April 14, 2016
Fuente's high school coach checks in on his former player
Bill Blankenship coached Justin Fuente in high school and has been a sounding board for Tech's new head coach ever since

By Jimmy Robertson

Bill Blankenship served as Justin Fuente’s football coach at Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so he, probably before anyone else, saw a coach in the making.

“Actually, no, I thought he was way too smart to get into coaching,” Blankenship laughed. “I thought he would be a CEO – and he is, but not in the way I thought he would go about it.”

More than 20 years after coaching Fuente, Blankenship appreciates where his pupil is these days in his career as the head football coach at Virginia Tech. He spent several days in Blacksburg last week watching practices, and more importantly, catching up with a man with whom he understandably holds a close relationship.

The two go back to the spring of Fuente’s freshman year of high school. Blankenship got the head job at Union High that spring in part because he ran a passing offense at his previous stop. He knew about Fuente and he got an inclination of his talent when all the quarterbacks on the roster came to him requesting a move to defense.

“It was an interesting deal because I hadn’t seen Justin enough to know if he was very good,” Blankenship said.

He found out rather quickly. Running Blankenship’s aerial attack, Fuente led the team to the playoffs during his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons. The final game of his high school career was a loss in the state championship game.

Fuente committed to Oklahoma late in the recruiting process in part because Oklahoma didn’t throw much in those days. But a coaching change created cause for optimism, as Howard Schnellenberger took over for Gary Gibbs and promised to install a pro attack that resembled his offenses at Miami with Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar.

“He [Schnellenberger] comes right into our high school,” Blankenship said. “He’s going to have a pro attack and throw the ball. He immediately throws that as an opportunity to Justin. Justin, like most kids in Oklahoma, grew up an OU fan, but he never thought he’d have a chance to go there because they didn’t recruit guys like him. He was a pure pocket passer. When he got the opportunity to go, he went.”

Fuente took a redshirt year during his first season. After that season, Schnellenberger abruptly resigned and Oklahoma hired John Blake as its coach.

Blake’s tenure was less than memorable and Fuente, disappointed and frustrated with the situation, decided to transfer. Blankenship helped guide Fuente to Murray State, where he played for Denver Johnson – who just happened to be Blankenship’s roommate at Tulsa in the late 1970s.

“Justin wanted a chance to prove himself again,” Blankenship said. “He was asking, ‘What are my opportunities?’ I told him, ‘I’ll call some people I know.’ Denver knew Justin already, so it made it easier for Justin to get a second chance there. Denver was good about putting him back together and getting his confidence up. Then you just saw him blow up.”

Fuente enjoyed a terrific two years at Murray State, setting 11 school records. He got his degree in finance and Blankenship expected Fuente to pursue a career in the business world.

After his graduation from Murray State, Fuente returned to Oklahoma and started to pursue a master’s degree at OU. He sought out his old high school coach and Blankenship then knew what was going to happen next.

“We’d talk ball – and you could see the wheels turning,” Blankenship said. “He thought he could play in the NFL – like they all do – but you could kind of see a coach in the making.

“Once he did start coaching, he was a restricted earnings coach with Denver at Illinois State. I went and watched spring ball and I thought, ‘This guy gets it.’ He was the leader in that room. You could see it. Very quickly, he became the coordinator and the rocket was in motion.”

Fuente spent six seasons with Johnson at Illinois State and then three seasons with Gary Patterson at TCU, coaching quarterbacks at both stops.

Meanwhile, Blankenship dived into college coaching in 2007 after a high school career in which he won three state championships (2002, 2004, and 2005). Todd Graham, now the head coach at Arizona State, hired Blankenship as an offensive line coach after taking the job at Tulsa. He worked for Graham for four years and then got the head job at Tulsa after Graham left to take the job at Pittsburgh following the 2010 season.

Blankenship would have hired Fuente to a spot on his staff, but Fuente was in a great situation at TCU. Still, the two remained close.

Late in 2011, Memphis approached Fuente at about its vacancy and he again sought Blankenship’s advice. He called Blankenship while Blankenship was attending a College Football Hall of Fame function in New York City.

“I said, ‘I think you, once you get through talking to them, you need to leave and think about it,’” Blankenship said.

Did Fuente listen?

“No, he accepted the job,” Blankenship laughed. “I said, ‘You didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it, did you?’ He said, ‘Well, I felt good about it.’

“His nature was that he wanted a place where he could prove himself. I don’t know that he knew it was as hard as it was. He didn’t think he could get a ready-made job. It just kind of suited him. He wanted to take what would be a hard situation and see what he could do with it. He thought the training that he had gotten under Gary at TCU, just the mindset and toughness and the things you have to do, could carry over to a place like that if he got it going.”

As has been well documented, Fuente turned Memphis into a winner. This past season, he hired Blankenship as a special assistant to the coach. Blankenship had been let go at Tulsa following the 2014 season.

Blankenship knew of Fuente’s interest in the Virginia Tech job and vice versa after Frank Beamer announced his retirement in early November. He wasn’t surprised at all when Fuente took the job.

“If you get to know him, you get to understand what a big part his family is to him,” Blankenship said. “He really wanted a place where his kids can thrive and he can watch them grow up. He’s a little bit outdoorsy. He likes to fish and do all that stuff. He’s not driven by money and neither is his wife. We all like it, but that wasn’t a factor at all. He did want a place where he thought he could win.

“He had researched it. He believed in the culture here and the types of kids that Coach Beamer had recruited – tough and blue collar. All those things appealed to him. I know he said it publicly, but it really is true – this was the job he’d locked in on early. I was just a sounding board more than anything else.”

Coming to town and witnessing Fuente in action only reaffirmed to Blankenship that Fuente made the right decision. He knows that fans constantly talk about Fuente’s reputation as an offensive mind, but he says that Fuente won’t sacrifice defense the way many in today’s coaching world do.

He also likes what he sees from the Hokies. He knows they need talent, but this is a program that was sitting at 3-5 last season and won four of its final five games.

“These are guys who know how to win,” Blankenship said. “You’re not starting from scratch. Like at any place, you want to upgrade the recruiting. That’s just what you do. It’ll be interesting to watch.”

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