Justin Fuente’s football life was shaped mostly by two very different men.
At Union High in Tulsa, Okla., he played quarterback for legendary high school coach Bill Blankenship. After an all-state prep career that included 6,104 passing yards and 65 touchdowns, Fuente signed with Oklahoma, where Dick Winder was his offensive coordinator for two seasons.
“They could not be two more different people,” Fuente said. “Coach B is as laid back as you can get, and Coach Winder was as rough and tough and mean and hard on me as anybody I have ever had, and I would have jumped in front of a train for both of them. I think I’m in between those two personalities.”
The balance is working for Fuente, 39, who has reeled off 13 straight wins as the head coach at Memphis and finds himself on every major college football coaching search short list. South Carolina could be among several suitors for his services next year, but Fuente said this week he won’t discuss another job until after the Tigers season is complete.
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“I am worried about this football team right now,” he said.
That kind of focus might be difficult given the increased attention Fuente has received since leading Memphis to a 37-24 win over then-No. 13 Ole Miss on Saturday.
“Part of our message to our team has been handling the things that come with success,” Fuente said. “For me, I feel like it’s my obligation to set a great example for them as well. We as coaches have the same distractions. For me, I show up every day to go to work, do everything I can to prepare our football team and I go home. I do my best to shut it all out.”
The Tigers are 6-0 and ranked No. 18 in the nation this week. It is the first time since 1996 Memphis has been ranked, but Fuente isn’t ready to celebrate yet, he said.
“Nobody comes in at halftime and dances in the locker room,” he said. “Right now, we’re at halftime.”
Fuente came to Memphis in 2012 after three years as the co-offensive coordinator at TCU. He also has coached at Illinois State. Things didn’t start out well in western Tennessee. The Tigers were 4-8 in his first season and 3-9 in his second but improved to 10-3 last year.
“We didn’t have a lot of people on the team (in 2012), we didn’t have a lot of pride, and we didn’t have a great work ethic,” Fuente said. “Hopefully, we have at least changed those three things.”
Fuente described his coaching style as “pretty straightforward.”
“They understand that when they are doing it right, I am absolutely going to tell them that they’re doing it correctly, and when they’re not, I am absolutely going to tell them that they’re not and that I’m disappointed and that we need to fix it,” he said.
He has enjoyed seeing his players experience the fruits of victory, he said.
“When they win ball games and they get to jumping around and having a good time, I just sit back and watch and take great pride in that because in the back of my mind I know how many of those locker rooms I have been in where it was really, really rough,” he said.
Four questions about Justin Fuente
Where is he? Memphis head coach (23-20 in fourth season)
Where has he been? TCU (offensive co-coordinator and QB coach, 2009-2011; RB coach, 2007-2008); Illinois State (offensive coordinator and QB coach, 2004-2006; QB coach 2001-2003)
Where has he played? Oklahoma QB 1996-1997, Murray State 1998-1999, Arena Football League Oklahoma Wranglers, 2000-2001
What does he make? $1.4 million