TAMPA — Willie Taggart doesn't scare easily, especially when it comes to football.
But this was different.
Taggart was so close to his dream he could smell it. But first he had to meet and impress one of his boyhood idols, and that likely would determine his fate.
So Taggart felt a little uneasy when Tony Dungy entered the room to participate in his interview for the USF football head coaching job.
"I stood up quick. You all know about how great a coach Dungy is. I saw him and said to myself, 'You better answer those questions right,'" Taggart said. "He is a guy who you look up to and is a special person and great football coach. He has all the qualities that I want. He asked me questions. I hoped I answered them right."
He must have because a little more than 24 hours later, Taggart was describing the experience on Saturday to a cheering crowd of supporters on the USF campus, where he was introduced as the new Bulls coach.
Dungy is what you might call an unofficial consultant to USF. He doesn't get paid, but the Tampa resident was glad to offer his advice on the candidates.
The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts coach, who won a Super Bowl, said interviewing Taggart was quite an experience. He described it as looking in the mirror,
which should put fans hesitant about endorsing Taggart's hire a little more at ease.
Speaking on a conference call from New York, Dungy said Taggart was the best among the interviewees..
"The one thing that attracted me to Willie is he reminds me a lot of myself at that age," Dungy said. "Not a lot of flash, not a lot of glitter: Hey, we are not going to wow you with this, that and the other. We are going to be solid. I could see that commitment to his style of play."
Taggart likes to use a West Coast style of offense he learned under San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh as his assistant at Stanford.
It's a no-frills, pound-away style that employs multiple sets but depends on physicality, the type of player Taggart likes to recruit.
If the former Manatee High standout quarterback can woo recruits like he did before a jam-packed room of cheering fans at his press greeting, he should haul in a bonanza.
"It's great to be home. I left here in 1994 to get back. and now I am back," Taggart said. "Our job is to lock down that I-4 corridor from Tampa to Orlando and get those players. We are not going to bow down to anyone, not Florida, not FSU or Miami."
USF was one of the few jobs that could've pried Taggart away from WKU, but he admits it wasn't easy to leave. Three years ago, he inherited a program that had lost 20 straight games. The Hilltoppers just finished back-to-back 7-5 seasons with a bowl game yet to be played.
Taggart won't be coaching the Hilltoppers in the Dec. 26th Little Caesars Bowl. Instead, he will be out recruiting for the Bulls with one week left before the dead period and then putting together a staff.
"When the offer came (Friday), I wanted this job, but it was hard because I am so indebted to WKU," Taggart said. "They gave me my first opportunity as a young kid out of high school and then coming back to be their head coach. WKU is in my DNA and always will be."
He told his players Friday night that he was leaving. It wasn't easy. Many Floridians (33), including six players from Manatee County, are on the roster.
"It was hard because of the relationships we built," Taggart said. "They were intending to be with me their whole time. I tried to be honest with them. It's important for me and my family to get back home, and this is what I wanted to do. Most understood. Some were upset, but it's a natural reaction. In the end, they will all understand and do good things there. I haven't spoken individually to the Manatee County kids, but I plan on doing it."
Now it's up to Taggart to do good things as the third head coach in USF's 16-year history. He replaces Skip Holtz, who was fired last week after going 2-12 in the Big East over the last two years.
At 36, Taggart is four years younger than Jim Leavitt was when he began the program in 1997. He was fired three years ago after allegedly striking a player.
Bigger names than Taggart came up during the coaching search such as former NFL and University of Miami head coach Butch Davis and others.
But Taggart was the right choice for numerous reasons, most notably his recruiting skills.
"I recruit the mother and the father and not just the player. Going into a home and talking to them and then giving their son a special opportunity is something that I love to do," Taggart said.
Taggart was given a five-year, $5.75 million contract that will pay him $1.15 million per year with bonuses that could earn from an extra $25,000 to $500,000 if he wins the BCS National Championship. If he wins the Big East title next year and the Bulls are the league's BCS bowl representative, he earns an extra $200,000. As part of Taggart getting out of his contract at WKU. the Bulls and the Hilltoppers will play a home-and-home set against each other. USF is reportedly going to pay the $500,000 Taggart owes WKU for breaking his contract.
Taggart, who has built a reputation for blurting out some very creative one-liners, had his audience in an uproar when he said: "What we have to do now is put everybody on the bus, put 'em in the right seat and let Coach T drive the bus." He credited Jim Harbaugh for being a major influence in his life along with his parents, who were sitting in the front row at his press conference.
"I couldn't be happier for him. I am glad he is coming home. He has worked hard for this all his life," his mother, Gloria, said. "I think all of Manatee County is in an uproar. People were knocking on my door all week, and I am getting phone calls and everywhere I go people are yelling 'Go Bulls.' I know he will be very good for the program. I went to a lot of his games in WKU. Now I will be able to go to all of his games here."