Seems like the season just ended yesterday, no?
Memphis is the first Big East team to get a head start on the 2013 season, as the Tigers kick off spring ball today under second-year coach Justin Fuente. Memphis is coming off a 4-8 season, its best record since 2008. The Tigers ended 2012 on a three-game winning streak, and their four Conference USA wins were more than they had notched in the previous three seasons combined.
The program also saw a 21 percent spike in attendance, the biggest improvement among all current and future Big East schools.
This week we caught up with Fuente — who received a one-year contract extension Feb. 13, locking him up through the 2017 season — to talk about the task at-hand as Memphis makes the transition to a new conference.
How would you characterize the mood or feeling around your program right now as you guys get ready for your first season in the Big East?
Justin Fuente: Well I think this is an unprecedented challenge. I can't think of any times in the history of college football where a program has been, basically trying to build a program while simultaneously taking a step up in competition. So I think the weight or the magnitude of that challenge is certainly recognized here. We obviously understand we've got our hands full playing different people, some people maybe that we haven't been as familiar with in the past. So there's a whole challenge from that side, and then there's a whole challenge from the side that's just pure physicalness. You're just going to go play a couple teams that have kind of made a niche as big, physical teams, whereas you just didn't see that as much last year. It was a fast league last year but not necessarily a real big, physical league.
You touched on the dual-challenge you've got going on going into your second year. What would you say you've done most differently, if anything at all?
JF: Well we haven't really done anything differently. The challenge is building this football team, whether you're playing SMU in Conference USA or you're playing SMU in the Big East, it really doesn't matter. The biggest deal is just what it means to the university, obviously from a national exposure side. But we haven't really changed anything from our philosophy to the way we do things. I think I was fortunate to be a part of a TCU staff -- we were in the Mountain West, and then we were going to be in the Big East and then ended up in the Big 12 right before I left. But we had those discussions at TCU; the difference was we already really kind of established ourselves as a program. So the challenge is the same, you just have to get better, playing in a better league.
How much does the way you guys were able to finish strong last year kind of shoot the momentum up a notch moving up this year?
JF: I think it's good for the kids, it's a nice reward. I think the lightbulb kind of went on from a team aspect, from playing as a team, accountability level, those sorts of things. I don't know that anybody was any better a tackler or post-runner than they were when the seasons started, but I think they played better together. Now the challenge for us is two-fold -- one, that team is gone, and we have to re-establish ourselves as a team this year, and the second hurdle or the second thing that we've got to understand is we don't play any of those teams, we don't play the teams that we beat. So we've got to raise our level of expectations. Everybody's excited that we won four games and won our last three but we've got to change our level of perception, change how we see ourselves, and our level of dedication has got to continue to increase.
Perception-wise, I'd imagine part of that comes with getting in the Big East, getting on TV more and creating that kind of culture?
JF: Oh sure. Yeah, it's a huge thing for outside perception I think, and viewability and exposure for our university on a national level, I think it's huge. We've got to worry about ourselves and change our perception of ourselves. What is good enough? What is dedicated to the team? The thing that I found out since taking over this job is it's more about building a team than it is fancy Xs and Os.
Among all teams that will be in the Big East this year, you had the highest attendance spike from 2011 to 2012. Is that kind of proof of what you're saying?
JF: There's people in this community that are dying for us to get back on track. There's a lot of Memphis Tigers supporters in this city that will turn out. And they showed up for our first game and they showed up for our last game. I think they recognize and are starting to recognize the hard work these kids are putting in, and they're thirsty for us to succeed.
You touched base on it a little bit, being with TCU a few years back. But do you watch a team like Temple last year and how they fared, or any other teams that have taken that big jump and the kind of things they maybe were or weren't able to do against a new set of opponents?
JF: I don't mean this negatively, it's just we have had so many things to concentrate on for ourselves that we have not been able to really spend much time on how other people have done things. Not that you can't learn from other people, it's just, we were in such the building blocks of an actual program that looking that far ahead still is premature. We're still just trying to get our guys playing in the right direction.
Recruiting-wise, what's your pitch in that respect?
JF: Well first of all the community and the university stepped up in a major way from a facility standpoint, so it's easier to see, when the kids come on campus, the dedication to get this thing turned around. You have the opportunity to build a program for people that think it's very important. There are some programs that can win eight or nine games and people still won't show up, that is not the case here. This is very important to this community. And I think you have the chance to be the group that comes in and gets this thing turned around, all the while moving into a national conference, a conference with a large footprint, with large media markets, with underrated -- on a national scale -- football powers. There have been some really good football teams to come through the Big East in the last [few] years that get undervalued at times, in my opinion. But we get a chance to play some really good ball.
What's the next step for Jacob Karam as he goes into another year under center?
JF: He's got to win the job. We're going to have open competition, so the first thing for Jake is he's got to become the starter. We have Paxton Lynch here who's a freshman who redshirted last year, that we're going to throw in there and let those guys go compete for the job. But I think from just Jake's standpoint, Jake's got to make the average play more often. I'm not looking for anything spectacular from him, I'm just asking him to make the routine plays on a more consistent basis; if he can do that, he'll have an awfully good chance of winning the job.