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Former OU Quarterbacks helping generate major success at other big-time programs
Josh Heupel isn’t the only former Oklahoma quarterback making headlines as an offensive coordinator these days.
Remember Garrick McGee? How about Justin Fuente? Both quarterbacks endured mixed results during their playing days with the Sooners, but they’re experiencing exceptional success in the Division I coaching ranks as evidenced by a pair of recent BCS appearances.
McGee bridged the gap between OU coaches Gary Gibbs and Howard Schnellenberger, and Fuente weathered the transition to John Blake.
Both are making waves in college coaching circles at their respective schools. TCU elevated Fuente to co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in February 2009, while McGee was promoted to Arkansas’ offensive coordinator late that same year.
Both moves have proved fruitful, as the Horned Frogs won the 2011 Rose Bowl, finishing a perfect 13-0 and settling for No. 2 in the final Associated Press rankings. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks lost a heartbreaker to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and wound up at No. 12 in the AP poll.
Fuente, who was a freshman when McGee was a senior at OU, knew his one-time teammate would go into coaching.
“Garrick was always there to help Eric Moore along,” said Fuente. “He was open to younger quarterbacks, and you could tell he had that veteran coach feel about him. I’m not surprised at all by the success he’s had.”
BOOKER T’S McGEE
McGee, a prep All-American from Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School, was recruited by Colorado, Houston, Missouri and Texas.
After redshirting and starting five games at Arizona State in 1992 — under the tutelage of quarterbacks coach Bobby Petrino — he transferred to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M junior college in Miami, Okla., before finally landing at OU. McGee became the heir apparent at Oklahoma following the departure of Cale Gundy — and Chad Davis’ transfer to Washington State — at a time when OU’s QB roster included Terrence Brown and Cornelius Davis.
Coach Gibbs named the 6-foot-4, 205-pound McGee the starting quarterback during spring drills in 1994. McGee, the son of Booker T. coach Larry McGee, remained OU’s signal-caller for the entire ’94 season.
“Garrick can do everything well,” offensive coordinator Watson Brown told The Oklahoman. “He’s a great athlete who has made a lot of plays by stepping up in the pocket and running for first downs.”
The 21-year-old McGee threw two touchdowns and ran for a third in Oklahoma’s 30-29 win at Syracuse in season opener that year. He was solid in wins over Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma State, and he threw for 192 yards and rushed for 57 more in a disappointing 17-10 loss to Texas.
But McGee faltered in a 36-14 loss at Texas A&M and struggled again during a 45-7 defeat to fourth-ranked Colorado.
As Oklahoma entered the Nebraska game with a 6-4 mark, Gibbs resigned. OU battled the top-ranked Huskers down to the wire in the regular season finale, trailing only 6-3 heading into the fourth quarter before falling 13-3.
“I was expecting to hear Coach Gibbs talk about Nebraska, and I hear my coach resign,” McGee said at the time. “I didn’t expect this at all.”
McGee described Gibbs as a classy coach.
“He ran his program the right way and understood how to motivate us,” said McGee. “He was one year away from making a run at the big game with my senior class. We felt like we had a lot of talent.”
McGee was out with spinal meningitis for the infamous Copper Bowl, in which the Sooners inserted Brown as emergency quarterback and lost 31-6 to Brigham Young. The 6-6 record broke OU’s 29-year streak of consecutive winning seasons.
The ailing McGee was visited by new head coach Howard Schnellenberger, and an Oklahoman report recounted the former Miami Dolphins and Hurricanes coach throwing championship rings on McGee’s chest, telling the young athlete to try on the bling.
“(McGee) certainly was a sick puppy when I saw him,” Schnellenberger told The Oklahoman. “I was trying to cheer him up, so I showed him what we’ll be playing for.”
But Schnellenberger gave redshirt-freshman Moore the starting nod in September 1995.
One report described the QB race as being “fixed” and that McGee received too much blame for the previous season’s record and not enough credit for his positive contributions.
“They were building for the future,” said McGee, “and you’ve always gotta win with your quarterback.”
He added that if Schnellenberger would have won with a redshirt freshman, his staff would have been in a strong position for contract renewal.
With Moore starting and McGee relieving, Oklahoma started with a 38-22 win over San Diego State, a 51-10 win over North Texas and a 13-9 squeaker over Missouri. But the Sooners stumbled the rest of the way under Schnellenberger, losing five of their last six games.
McGee, the 1994 Big Eight offensive newcomer of the year, said it was difficult to remain motivated with an inevitable outcome.
“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had a quarterback go through,” Schnellenberger told The Oklahoman. “To be a starter, to be a senior, and to be relegated to the backup position. He’s had his moments where it’s been very hard for him.”
As he did the previous season, McGee fought valiantly in his coach’s final game against Nebraska. In a 37-0 shutout at Lincoln, McGee played the final three quarters.
The Sooners ended the season 5-5-1, thus signaling the end of Schnellenberger’s brief stay in Norman.
“I think there are enough bad memories that everyone has about him, but I will say this: when he came in there, he would have us conditioning and doing things that we had no possible idea that we could do,” said McGee. “He would have us run down to the McDonald’s as a whole team — there we go taking off to McDonald’s. He did have his way of pushing us to the extreme.
“Sometimes, things don’t work out with a program that’s so powerful and important to the world of college football. I don’t know what happened exactly.”
McGee, who recently interviewed for the head coaching job at Tulsa, said OU fans always supported him.
“I grew up a Sooner fan,” he said. “I really appreciate the Sooner fans for our time. We went through tough times at Oklahoma, and we still had the same support, week in and week out.”
Prognosticators thought the 6-3, 215-pound Fuente would be the undisputed starter at Oklahoma.
The Parade All-America and 1994 state player of the year, who amassed 6,119 yards of passing and 68 touchdowns at Tulsa Union, was lured to Oklahoma by Schnellenberger’s promise to install a pro-style offense.
“It was really the first time that OU was going to throw the football and run a pro-style drop-back passing game,” said Fuente. “That was one of the major things that attracted me.”
Redshirted during Schnellenberger’s lone year — and gaining confidence practicing with the varsity — Fuente arrived home after the 1995 season to learn of Schnellenberger’s ouster.
With John Blake’s hiring, OU shifted to a multiple attack under new offensive coordinator Dick Winder.
“I didn’t know what they were going to do on offense,” said Fuente.
As a redshirt freshman, the left-handed Moore started every game. In August 1996, Blake balked at naming a starting QB, deferring to Winder. After Moore was booed off the field during OU’s 20-7 loss to TCU in September, Blake told reporters the right-handed Fuente would start Sept. 21, 1996, at San Diego State. In all, the drop-back passer would start eight straight games that season.
“He has a lot of confidence,” Blake said at the time. “Hopefully, he can go out and display that on the football field.”
The Sooners lost 59-21 to start 0-2 for the first time since 1965, but Fuente guided OU’s offense to 505 yards in his first start with significant help from running back DéMond Parker.
After losing their first four games, Blake’s Sooners upset Texas 30-27 in overtime and squeaked past Baylor 28-24 for a second-straight win. But Moore eventually regained starting QB status as the Sooners finished 3-8 that season.
“Neither one of us played that well,” said Fuente. “We were young players figuring out how to play at this level. Obviously, we took a bunch of lumps out there. It just took me a while to learn how to play. I didn’t really figure it out until halfway through my sophomore year.”
Heading into his second season under Blake, thoughts of transferring crossed Fuente’s mind. Still, Winder penciled in Fuente as the starter during spring drills in 1997.
“Justin’s really improved quite a bit,” Blake told The Oklahoman. “He’s really feeling comfortable, and he’s throwing the ball well.”
Another quarterback controversy ensued. Moore played mop-up duty in OU’s 24-0 loss to Northwestern and replaced Fuente to help boost Oklahoma to a 36-34 upset over No. 21 Syracuse and Donovan McNabb.
Although Moore started at California, Fuente replaced him after a groin injury and orchestrated a 34-34 deadlock before the Sooners eventually fell 40-34. The musical chairs at quarterback grew more confusing when Blake said Brandon Daniels wouldn’t play unless an emergency situation arose. Yet OU inserted the converted option QB in a 26-7 loss to Kansas State, and by the Oklahoma State game, Daniels had become the starter.
“Throughout the chain of command, there were several differing opinions of what direction we should go, and as a result, we were all over the place,” said Fuente, who would transfer at the end of the 1997 season.
Fuente loved attending OU but felt his options were limited. With only two years of eligibility, he didn’t want to move to another Division I school, so he chose Murray State, coached by former Blake assistant Denver Johnson.
“In retrospect, it was a great move,” said Fuente, who set 11 school records and was named a Walter Payton Award finalist.
Fuente would have been a senior signal-caller with 20 career starts if he would have stayed and played for Stoops. While he claims he doesn’t contemplate that hypothetical situation, he does think the decision to leave worked out well for both parties.
“Coach Stoops has obviously done a wonderful job there,” said Fuente. “Sometimes, we cross paths with them. We played them once and will again in a couple of years. I’m happy for their success and wish them all the best, unless we have to play them.”
HIGH ON THE HOGS
For McGee, playing for five different head coaches with five different offensive coordinators and philosophies made him stronger. He reunited with Petrino when the Jacksonville Jaguars’ quarterbacks coach called him to serve as an offensive assistant and quality-control coach for Tom Coughlin’s staff.
McGee worked as the receivers coach at Toledo in 2002 and served the following year coaching receivers and the kickoff return team for John Robinson at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
He was receivers and punt-return coach at Northwestern for two years before becoming quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, where the Wildcats ran a four-wide receiver offense out of the shotgun 90 percent of the time.
Now working at Arkansas, the 37-year-old McGee just finished his third season with the Razorbacks, running a more conventional, pro-style scheme that believes in play action and runs to win in the fourth quarter. The 31-26 loss to Ohio State on Jan. 4 left the Hogs at 10-3 for the 2010 season.
“I think we can win a national championship here,” said McGee. “If we continue to push to win it, opportunities will come for me.”
After his collegiate career, Fuente played for the Oklahoma Wranglers and was invited to the NFL Combine. Sean Payton, then the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants, called him to try out in the spring of 2001.
“I thought I had a really good workout,” said Fuente. “On the ride home, that’s kind of when I realized I’d had two great opportunities, and it still didn’t look like I’d catch on.”
In the summer of 2001, Fuente became quarterbacks coach at Illinois State, where he spent six years, including the last two as offensive coordinator.
When he retired from TCU four years ago, former OU assistant Dick Winder called Fuente to say he was recommending him for a running backs coach opening with the Horned Frogs. The 34-year-old Fuente now coaches the quarterbacks and serves as co-offensive coordinator with Jarrett Anderson.
“I’ve kind of entered a different arena now,” said Fuente, who recently interviewed for the offensive coordinator position at Clemson. “I’m coaching at a great university that I really love working for.”
The Horned Frogs, the first non-automatic qualifying school to play in the BCS version of the Rose Bowl, defeated Wisconsin 21-19 in the Jan. 1 and finished the season undefeated.
“There’s nobody walking around and hanging their head,” said Fuente, who coached 2011 Rose Bowl Offensive MVP Andy Dalton.
“We all know this is the system we’ve got. Are there imperfections in it? Absolutely. Is there always going to be a debate? Absolutely.”
(Editor's Note: This story appears in Sooner Spectator's 2011 Recruiting Special Issue. To read more or subscribe, call toll free at 1-877-841-8877.)