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Why not Memphis? Justin Fuente's Tigers welcome you to the other Grindhouse

Memphis had won 12 games in five years. Now they've won 11 games in a row. Let's talk to the head coach behind all this.

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It's really loud because there's a lot of people here, even though it's a weeknight and it's a football game. And there's no SEC team visiting. These are all Memphis fans.

In the beat-up, old Liberty Bowl. Cincinnati just threw its third interception to clinch a 53-46 Tiger win, a program-record 11th in a row. This is all Memphis:

The live tiger is the calmest fan in the building. This is not normal.

* * *

Dang, Memphis: You're scoring 53.8 points a game. You're the defending co-champions of your league. You're 4-0 for the first time in 54 years. You're a leading contender for the automatic non-power bid to the New Year's bowls. Paxton Lynch is as much a statistical Heisman contender (1,340 total yards, eight touchdowns, no INTs) as any other QB so far.

"We didn't sell it out, but there was a definitive noise advantage," Lynch said after the game. "Especially on third down for our defense. Definitely the best atmosphere I've seen here.

"We showed the nation we're grinders tonight. We did a good job showing we're not going to go away."

Hold on now. That's some serious nomenclature. One does not apply for a grit-and-grind evaluation in this town lightly.

"Yeah, I think they'll get behind it. You know, the Grizzles, the Grindhouse, maybe we can rename the Liberty Bowl," Lynch said.

* * *

There have been moments that have merited some relevance for Memphis football, but not like this. Tiger history is pocked with years of administrative apathy that defied reason, considering the school sits in one of the country's most fertile recruiting areas.

And that's why everyone is suddenly talking about head coach Justin Fuente as the next big head coaching prospect. He hasn't accomplished just a rebuild. If the Tigers continue at this pace through 2015, Memphis' success will have been unprecedented.

"I understand this stuff is fleeting, so I try to set an example the same way I’m trying to handle that stuff as a team," Fuente said on Friday morning. "Block it out. It comes and goes."

Fuente doesn't know what time he finally fell asleep after the game. He woke up early to a 2-year-old daughter indifferent to the late hours that comes from the American Athletic Conference's aggressive scheduling of prime time games on weeknights.

Now armed with his bona fides as a head coach, Fuente is absorbed with managing the transition from coaching a team with no concept of success to coaching a team in the national spotlight. It used to be problems like maintaining morale during a long practice when you're 2-9. Now it's new problems.

"I'd rather handle these problems, I'll tell you that," Fuente said. "I’ve talked to a few other (head coaches) in passing on how to keep them going. Especially when you’re not that much better. Everyone’s pretty even. One or two plays could go either way. I think it’s going to be like that for the whole season. I don’t think there’s anyone on our schedule we’re going to out-talent."

And there are still problems, such as defense. Cincinnati threw for a school-record 620 yards, almost all from backup QB Hayden Moore after Gunner Kiel's first quarter head injury. Fuente discovered the Pyrrhic quality of success in the offseason, when Missouri hired away defensive coordinator Barry Odom as the Tigers lost eight starters on defense.

The compensation has come from Lynch and an experienced rotation of skill position players. The junior quarterback's development has earned him more decision-making on the field, and Memphis has assaulted opponents with explosive plays, called "chunk plays" by the staff. Lynch has spread 29 plays of 20 or more yards among nine different players.

"Our trust factor with Paxton is high right now, and we have a bunch of other guys that have played really well," Fuente added. "We don’t have a single receiver or running back. We shuffle all those guys in, and when they have opportunities, they make it. That’s just the way we are. If we had a receiver that was head and shoulders above everyone else, it would be different. We feel like we’re pretty interchangeable, and that creates competition."

* * *

As TCU's former offensive coordinator, Fuente took the Memphis job at 35, unafraid of managing a staff of ex-head coaches to help him fill in experience. With the addition of former Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship (Fuente's high school coach in Oklahoma) as an offensive analyst in the offseason, the Memphis staff has four ex-head coaches: Blankenship, Darrell Dickey (North Texas), James Shibest (Butler Community College) and Brent Guy (Utah State). That's by design.

"I felt like it was important to hire someone that had been a head coach on staff," Fuente remarked. "Someone had thought about all the things I was going to deal with. I knew how we were going to practice, how offseason would work, how our days were going to look. I walked in ready to go because I loved the way we did it at TCU. But I knew enough to know things would come along I hadn’t thought of. I’m comfortable with it. It doesn't bother me. They’re comfortable enough in their skin, comfortable voicing an opinion. And I'll make a final decision. and we'll go out and make it work."

Fuente's management runs parallel to the always-even approach of his former boss, Gary Patterson. Fuente preached a total block of what people outside the program were saying when his team finished 7-17 after his first two seasons. The same applies now. When Patterson refused to air his grievance with the College Football Playoff after TCU's snub last season, Fuente noticed.

"I thought (Patterson) handled it fabulously," Fuente said. "He doesn’t need me to approve of the way he handled things, but I told him that: 'Coach, that was classy.' I think they earned a lot of respect because of the way they handled those things and then how they played in the bowl."

* * *

On Thursday, Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen told USA Today the Tigers are the best available program to join a power conference. A $40 million athletics facility is on the way, and the Tigers can buoy their pitch to, say, the Big 12, with a power-quality program in men's basketball and a TV market deep inside the SEC.

Having made his name as a coordinator during TCU's Mountain West years, this kind of conference campaigning isn't new for Fuente. And even after signing a five-year contract extension in the offseason, Fuente will be a 1 or 1A candidate for a host of other job openings.

Right now he's the head coach of a Memphis team recruiting against the SEC at every turn. In the future, Memphis could be recruiting against local powers as a major conference program. Maybe.

"I think ultimately, nobody knows whats going to happen," Fuente said. "To make a statement that (realignment) is definitely going to happen is a little disingenuous, but knowing it could is certainly a factor (in recruiting). It’s easy for a coach. We just coach the games. Those people, being the presidents and ADs, they go fight those battles.

"I know what my role is, and my job and I stick to it. I know we have huge aspirations, but if you spent all your time thinking about the end result and not the path, you’re never going to get anywhere."

* * *

Friday is a recruiting day. Fuente will go out to this community's coaches and players to show and not tell. He gets to point to running back Sam Craft from nearby Olive Branch, Mississippi, who scored two fourth quarter touchdowns Thursday. In 2013, Craft had offers from North Carolina and Cincinnati, bowl-winning programs. Craft bought in on an idea.

"One of the few specific points that I remember from last year -- there’s several, and none are plays, just moments -- one was Sam coming up to me when we won the share of the conference championship, giving me a big hug and saying, ‘This is what I came here for,'" Fuente remarked. "To have guys like that who believe before you can show them proof of what you want to do ... it’s just a concept, it's just a dream until you do it.

"We’ve tried to identify ourselves with that idea, grinding. We’ve tried to embrace that. In the spring game, we wore 901 (Memphis' area code) on the side of our helmets. We’ve talked about that kind of stuff, painting a picture of what we represent. Hopefully we represent that. I don't know if we're there yet."

And there's great potential in that proof. Because this is a city that's as aggressive about its identity and as it is football talent-rich. Find a way to join those two on the field, and daaang, Memphis ...