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USF, Memphis have been on opposite paths since 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl

Memphis junior quarterback Paxton Lynch helped lead the Tigers to its first 10-win season and a share of the AAC title last year. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/TONY GORDON

Tommy West stood before a pallid, gray backdrop, still donning his long-sleeved Memphis Tigers polo shirt, when he addressed his firing as the team’s football coach in November 2009.

Memphis was in an elongated nosedive, and West knew it. The man who had spent nine years with the program — one as its defensive coordinator in 2000 and eight as head coach — and led it to five bowl appearances, was fed up. 

“I’m the seventh straight coach that stands here, saying the same things to you,” West told reporters. “This is the seventh straight time this has happened, and history will continue to repeat itself, folks, if they don’t do something about it.

“Whoever they hire, our fans need to demand one of two things: You have to demand you give him an equal stick to fight with within our conference. You’ve got to give him an equal playing field.”

One year before his ouster, West’s Tigers had traveled to Tropicana Field for a date with fast-rising USF in the inaugural magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl. 

At that time, the Bulls were seemingly on top of the world, led by heralded quarterback Matt Grothe and a fiery leader in coach Jim Leavitt. 

USF easily handled Memphis 41-14 on that December evening, and seemed destined to continue its upward climb toward the top of Division I-A. The Tigers, meanwhile, lost 10 games the next season, costing West his job.

In an ideal world, this story would have concluded there. But nearly seven years after that day, the two programs find themselves heading in opposite directions as they prepare to meet as AAC foes on Friday at Raymond James Stadium.

* * *

When USF coach Willie Taggart looks toward the opposing sideline Friday night, he might see a reflection of a team he wants to mold his into, one that’s tough, tenacious and on its way up.

The jump that Memphis has made in four years under coach Justin Fuente is truly something to behold. From losing 35 times in a duration of 39 games from 2009-12, to winning a share of the AAC title last season – its first conference championship since 1971 – the Tigers have evolved into the glowing example of how to rebuild a program from ground zero.

“He believes in what he does and doesn’t let anything else get in the way of what he’s trying to accomplish there, and I think that’s why he got it done,” Taggart said of Fuente, a longtime friend. “He was patient. Even when it wasn’t going well, he was patient and stuck with it, and now it’s paying off for him. It’s paying off big-time for him.”

The success of Fuente, who is the youngest coach in the AAC at 39 and the sixth-youngest in Division I-A, can be formulated to something the Bulls have failed to do – developing a long-term solution at quarterback.

In USF’s slide under former coach Skip Holtz and in two-plus years with Taggart, the Bulls have sunk shuffling through an array of signal-callers like deck chairs on the Titanic. 

Fuente, meanwhile, has stuck by his man: junior dual-threat Paxton Lynch.

After going through the growing pains of a roster filled with mostly leftover talent from Larry Porter’s two-year stint as coach, Fuente took a flier on Lynch, who was a virtual unknown out of small Deltona, Florida when he inked a letter of intent to Memphis in February 2012.

Although he redshirted his first year on campus, Lynch, at 6-foot-7, 245-pounds, was seen by Fuente and his staff as a player with serious potential.

“We saw a kid that very rarely makes the same mistakes twice,” Fuente said. “He was always learning from what had happened, he’s a very good listener. We could see his natural talent. You don’t find guys that are that tall that can run like he can run every day.”

But the results weren’t there in his infancy as a starter.

Hindered by a lack of talent around him, Lynch struggled. He completed just 58 percent of his passes and was picked off 10 times.

At one point during the 2013 season, he threw an interception in five straight games.

“Were there times that I felt like giving him a little break during his freshman year? Yeah, sure there were,” Fuente said. “But we really felt like between the guys around him getting better and him continuing to improve that we were getting a lot out of it.”

That confidence in Lynch was rewarded as he tossed 22 touchdown passes as a sophomore last season, leading Memphis to its first postseason berth since that loss to USF at the Trop, and a 10-win season as the Tigers downed BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl.

“We had a great, core group of kids that stuck with it and would do anything we asked them to do in order to give themselves a chance to win,” Fuente said. 

* * * 

Taggart hopes he can write a similar story to Fuente’s at USF. Despite back-to-back losing seasons, the Bradenton native believes he has the youthful nucleus in quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack to get the job done.

Despite uncertainty looming over his future and some restlessness within USF’s fan base, Taggart’s confidence hasn’t wavered. He’s still patient with his team, but he knows just how much the next few weeks can dictate things.

It starts on Friday against the undefeated Tigers (4-0).

“There’s nothing we set for our goals that have been taken away from us,” Taggart said. “It’s a great opportunity for our football team, a great opportunity for us to take the next step in the conference and those goals, and that goal is to win our conference and win our division in our conference. … 

“Now, it’s on us to go take advantage of it.”


Memphis (4-0) vs. USF (1-2)

When: Friday, 7 p.m.

Where: Raymond James Stadium

TV/Radio: ESPN2, 820-AM