Sunday’s WVU Opener An Unlikely Reunion
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–Our story today is set 23 years ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
It involves a seven-year-old kid with stars in his eyes, a son of a high school football coach who was just getting the urge we all get about that time, the urge for greatness and, in Oklahoma, the path one would take is on the football field.
Jake Spavital would attend the games at Union High, a power within this football mad state and where his dad was coaching.
He got caught up in particular with the high school quarterback, a good one who would throw for 6,140 yards and 65 touchdowns before signing with Oklahoma to play his college ball.
That high school quarterback’s name was Justin Fuente.
Spavital would follow in his footsteps, becoming the starting quarterback at the same school a decade later and leading Union to the 6-A state championship before heading off to Missouri State, where he became quarterback and punter.
On Sunday night just outside our nation’s capital in Landover, Maryland, before the national television cameras begin to grind away, there will be a reunion of sorts between two former high school quarterbacks who now are on opposite sidelines.
Spavital will be working his first game as West Virginia’s offensive coordinator while Fuente will be beginning his second season as Virginia Tech’s head coach.
Too often, in looking at successful coaches, we look back to their college coaches and to their game in college. We look to their development as assistants and who influenced them, forgetting that they started back in high school and that really was where the first impressions were made.
“Tulsa, Oklahoma, the passion for football is really high there. There would be times when you played your rival and there would be 30,000 to 50,000 fans at the game. My dad was a coach there and I learned to love the game,” Spavital remembered Tuesday as he took time out from his game preparations to meet with the media.
That was where the seed was planted.
“I was just very fortunate to be around guys like Bill Blankenship, who is the head coach at Tulsa, and a lot of guys who came in and out of Tulsa Union. I think the culture that was created there and the way those coaches impacted the kids made them want to further their careers and want to be coaches just like them,” Spavital said.
“It’s not surprising a lot of those guys end up being coaches.”
But it wasn’t only the atmosphere and the fact that he was a coaches kid that sent Spavital off on the journey that took him to home to Tulsa, to Houston, to Oklahoma State, to WVU, to Texas A&M, to Cal and then finally back at West Virginia with the man who nurtured him into the coaching profession, Dana Holgorsen.
In no small way, Fuente was a part of the journey for Spavital for he was his first hero.
“Again, you are a coaches kid and you watch every university from across the country come in and want to recruit Justin Fuente. You sit there thinking, I want to be like that. I want to get the notoriety and publicity he got. I want to be a quarterback,” Spavital said.
“He’s the reason I started playing quarterback. The impact players like that, especially at Tulsa Union, have on the little kids is huge.”
And Fuente welcomed his young protégé.
“He was awesome with me,” Spavital said. “He showed me how you treat people. It was a life lesson.”
Fuente signed at Oklahoma in 1995 but it didn’t work out and he wound up play at Murray State before heading off on a coaching career that now is blossoming.
He caught Holgorsen’s eye when he was across from him while serving as offensive coordinator at TCU and then when he became the head coach at Memphis.
“I’ve followed him and watched him for a long time,” Holgorsen said. “He does a great job. He developed Andy Dalton at TCU, and I think they turned the corner there when he was their offensive coordinator.”
Dalton, of course, today is the Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback.
What he did for Gary Patterson at TCU got him his first head coaching job at Memphis.
There were some who didn’t see that as a step up in the coaching world.
“He took over a Memphis program that was in shambles,” Holgorsen recalled.
His first two seasons at Memphis, as the rebuilding started, his teams went 4-8 and 3-9.
Then, in the third year, he went 10-3 and cracked the Top 25 and went 9-3 the next season.
That caught Virginia Tech’s eye and when Frank Beamer retired, he was their choice as head coach.
“It didn’t surprise me that he won 10 games his first year at Virginia Tech. He’s a great offensive mind, and he knows how to develop quarterback and win ballgames,” Holgorsen said.
While Holgorsen was watching Fuente, he was watching Holgorsen.
“I’ve watched his teams from afar,” said Fuente. “In the off season, coaches can’t help ourselves, we watch teams and study what they’re doing. I’ve watched his teams in great detail, and he truly is a masterful offensive mind. He’s had tremendous success at every stop.
“I don’t know him personally. We’ve never crossed paths in that manner. But I feel like I do, because I’ve seen his offenses play many times. Everybody associates him with throwing the football, and they do throw it well. But there’s always an element of running the ball with it.”
Fuente also has watched Spavital develop as a coach.
“Knowing his family for many years and getting a chance to play when his dad was on staff, I’m not surprised that he went into coaching and had success,” Fuente said. “I’m proud of him and the job he’s done. I enjoy catching up with him. Sometimes you get the feeling when you’re around young people that they’re destined to be successful. He’s one of those people.”