It seems some folks around town don’t expect fans to be emotional about all of this. Perhaps they forget what “fan” is short for.
And yes, I realize I sound like a jilted lover. That’s kind of how these things go.
Word of Fuente to VT had been leaked days ago and apparently the deal is so far along that Fuente’s staff at VT is already being assembled. Apparently two of outgoing coach Frank Beamer’s lead assistants will be retained.
With all this swirling, lots of questions remain unanswered for the Memphis football program:
- Why are Memphis fans and media members (on Twitter anyway) so resistant to complex emotions or nuance? Maybe it’s just the nature of social media, but why can we not acknowledge that Fuente did a historically awesome job at Memphis, that he should be praised for doing so, and still be critical of the fact that he now appears to have almost certainly been negotiating specific details of his exit from Memphis while his team was still competing – perhaps in games with significant meaning? Why can we not appreciate his immense success and be sad about the way it ended? Why must everything be so cut and dried? After all, how many other currently employed coaches accepted new jobs today? Zero.
- When did Fuente accept the VT job? We’ll probably never get an answer to this question, but I think Memphis fans are simply curious to know when Fuente decided to take the VT job. Both Fuente and VT Athletic Director Whit Babcock referred to today’s report as premature, not inaccurate. The coordination of all this makes the jilted lover (Memphis fans) wonder about some things. For example, was he discussing his next staff, or next salary while preparing for Houston? For Navy? For Temple? After the emotions wear off, nobody will really care – but it’s natural to be curious.
- Who is hiring the next coach at Memphis and are they prepared to move quickly? Let’s set aside the debate about whether or not we’re allowed to be upset that Justin Fuente’s departure was announced during the Senior Day game before the players themselves were told. The eventual concern is about what happens next and the first question becomes who’s in charge? Is it Athletic Director Tom Bowen? President David Rudd? A search firm? Or is it the select group of influential boosters that worked with the search firm last time around? Chris Vernon mentioned on his radio show this week that if Barry Odom, Fuente’s former D Coordinator, isn’t coming, than the process is going to be handed to a search firm. Hopefully Memphis is prepared to move quickly – because they’re in a highly competitive environment and preparation will be rewarded.
- Speaking of the Memphis Athletic Department, are things OK over there? I’m not entirely plugged into this, but there’s a rumor that ground breaking for the new indoor practice facility has been delayed (remember Tommy West asking for an ‘equal stick’ ?) Athletic Director Tom Bowen has lost multiple members of his senior staff over the past year and there’s reason to speculate they may have been unhappy – not just moving to the next best opportunity. Bowen himself was a finalist for the AD position at California last Spring. Josh Pastner is in full lame duck status and now it appears Justin Fuente was in an outright sprint for the door. One has to wonder about the mood and vibe at Southern & Normal. Has Bowen known about Fuente’s departure as long as Pat Forde and Brett McMurphy have? And if so, doesn’t that mean he should be ahead of the curve in finding the replacement. And if not, why not?
- Are we sold on Odom as Fuente’s replacement? Odom did a terrific job at Memphis and in his one season at Missouri. Hiring him would certainly be a way to maximize continuity while transitioning from the Fuente era. Yet it’s also undoubtedly true that the most successful coaches come from the offensive side of the football – a trend only intensified with recent evolutions in the college game that emphasize tempo and scoring. Odom’s mentors – Fuente and outgoing Missouri coach Gary Pinkel – were both offensive coaches. If Memphis is going to roll the dice on a defensive guy like Odom, hopefully they have a plan in place for the objectively more important side of the football.
- If not Odom, whom? Who might a search committee recommend for the Memphis job? Rumors have connected UAB’s Bill Clark to the Memphis job. Apparently Clark worked miracles in Birmingham before the powers that be pulled the plug on the Blazers program. I wonder about the validity of those rumors. They seem planted. Would the committee look towards a CUSA-level coach like Clark, or a MAC coach such as Bowling Green H.C. Dino Babers? Would a MAC level coach make the small jump to an AAC program such as Memphis? Probably not – given the number of P5 openings. Would that leave Memphis looking to another youthful offensive coordinator (as Fuente was) such as Baylor’s Kendal Briles? There’s also the retread option (think Houston Nutt, Gene Chizik) but I would urge Memphis not to go in that direction. Coaching at a G5 program like Memphis is a grind, and requires someone with a ton of energy – not a guy looking for a golden parachute.
- When will we know more? Now that the news out of VT has broken, Memphis fans deserve some communication from the administration. Not to mention what Memphis players deserve. These guys work their tails off and put their trust in grown millionaires. Here’s a tweet that came across during the game from Freshman RB Ja’Marious Henderson:
Whoa!!! Wait what did I just hear??? Coach Fu leaving? Wth???
— Ja'Marius Henderson (@Rijay_) November 28, 2015
Hopefully, everyone will know more tomorrow about where this all stands.
Break ups are hard – sometimes it’s best to just get it over with.