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In Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech hired the right man — the Hokies and everyone else almost missed out

Justin Fuente at his introductory news conference at Virginia Tech on Monday. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

Almost two decades ago, a 21-year-old quarterback called his high school coach and asked for advice.

He had spent years dreaming of attending the University of Oklahoma, but now it had gone sour. Justin Fuente was indeed a Sooners quarterback; two years earlier he had been named Oklahoma’s high school player of the year. He was on his second head coach in Norman, in his second offensive system; promises had been made and broken, and now first-year Sooners Coach John Blake wouldn’t even speak to him.

“Justin was broken,” says Bill Blankenship, who had coached Fuente at Tulsa’s Union High in the mid-1990s. “He wondered if he was who he thought he was.”

Now, in what seems like a lifetime after what Blankenship and one of Fuente’s college coaches referred to as the most challenging time in the young man’s life — perhaps the first time Fuente, a talented and intelligent athlete, had experienced failure — Fuente was introduced Monday morning as Virginia Tech’s new football coach.

Fuente said he had numerous opportunities to leave Memphis, but could not turn down the Virginia Tech offer once longtime Hokies coach Frank Beamer retired.

“We all know you don’t replace a legend in coaching,” Fuente said of Beamer. “You hope to build on what he’s done.”

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Fuente, 39, is young and no-nonsense, and those who know him well admit he is confident and occasionally gruff. In his first job as a head coach, he took over Memphis when it was something between an afterthought and a laughingstock and leaves the Tigers as a top 25 contender with 19 victories over the past two seasons.

He’s the kind of man who remembers his own coaches, because they weren’t just influences; they helped shepherd him to this point.

“Those guys really made me want to be like them,” Fuente said at his introductory news conference. “I really envied the way they did things.”

He is, Blankenship says, the perfect man to succeed Beamer, who earlier this month announced his retirement after 29 seasons in Blacksburg. Fuente, whose name has been lobbed about often throughout one of the most chaotic coaching carousels in recent college football history, decided to test himself at Virginia Tech and the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“There were a lot of opportunities that came across our desk,” Fuente told WATN-TV in Memphis on Sunday. “And we didn’t mess with any of them except for this one.”

He was among the most desired names in coaching, far different from when he called his high school coach in 1997 and told him he was no longer wanted in Norman. Blankenship knew his former player was at a crossroads, but he told Fuente not to worry. The coach already knew what Fuente’s next move should be.

A rocky start

Fuente, who had grown up two hours from Oklahoma’s campus, could barely believe it when new Sooners Coach Howard Schnellenberger arrived at Union High and told the kid he wanted him in Norman.

Schnellenberger, the legendary coach who had led Miami to the 1983 national championship, saw Fuente — Oklahoma’s two largest newspapers named him the state’s player of the year in 1994 — as the next anchor of his pro-style offense. Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde, now Justin Fuente. The young man had considered smaller schools until then; after Schnellenberger visited, the decision was made: he was going to be a Sooner.

Almost immediately, though, reality didn’t match his hopes. Schnellenberger redshirted Fuente as a freshman, and after one forgettable season in Norman, the coach resigned. The program tabbed former Sooners defender Blake for the job, and Fuente didn’t fit Blake’s offensive vision.

“It was too bad that he came to Oklahoma,” Schnellenberger said by telephone Sunday afternoon.

Fuente was caught in the crossfire over who should start and the direction of the program, along with the losing that permeated one of the nation’s premier teams. The Sooners, who would lose 22 games during Blake’s three seasons, fractured; coaches looked for lifelines and better situations. Fuente, who came off the bench to lead the team to an upset win against Texas Tech, apparently wasn’t even worth acknowledgement by his coach.

“Coach Blake never said a word to me after that game,” Fuente was quoted as saying by the Oklahoman in 1998, going on to say he sat in the locker room and cried. “He never has.” The same article quoted Blake’s denial that he had ignored his quarterback. Fuente “might not have heard me, but I said, ‘Good job, Justin,’ ” Blake was quoted as saying.

Denver Johnson, a former Sooners assistant coach, was among those who left Norman amid the turmoil. He had been named head coach at Murray State, and one day he was driving in Tulsa and whipped his car into a high school parking lot.

Blankenship, Fuente’s high school coach, had been Johnson’s college roommate; on that day, they blew off steam and lamented how Fuente was being wasted. On his way out, Johnson predicted that before long, Fuente would call Blankenship and tell him he couldn’t take it anymore.

If that happened, both men would recall later, Johnson wanted his old friend to do him a favor: make sure Fuente knew the way to Murray, Kentucky.

Seizing opportunity

Sure enough, Fuente called Blankenship, who made good on his promise to Johnson. Soon Fuente was in southwest Kentucky, suiting up for the Racers. But he was hardly himself.

“You could just tell he was really strained,” Johnson, now the head coach at Missouri Southern, says. “He was a broken child. I wasn’t sure he was going to make it.

“This kid had just been treated horribly, just inside and outside. I just thought he was so heartbroken that I didn’t know if football was going to work again for him.”

Johnson invited Fuente to his home and to his family’s excursions at the lake. He convinced Fuente to try water skiing, and Johnson tried not to laugh when Fuente kept falling into the water. “I think he drank half of Kentucky Lake,” Johnson says.

Nothing seemed to jolt Fuente out of his funk, leading his coach to wonder about the young man’s psyche. He spoke again with Blankenship, and the friends considered whether Fuente, after the ordeal at Oklahoma, might be finished with the game entirely. Maybe Fuente would return to Tulsa and join his father’s stock trading firm or move to some far-away city for a fresh start.

Then spring practice started, Johnson installed Fuente as his starting quarterback. His smile was back. “Like a flower in the desert,” Johnson says, “that someone poured water on.”

Fuente set four passing records in 1999, but more than that, he learned to believe in his coach. He picked Johnson’s brain on schemes and formations, attempting to understand the purposes of his coach’s decisions. Johnson rewarded Fuente’s curiosity with freedom to experiment, still seeing Fuente so many years later as a once-in-a-generation leader.

Fuente, who followed his Murray State career with a brief career for an arena football team, had rediscovered his passion for the game. Which is why, Johnson says now, he knew success lay ahead for his protege. Johnson, who later became Fuente’s first boss when he hired him to coach quarterbacks at Illinois State in 2001, says the only thing that has surprised him — not Fuente’s success as TCU Coach Gary Patterson’s offensive coordinator, the turnaround at Memphis or the opportunity at Virginia Tech — is that the difference between success and failure, and how close Fuente could’ve missed out on all this, was whisper-thin.

Johnson wonders about the small things that point a man in one direction or the other, the phone calls and decisions that are made or not. Another came in 2001, when Johnson wondered whether Fuente, who by then was taking business classes back at Oklahoma and playing for the Oklahoma Wranglers, might be interested in teaching the game. He enjoyed his business law class, and a life beyond football was beginning to come into focus. Law school, he would recall later, seemed like his destiny.

“I was at a point in my life,” Fuente said Monday, “where it was either give this a shot and let’s go see if this could work or you’re going to have to can it.”

Nevertheless, Johnson figured the answer would be no — that Fuente probably saw himself as a player, not a coach — but he called and asked anyway. Fuente never went back to class.