Commentary | Manatee's Willie Taggart perfect fit for USF's faltering football program

From local ties to winning past, Manatee man is easy choice for faltering program

adell@bradenton.comDecember 5, 2012 

TAMPA

The University of South Florida can end its search for a new head football coach.

Factor in all the variables and only one name surfaces. Willie Taggart has gotten some ringing endorsements and is the people's choice.

"Any football program would be very lucky to have Willie Taggart as their head coach." Jim Harbaugh said.

The San Francisco 49ers head coach speaks from firsthand knowledge. If it wasn't for Taggart, Harbaugh might not have one of the best jobs in all of football.

Taggart was a key member of Harbaugh's staff when Stanford went from doormat to national power and engineered the historic upset of USC as a 41-point underdog in 2007. He was the run-game coordinator and running backs coach who played an instrumental role in turning unknown Toby Gerhart into a Heisman Trophy runner-up.

Taggart's accomplishments in upgrading programs and taking nondescript players to seemingly unreachable success is endless.

If you break down the data regarding all the candidates mentioned to replace Skip Holtz, who was fired on Sunday, there is no better fit. There is no negativity attached to him.

Don't want to put any pressure on USF, but there might not be a second chance to get Taggart if the Bulls pass on him.

Take a look at Taggart's attributes:

n Recruiting: This is the lifeblood of any college football program and few if any do it better than

Taggart. After taking over the winless program at Western Kentucky following the 2009 season, Taggart had the top recruiting class in the Sun Belt Conference the next two years, according to Rivals.com, and did it with a lot of Florida kids.

n Longevity: USF needs a coach who is not going to use the school as a stepping stone to another job. Taggart is close to a guarantee as there is to stay long term, and he is only 36. Growing up in Manatee County, he would be coming home. This is a guy solidly attached to his roots.

n Winning: He called the plays for the WKU team in 2002 that won the I-AA national title and was a key member of the staff that took over a 1-11 Stanford program in '06 and had it 8-5 three years later.

He inherited an 0-12 WKU team in 2010 and a year later had it 7-5 for its first winning season in FBS history, then was 7-5 this year with its first bowl game appearance coming up. Taggart finished his playing career at WKU as the all-time rushing leader in Division I for a quarterback and quarterbacked Manatee High to a state title and a state final.

n Mentoring: Few have been mentored better than Taggart. He played for the Manatee High's legendary Joe Kinnan, who has won five state titles; played for Jack Harbaugh at WKU; and coached with Jim Harbaugh at WKU and Stanford. Taggart also has been part of the NFL mentoring program.

"Willie has done an absolutely marvelous job in his coaching career and was a great player for us," Kinnan said. "With a lot of people vacating the Big East and it affecting USF, he would be the perfect person to re-establish credibility in their program just like he did at Western Kentucky."

Palmetto head football coach Dave Marino calls Taggart an excellent recruiter who connects well with players and their families.

"He is a down-to-earth guy who relates well to others and what he has done as a player resonates well with the players he is recruiting," Marino said.

Manatee High assistant head coach Chris Conboy, who coordinates recruiting for the Hurricanes, says Taggart is held in high regard in all coaching circles.

"Every college coach I talked to said he is a top candidate," Conboy said. "He did a great job of turning that program over at Western Kentucky, and he did it with a lot of Florida guys. One of his assistants, Ray Woodie (former Palmetto head coach), was selected recruiter of the year by ESPN. This would be a great hire for USF."

One of Taggart's most impressive attributes is his ability to take unknown players and turn them into household names, particularly at running back.

Besides Gerhart, he coached Bobby Rainey, who was second in the nation in rushing in 2011, and this season has Antonio Andrews, who is sixth nationally in rushing.

Taggart coached Hilltoppers quarterback Justin Haddix, who set school records for total offense, touchdown passes and pass-efficiency rating.

When Taggart finished his playing career at WKU, was a two-time finalist for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the I-AA offensive player of the year.

USF's biggest problem the last two years has been defense. The Bulls ranked last in the Big East in pass defense (85th nationally) and pass-efficiency defense (107th). Under Taggart, WKU led the Sun Belt in pass-efficiency defense and was second in pass defense and run defense.

While USF ranked last in FBS with only two interceptions, WKU was second in the Sun Belt with 13.

No one likes to talk about race, but he would be the only African-American head football coach in Florida.

Because of his youth, Taggart would fit into USF's salary range and he is a home-grown guy.

Why wait?

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112. Follow him on Twitter at @ADellSports.

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