Commentary | Jack Harbaugh predicts success for Willie Taggart at USF

adell@bradenton.comMarch 9, 2014 

BRADENTON

Willie Taggart's energy is contagious. Even he can't escape it.

Standing on the Manatee High football field he used to launch an All-American career as a college quarterback, Taggart couldn't resist the temptation to put on his rendition of showtime.

The USF head football coach brought his team to practice on his old high school field, and a robust crowd of local supporters spurred his competitive juices.

"I was just going to have a practice and work on a few things. But when I saw the crowd, I felt we should put on a show and give them something to watch," Taggart said Saturday after the two-hour-plus workout at Hawkins Stadium.

He made everything live except for the quarterbacks, who could not be hit. It turned out to be a spirited workout, injecting hope into an offense that floundered last season.

"They are off next week for spring break and will have a chance to rest," Taggart said. "Our offense played well and put together some nice drives to score. We made some tough catches. Our quarterbacks (Mike White and Steven Bench) played with a lot of poise."

The one person not surprised at Taggart's enthusiasm was his head coach at Western Kentucky, Jack Harbaugh, the father of NFL head coaches Jim and John Harbaugh.

Harbaugh predicts Taggart will turn around the USF football program he inherited last season. The Bulls went 2-10 in 2013, but Harbaugh says the program's revila is a matter of when, not if.

"Willie is an extension of our family. We go back to the earlier 90s, when they were going to drop football at WKU," Harbaugh said. "I have tremendous confidence in Willie. He took over the program at WKU and changed the culture after doing the same thing at Stanford (as an assistant). I have no reservations he will get this turned around.

"I have been a coach for 46 years, and Willie Taggart is the best recruiter I've ever been associated with."

Taggart saved Jack Harbaugh's program as a player when he arrived at WKU in '95 and then returned as head coach to give WKU its first winning season after it became a I-A program. He was offensive coordinator on the WKU team that won the I-AA national title in 2002.

"Willie called every play in 2002. I remember in the semifinal against Georgia Southern in the winning drive, he called two fourth-down plays that we hadn't run all year and they worked," Harbaugh recalled.

Taggart took some criticism last year because of his insistence on sticking with an offensive style (employed by Jim Harbaugh at Stanford) that stresses the run game. Harbaugh says it's that persistence that will make his former player a winner at USF.

"Three things that you need to have to be a success are a vision, a plan and patience. Most people lose their way because they lack patience," Harbaugh said. "The offense he is trying to install takes time because it involves an attitude change. It will create toughness throughout the team."

The improvement was evident Saturday, and it wasn't because of a drop-off in the defense. The Bulls ran the ball well with Michael Pierre, and the quarterbacks had a lot more time to throw.

"There was a lot of reminiscing for me being back on this field and one of our refs today refereed one of our games back then (for Manatee) when we played Orange Park (in the state semis) in 1992," Taggart said.

Jack Harbaugh and his wife, Jackie, live in Milwaukee. They were visiting friends in Naples and made the trip to Tampa to spend a few days with Taggart.

"To have Jack Harbaugh with me for the last couple of days has been special. He has been my mentor and my coach. I got into coaching because of him," Taggart said. "He helped me grow as a man. I am a better husband and a better father today because of him. You always want to make him proud. I still send him film to watch our guys and give me feedback."

Taggart's not sure if he will return to Manatee High next spring, but he sees a huge benefit from getting his team to play in front of crowds, particularly with all the pre-snap penalties the Bulls had last season.

"We struggled playing in front of people. We practiced well, but got in front of people and didn't play well. It's a big reason we opened up practices this year," Taggart said. "It's been our goal this spring to eliminate our pre-snap penalties, and we did a good job today. That comes with knowing things better. Our guys are comfortable and our line has done a great job this spring with our run and pass blocking."

Manatee High product Derrick Calloway worked with the defensive line, and Lakewood Ranch's Austin Reiter (center) and Jake Carlton (tight end) went through their paces with the offense.

Coaching on the field also was special for USF linebackers coach Ray Woodie, who saw one of his greatest moments as a head coach when his Bayshore team upset Manatee to win its first mythical Manatee County title in 1998.

"It was awesome to be here, and we saw some improvement," Woodie said. "Coach Taggart kept emphasizing when we go to Manatee you got to set your bar high and the kids gave it all they had."

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports.

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