CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Many major-college football coaches have a long, twisted career path through a number of schools, and Lytrel Pollard's path to Marshall has gone through Memphis.And that generally means one thing: He has experienced some painful football.Currently MU's cornerbacks coach, Pollard had the misfortune of witnessing the end of Memphis' Tommy West era up close - he coached the Tigers' cornerbacks in 2008 and 2009. The 2008 season was a rebound year, as the Tigers rallied to earn a bowl berth and finish 6-7.The 2009 season? A 2-10 disaster, punctuated by West's dismissal. The end was announced in early November, with the lame-duck staff allowed to finish the season.The dark side of coaching, for sure."My second year, we had some people get hurt, things didn't go quite the way we wanted," Pollard said. "We got let go, I think, with four games left to go in the season. Once that happened, guys just throw in the towel and don't work as hard, because they know the coaches are going to be gone - what's there at the end the day to look [forward to]?"That was the hardest part of the situation."It hasn't gotten easier in Memphis. Former Tiger running back Larry Porter took over for West, and that was a disaster from the start. Reports say he failed to connect with the community, a necessity for a football coach in a basketball-rabid city.(A sidenote: Former Marshall player and assistant coach Shannon Morrison was a member of Porter's staff. He has since served a year as defensive coordinator at Holy Cross and is now coaching corners at Cincinnati under Butch Jones.)
The Tigers went 3-21 in 2010-11, eroding fan interest further. That was evident in the final home game - when Marshall visited Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium last November, it was greeted by a frosted-over gathering of about 2,000.By contrast, when Marshall first played at Memphis in 2005, 46,000 showed for DeAngelo Williams' final home game.Porter became the eighth head coach to leave U of M with a sub-.500 record. With a Big East invitation expected and the program getting shelled by Sun Belt schools, the position became even more of a daring proposition.Justin Fuente took the dare, leaving a secure post as co-offensive coordinator at Texas Christian. A former Walter Payton Award finalist at Murray State, he tutored quarterback Andy Dalton and was part of the Horned Frogs' three straight top-10 seasons.Few first-time head coaches take over winning programs, but Fuente faces challenges on many fronts. Facilities have been historically lacking, with a perpetual fight over the merits of an on-campus stadium vs. remaining in the Liberty Bowl. Top local talent gravitates toward nearby Southeastern Conference schools.
And, as West declared on his way out in 2009, "There is a negativity here that in the end will eat you up."
So what brought the 36-year-old Fuente to Memphis, which plays at Marshall at 2 p.m. Saturday?"Tremendous potential from a university standpoint, from a community standpoint," he said Tuesday. "A large public university with a great location that has all kind of potential. I also saw a group of people that was tired of not doing the things the right way, and wanted to do things the right way."While I was here [interviewing], I saw the challenges ahead of me, but knew the upside was incredible."So far, not so good on the win-loss ledger. The Tigers (1-7, 1-3 Conference USA) started the year with a 20-17 loss to Tennessee-Martin and clinched its fifth straight losing season last week with a 44-13 setback at Southern Methodist.The Tigers' lone win came against Rice, 14-10 in a heavy rain. Memphis outgained Central Florida two games later, but three critical turnovers led to a 35-17 loss.Defensively, the Tigers have improved a bit, but the offense is struggling at 17.5 points and 286.5 yards per game, 117th and 119th of 120 teams nationally.
But Marshall coaches see an attack close to clicking under quarterback Jacob Karam, a junior who transferred in after completing his Texas Tech degree."You watch the film, and the ball hits the fingertips, or comes just a little bit behind him," said Chris Rippon, the Thundering Herd's defensive coordinator. "Or the running back gets through and he just gets tripped and you're saying, 'They're a play away from knocking the thing out.'"And then they play Central Florida, and just about beat Central Florida. Early, they had the thing going."With four games left in the Tigers' C-USA history, Fuente also sees progress, even if it's sometimes imperceptible."I think seeing the growth in some of these kids," he said. "We've got kids on our team right now that if you asked me my first month here, [I would say] there's no way they'd make it. They have continued to work and change and persevere and become better people, better human beings, better students, better workers."And that's the thing that keeps you working every day, watching the improvement in our program."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.