Editor's note: This feature was written prior to Memphis' upset bid over Ole Miss on Saturday. Read on for inside look at how a struggling problem found a way to rise to the top.
It wasn’t done with a small fortune or a roster bursting with former elite prospects in dire need of the right educator. It was done the good ol’ fashioned way—gradually and with failure sprinkled throughout. And it was all made possible because one young coach was bold enough to take a chance on a football program in a basketball town stuck on the bottom of the ocean floor.
In December 2011, the Memphis Tigers named Justin Fuente the head coach of one of the nation’s worst football teams. Not much was known of the then-35-year-old back then. He worked under Gary Patterson at TCU for five invaluable years. He knew offense. Sure, he’s hired.
Most assumed that the team with 21 losses in 24 games leading up to the 2012 season would continue to be the doormat of college football, even with this fresh new influence.
On Saturday, the undefeated Memphis Tigers, having won 15 of their last 18 games, will take on Ole Miss in the biggest game in the program’s history.
“It’s going to be a monumental challenge for us, there’s no reason to dance around it,” Fuente told Bleacher Report. “I want us to go out there, play the game the right way and put on display what we’re all about. And if we can play really well, we might have a chance to make a play at the end of the game to steal one.”
Memphis, once more, is an underdog. Only this week it feels different. It is different. But before we can even begin to assess what this game means to this program and this city, we must first travel back in time to appreciate the sheer magnitude of this ornate rebuild.
After having some success in the early 2000s, Memphis head coach Tommy West was fired in 2009.
With one foot out the door, he unhinged at his final press conference—calling out the fans, administration and media for a lack of support. It was a Jerry Maguire-esque meltdown—an awkward goodbye that foreshadowed trouble ahead.
Attendance plummeted. Interest vanished. Results did, too. The football program, already in a complex relationship with its city, lost its identity.
The days of DeAngelo Williams, West’s best player and one of the best running backs in all of college football, seemed long gone.
In his four years with the program, Williams ran for 6,026 yards. He toppled 1,900 yards rushing in consecutive seasons before graduating to the NFL, where he has continued to excel. He was the face of a new generation of Memphis football.
The Tigers, having enjoyed a revival behind their star tailback, dipped back into familiar depths.
“Obviously it’s easy to love a winner. It’s very easy. Winning cures all,” Williams told Bleacher Report. “When you’re going through a lull and losing, it’s hard to love a loser.”
After Williams left, the program began its downward plunge. Larry Porter replaced Tommy West, although Porter coached only two seasons and led the program to only three wins.
It was Fuente’s job to pick up the pieces, although it did not start well. His team went 1-8 in his first nine games in 2012. The Tigers rallied to win the last three, giving them some momentum heading into 2013. The following season, Memphis finished 3-9.
Given time to fix the program, Fuente headed into the 2014 season with reserved expectations, just like always. Memphis followed by winning 10 games for the first time since 1938 and tied for a share of the American Athletic Conference title—its first conference title in more than 40 years.
“It’s about consistency,” Fuente said. “I was very fortunate to be part of a fantastic program at TCU for five years. They won before I got there and they’re winning after I left. The expectation level with Coach Patterson never changes, and that’s what we’re trying to get to here. We’re not there, quite honestly. We still have our peaks and valleys, but I never want us to lower our expectation level at the same spot.”
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Fuente’s time at Memphis is how differently his teams have looked. In many ways, it parallels the transformation Patterson’s team has undergone over the past few years—first with defense, and now with a flood of points and touchdowns.
In 2014, Memphis was ranked No. 28 in yards allowed per game. A senior-heavy group proved to be the identity of the Tigers behind defensive coordinator Barry Odom.
Many of those seniors are now gone, as is Odom, who partnered with Gary Pinkel at Missouri this offseason. This year, the Tigers’ defense is ranked No. 104 in yards allowed per game.
While that unit has taken a step back, the offense has taken a quantum leap forward. A solid unit a season ago—ranked No. 22 nationally in points scored—Memphis has become a juggernaut. In back-to-back weeks, Memphis won games 44-41 and 53-46.
Entering Week 7, Fuente’s team is averaging 47.8 points per game. This puts the Tigers behind only Baylor, Texas Tech and, somewhat appropriately, TCU.
“The makeup of our team has been quite a bit different, although I am proud of the way our team has battled back,” Fuente said. “It hasn’t always been pretty, but we showed a lot of grit coming back from deficits and playing on the road.”
Having a quarterback certainly helps. And in Paxton Lynch, Memphis has just that.
At 6’7” and 245 pounds, Lynch, still only a junior, has a build unique for the position. Through five games, Lynch has thrown for 1,535 yards, compiled 11 total touchdowns and tossed zero interceptions.
His development over three seasons has been apparent. And just like his head coach, Lynch entered the program with limited expectations. He was listed as the 247Sports composite rankings’ No. 84 pro-style quarterback in 2012.
“Paxton was not a kid out of high school that came from a big powerful program. He came from a small school in Florida, so he was raw when we got him,” Fuente said. “But he worked diligently over the past few years to improve. If he will continue to work like he has the last couple of years, he has a chance to be a very special player.”
The combination of defense and now offense has put Memphis in an unfamiliar position. They are on the map again. The buzz is now more defined.
It’s a buzz that DeAngelo Williams can feel hundreds of miles away, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers after a long, successful stint with the Carolina Panthers.
Williams is no stranger to Memphis happenings; he reads the papers and articles from his hometown to stay current with developments. These days—and more specifically, this week—he can sense that the city is embracing this team once again, maybe more so than it ever has.
“Everything about me bleeds Memphis,” Williams said. “What makes me feel the best I’ve ever felt about our Tiger program is to see students camping outside for tickets. It’s a hot ticket to see Ole Miss. To see the stands filled is going to be amazing. I can’t wait. All of those Memphis fans who have followed Memphis through the good and the bad are reaping the benefits of it now.”
Before Williams left to turn this passion into a career, he helped guide Memphis to multiple wins over Ole Miss teams that featured players such as Eli Manning and Patrick Willis. It has been done. It can be done. Still, the 2015 task is daunting.
On Saturday, the Liberty Bowl will be a ball of energy. But as much as Memphis has working in its favor, beating Ole Miss would require the offense and defense to finally come together as one. The Tigers will have to play their best game since Fuente arrived.
“Let’s prepare and go take our shot,” Fuente said. “We’re playing a fantastic team. We have nothing to lose.”
It’s easy to be infatuated by a single game—by the red carpet laid out nicely—but Saturday is about far more than 60 minutes. It’s the culmination of a journey, a magnificent uphill climb back to relevancy.
Led by a head coach that many teams looked right past, a quarterback that was deemed unworthy of a scholarship by many, a roster that has been turned over and the failures it took to get here, Memphis has made it.
The Tigers made it without the helping hand of a quick-fix elixir or a run of dynamite recruiting classes. They did it slowly and gracefully. They failed, got back up again and tried again.
This was no small endeavor; this was a renovation that was years in the making. It still has a long way to go.
But in a sport so obsessed with quick and immediate turnarounds, there’s something splendid about watching this rebuild come together. It’s an original. It’s a lot like life, really. The hard work and patience has paid off, and now a city that has longed for its return is basking in its success.
Regardless of what happens next, don’t be blinded by one game. Saturday is just the next step in the process—albeit a big one with a giant spotlight there for the taking.
“I’m not a Memphis fan because we’re No. 22 in the country. I’m not a Memphis fan because we’re undefeated,” Williams said. “I’m a Memphis fan because I know what the program looked like when it had a 32-year bowl drought. Every year it just gets better and better. It’s a football city now.”
Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.