'You don't replace him': Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente on following Frank Beamer and Paxton Lynch's NFL future
At 8 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, Justin Fuente picked at his breakfast. An empty bottle of Diet Mountain Dew sat atop his desk; apparently, driving past deer in the predawn darkness and consuming large doses of early morning caffeine make up a big part of the coach's plan to revive Virginia Tech.
Fuente, who came to the Hokies from Memphis last November, caught up with Campus Rush in his office for a Q&A, and he discussed topics ranging from Paxton Lynch's NFL future to Virginia Tech's muddled quarterback situation. He also went deep on the lengths Frank Beamer has gone to welcome him to Blacksburg, Va., as Fuente begins the daunting task of replacing a college football legend.
Campus Rush: How many Diet Mountain Dews do you drink a day?
Justin Fuente: I usually hit a couple in the morning and then try to back off of them in the afternoon. I try to go to water in the afternoon. But early in the morning, I'm up and have me a couple Diet Dews.
CR: I've heard that you like to get out to the links in your spare time. Where does the golf bug come from?
Fuente: Well, the men in my family don't care if you're the head coach at Virginia Tech. They just want to know if you can play golf. And they expect you to bring your wallet. I'm the worst male golfer in my family, by a ways. My dad loves golf. My sister married a former PGA pro—Michael Boyd—a guy who went through Q-School (qualifying school) and made it about a year and a half on the tour. And so that's always been the sport. And I've always been the bad golfer in the family.
I'm trying to get my girls into it. It's something I envision down the road we can do together for a long time.
CR: What's the best course you ever played?
Fuente: Oh, Pebble Beach—beauty and history. I never thought I'd get to do something like that, so that's part of it, just the awe of actually being there. And then the beauty of the place is fantastic.
CR: When you were hacking around on municipal courses in your native Oklahoma, you probably didn't think much about Pebble Beach, huh?
Fuente: Yeah, it's a little different from LaFortune.
CR: Sources say you won the coaches' division at Pebble a year or two ago, so you can't be that horrible.
Fuente: Oh, they have a horserace or a shootout kind of deal. Just among the coaches that one year I won because I played well—and one year I won because I got really, really lucky. Really lucky. And then the past year my luck ran out.
CR: Fishing is another hobby of yours. What did you fish for in Oklahoma? What's your best catch?
Crappie and bass, mostly. We've done a little bit of fly-fishing in northwest Arkansas, which is kind of fun. I'm far from an expert at it, but there is something about standing in middle of the water and the natural beauty and the calmness, all that sort of stuff is pretty cool. But mostly, I would say I'm a bass fisherman who has yet to catch his Moby Dick or his 10-pound bass, you know?
CR: I'm sure no one has asked you yet about replacing Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, so …
Fuente: [laughs] You don't replace him. I'm honored to have the opportunity to build on the tradition that he built. There may never be another person that means as much to Virginia Tech as coach Beamer. And we respect that and honor that. Quite honestly, because of the way coach Beamer is, it has made this a much easier transition than maybe people would think on the outside. We also understand the standard has been set that we have to live up to.
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CR: I've heard there's a funny story you have relating to Murray State, where you played quarterback from 1998–99 and where Beamer coached before coming to Blacksburg.
Fuente: I come in the door, and coach Beamer had just been going through his farewell tour. There are souvenirs and signs people have made him and all sorts of trinkets lining the walls.
And behind it are his national coach of the year awards, the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year, the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year. All these coach of the year [awards]—not conference coach, but national coach of the year awards, which is—it's a little intimidating. But he is so accommodating that you can't help but feel at ease, you know? "Come in, sit down." We visit, and I'm just looking around.
I think in his effort to make me feel comfortable, he acknowledged that maybe it was a little intimidating. We talked, Murray State came up, and he popped up out of the seat. "Justin, as matter of fact, I got something that you may …"—and he kind of rummages through it all and he pulls it out. It's his Murray State Hall of Fame plaque, and he says, "Justin, you know about this. You've got one of these." Which I didn't have the heart to tell him, no, I didn't have one of those, either.
I thought it was a very genuine display. Quite honestly, I'm not afraid to laugh at myself. An easy way to show the kind of character and effort coach put in to make me feel good as soon as I walked in the door.
CR: I heard your linebackers coach, Galen Scott, introduced you to your wife when you were both at Illinois State. Can you tell me that story?
Fuente: Man, you've got some background. Coach Scott and I lived together as young coaches at Illinois State. He just finished playing and I had been out of school a year. We took restricted earnings jobs there, where we worked hard and had fun. But no money, no cable, anything like that. Just bare-bones necessities.
Jenny had actually been in school at the same time as Galen at Illinois State. She had been a volleyball player. And it's true. After a few years of us living together, I kind of saw her, and Galen knew her a little bit, so he arranged a meeting there. And it took off.
CR: I'm sure you've gotten plenty of calls about Paxton Lynch from NFL people. Walk me through his recruitment and his development at Memphis.
Fuente: Well, basically, we took the job at Memphis [before the 2012 season], and we were in need of a quarterback. And somebody had heard of a guy who had been hurt his senior year and had played well in an All-Star game. That's how it got started. We sent somebody down [to Deltona, Fla].
We tried to scour the Internet for film on him, whether he was throwing at an Elite 11 camp or whatever, and we tried to piece together as much as we could. We liked it, and we saw some glimpses of athleticism, too.
The two things I was worried about when we went to check him out was: Is he not as tall as he's made out to be? Is he really a 5' 10" guy? Or is he kind of like a Herman Munster kind of guy? Can he not move around? You know those big guys [who] can't move.
But there were some glimpses of athleticism in the film. And literally—we don't like to do this—but we signed him, or offered him a scholarship and then signed him, without having seen him throw the ball live, which is usually a no-no. Usually you should see a guy throw the ball live, because it's sometimes hard to tell on film.
We felt like it was good enough and, quite honestly, in our current situation, we felt like we could do it. So we did, and he committed. When he got there, it was very obvious this kid had a tremendous amount of talent.
He was a good athlete, he could throw the ball, and he was highly intelligent. To say that he was a little green I think would be an understatement. And you could just visibly see the development, both the strength development to help him become a better athlete and then the mental development. He very rarely made the same mistake twice—but made plenty. And then slowly we got those narrowed down to what you saw last year, which was a pretty good player.
CR: What do you think of his NFL future?
Fuente: I think he's got a bright, bright future. When you send those guys out there, it's a little bit different, at least for me, with quarterbacks. It's a little bit more like putting your own child out there. There's a special amount of ridicule that comes with that position and the thick skin you've got to have.
My hope is he goes to a good situation. Like the same way I felt about Andy [Dalton] when he left TCU. (Fuente worked as an assistant for the Horned Frogs from 2007–11.) I just wanted him to go to a great situation and get a great chance. And Andy did that and has gotten a fantastic chance. (Lynch went to the Denver Broncos with the No. 26 pick in the draft.)
I know there have been a lot of good quarterbacks who end up in bad situations and have short careers, really through no fault of their own. If he gets in a good situation, I think he's going to be very productive and continue to develop and get better. We have not seen the best of Paxton Lynch. I think he still has strength to gain. I think he still has knowledge to gain. He's willing to do the work, so I think he's got a bright future.
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CR: That's a good transition to the quarterback situation at Virginia Tech. You have a few guys competing for the starting job. What should we expect?
Fuente: We've got three or four pretty athletic guys. I'm looking forward to seeing that. I'm excited about it. I don't know where it's going to go, but I like the way they are all going about their business. They've all got some size and athleticism. I think they may all—we'll see, but they may all bring something different to the table. I don't know. But I'm excited. We've got good competition there.
CR: Coaches like to tailor their systems around their personnel, so this may be hard to answer now, but what do you foresee being your offensive approach here moving forward?
Fuente: Ultimately, we'd like to push the tempo, but we're not interested in hanging [our defense] out to dry. I think it is an advantage to push tempo, but I think also you have to be smart. There are some schools out there that are going to win a lot of games [with] blatant disregard for the other side of the ball and that's fine.
For me, I think it's important to have a little bit of a balance. But we'll try to mold it to our best guys. We're not particularly deep at receiver. We got some good ones I'm excited about, but that's going to make pushing tempo a little bit of a challenge, because we would play eight or nine guys in the first quarter at Memphis, and we just don't have that right now.
But we do have some interesting things in terms of some good numbers at tailback, some tight ends who I think will maybe make it look a little bit different. But it'll all center around finding a way to run the football. If we've got to run the quarterback or run the tailback and then throw play-action off of that. If we can do that, I think we'll be much better as a team.
CR: Defensive coordinator Bud Foster is as much of a fixture around here as coach Beamer. What has it been like building a relationship with him? Or going out and recruiting with him in these parts?
Fuente: [You have] instant credibility as soon as you walk in the door with coach Foster. He not only knows the secretary behind the counter, but he knows the woman who had the job before that woman. He not only knows the head coach, but he knows the last two head coaches at that school.
It's just been a really seamless transition. Maybe the most highly decorated assistant coach and coordinator in all of America, but yet still the most humble, hard-working, genuine person you could find. We had a visit before we took the job and didn't talk for one second about scheme or anything really to do with football. We talked about the profession and the art of coaching and Virginia Tech, and have hit it off since day one.
CR: How has your family transition to Blacksburg been?
Fuente: It's been really smooth. I've been really pleased. My wife has done a fantastic job. We've gotten moved here. We actually, through some help of people in town—again, a great example of Blacksburg and Virginia Tech—we were able to get here before our house was ready and before we'd sold our old house, just to get the girls in school, to get everybody assimilated.
I was a big proponent of getting everybody here as quickly as possible, just because I like being around them. I like seeing them and interacting with them and having them come by the office and that sort of stuff, so through some help here in town and locally, we were able to get here.
We're getting to some sense of normalcy. We drive by eight or nine deer every day on the way to the house, and the girls count them. We see about 15 wild turkeys every day. It's just really a cool experience. Exactly what I always wanted my day-to-day life to be: surrounded in football with a great, tight-knit, family-oriented community, with the outdoors mixed into it. Life's pretty good.
CR: Finally, I've got one throwback question for you. I heard that none other than Sean Payton spoiled your dream of playing in the NFL.
Fuente: Yeah, I had a workout with the New York Giants a year after I had been done. I graduated in December '99, and I guess the combine was in 2000.
I knocked around for a year, and a year later got a call from the Giants. He was the offensive coordinator. I went up there and worked out, and had what I perceived to be a very good workout. Like, I'd been training. I was in great shape. And I got the old handshake and plane ticket home.
On that flight home, I kind of had my realization that I didn't even have an excuse. It wasn't like I was out of shape or hadn't been training. I was ready for it and just wasn't good enough.
So that's when I began to realize it was time to figure out what I wanted to do, whether it was to go back to school and go that direction, or actually get into this coaching deal that I had been drawn to for some time.