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2013 American Kickoff: Memphis begins new era OK aiming to be Sprite

For most the soda debate comes down to two options. I’m a Coke guy myself, but some people prefer Pepsi. Second-year Memphis head coach Justin Fuente says it’s OK to be Sprite though.

Fuente looks over a Memphis football program looking to begin a new era by building a foundation for future success. Memphis is joining the newly reformed American this season and it is Fuente’s hope that being a part of the conference will help Memphis begin writing a new chapter in program history. Fuente, who spent five seasons at TCU as an assistant for Gary Patterson, is hoping to implement knowledge and wisdom from lessons learned as TCU made the transition from BCS buster hopeful to legitimate power conference member.

“I go back to my time at TCU,” Fuente said at the American Kickoff. “Their program was a lot farther along than ours is. But when you think about what Gary did down there in the midst of the Big 12, and he used to say to us: Guys, we don’t have to be the big brand. We can be our own niche. We don’t have to be to use an example Coke or Pepsi, we can be Sprite.”

That is the perfect mindset for many of the programs in the American. Temple will continue to try and be Philadelphia’s college team while Central Florida and South Florida will likely always be next in line after the likes of Florida, Florida State and Miami. The same can be said of SMU and Houston, in the same state as Texas, Texas A&M and perhaps TCU. Yes, it is OK to aim to be the best alternative. That philosophy should never be the grand vision for a school, in my opinion, but you do have to start in single a ball before making your way to the big leagues.

Memphis has not been to a bowl game since the 2008 season and they have had four straight losing seasons. Memphis football enjoyed a nice little run between 2003 and 2008, cracking the AP Top 25 in 2004 for the first (and only time) in program history. Memphis is not what you might refer to as a football school, and playing in the same region as a handful of SEC programs (Ole Miss, Mississippi State etc.) and other up-and-coming or emerging programs (Arkansas State), not to mention playing in the same state as Tennessee and Vanderbilt (and Middle Tennessee), it can be a struggle to find a place in the mindset of college football fans without much of a history to fall back on. Fortunately Fuente understands the situation as he takes over Memphis.

“We know that we are obviously faced with an incredible challenge to build a football program while simultaneously taking a step up in competition,” Fuente said. “But we’re going into this with our eyes wide open and with full understanding of what it’s going to take to get the job done.”

Memphis was picked last in the preseason media poll, understandably so.

“It’s not discouraging,” Fuente said when asked about the preseason poll prediction. “We know where we’re at and where we’re going to go and what we’re going to do. So I don’t take other people’s opinions and consider that as a step backwards. We’re just solely focused on ourselves. We made large strides last year. We’ll make large strides this year. Where it all ends up, I don’t know.”

If there is a lesson Fuente can draw on in the new conference home it would be to look at what Louisville has done in the last four years. Four years ago, when Charlie Strong made his head-coaching debut, the Cardinals were picked to finish last in the Big East. In a short period of time Strong built one of the strongest programs in the conference, winning the conference championship, winning a Sugar Bowl and helping to put the program in position to be a lucrative addition to the ACC. If anything should serve as the blueprint, it should be what Strong has done at Louisville. That said, the financial support and commitment Louisville has to work with compared to what Memphis can offer or afford are in vastly different categories. While financial support is a big key to success, Fuente believes the chance to fresh start with the entire conference looking to make a statement will be a terrific opportunity.

“I think we have an opportunity to kind of establish our own brand and take this conference as people begin to know more about this conference and the conference begins to earn more credibility on the football field, being a part of it and people know more about it, I think we have that chance,” Fuente said. “Absolutely.”

Memphis may never be a Coke or a Sprite. Heck, who knows if they will ever even be a Sprite? Right now Memphis is probably more similar to the grocery store generic version of Dr. Pepper. Barq’s Root Beer, though, is probably a realistic goal over the next couple of seasons.

The good news for Fuente is I actually prefer Barq’s to Sprite anyway.

All quotes were obtained first hand.

About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.