It wasn’t much more than a year ago that Willie Taggart’s time in the Tampa Bay area seemed limited. He was struggling at the University of South Florida and entered 2015 season on the hot seat.
His time at South Florida came to an end Wednesday, only with a happier ending — for him. The Palmetto native and Manatee High School alumnus is heading to the University of Oregon, where he will be the 33rd head coach in program history.
Taggart will be formally introduced as Oregon’s next head coach 2 p.m. Thursday in Eugene, Ore. Multiple reports indicate Taggart and the Ducks agreed upon a five-year contract worth at least $16 million overall. He had signed five-year extension with the University of South Florida worth $1.8 million annually in 2015.
“I am grateful for the trust that (University of Oregon president Michael H.) Schill and Rob Mullens have put in me to the next head coach of the Oregon football program, and I thank them for the opportunity,” Taggart said in a statement. “Oregon has a strong national presence and a proud recent history of playing among the nation’s elite, and I look forward to the challenge of upholding the excellence. I can’t wait to get started.”
Taggart, 40, is the first coach the Ducks have hired from outside the program since 1976, and he will be the first black head football coach at Oregon. The Ducks’ previous three coaches, Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and Helfrich, were all assistants who were promoted.
His immediate challenges are building a staff and trying to save Oregon’s 12 remaining commits for the Class of 2017. Defensive back Deommodore Lenoir and defensive end Langi Tuifua both previously withdrew verbal commitments. Offensive lineman John Vaka said he was no longer committed via Twitter on Tuesday.
And if he brings some of his assistants with him to Eugene, it likely will not be until after the Ducks play in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 27. Senior offensive consultant Joe Kinnan, who was also Taggart’s head coach at Manatee, said the staff, minus Taggart, will stay intact through the game against South Carolina. Co-offensive coordinator T.J. Weist will serve as the interim head coach.
Kinnan is one of two assistant coaches on the staff with Manatee County ties along with defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie, who previously coached at Palmetto High School and Bayshore High School. Woodie was also a position coach during Taggart’s entire tenure with Western Kentucky, following the fellow Palmetto native to Tampa as linebackers coach in 2013. He was promoted to defensive coordinator prior to this season and was also South Florida’s assistant head coach.
“I’d love to see this thing end the right way and whatever happens, happens,” Kinnan said. “I only have the ability to control the things I have the ability to control.”
Taggart wasted little time getting started in his new role. After notifying USF of his departure early Wednesday, Taggart met with the Bulls’ coaching staff at 1:15 p.m. and had an emotional meeting with his players at 1:30 p.m. Taggart left the meeting after addressing the players. USF athletic director Mark Harlan addressed the team after Taggart’s departure.
Both the Ducks and USF announced the coaching change shortly thereafter. Harlan said a national search for a new head coach will begin immediately. Former Texas head coach Charlie Strong and current Florida State University co-offensive coordinator Lawrence Dawsey are among the many early names surfacing as potential replacements.
Taggart compiled a 24-25 record in four seasons, including a 17-4 mark in the program’s last 21 games, and is 40-45 overall in his career.
Now he takes the reins of one of the nation’s high-profile programs.
“There’s no good time or bad time to be moving on,” Kinnan said, “but when the opportunities arise for the security of your family it’s really a no-brainer.”
Soon after the Ducks fired Mark Helfrich, Taggart’s name popped up on the list of possible replacements. His candidacy had several high-profile supporters. Former NFL coach Tony Dungy publicly endorsed Taggart. However, it was reported that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and NCAA executive and former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck also spoke to Oregon officials to endorse Taggart.
Taggart met with Oregon officials Thursday in Texas, ESPN reported, and moved higher up the Ducks’ list when former Temple head coach Matt Rhule eschewed Oregon in favor of Baylor, effectively choosing recruiting resources over the Ducks’ Nike connections.
Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens also reportedly interviewed Boise State’s Bryan Harsin and Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano before settling on Taggart. Kelly, now with the San Francisco 49ers, had said he was not interested in the job, as did former offensive coordinator Scott Frost, now at Central Florida.
Oregon has quickly risen from middling Pac-12 Conference member into a national power. Nike co-founder Phil Knight is the Ducks’ most prominent donor, having recently donated more than $19 million for a new sports complex at the University of Oregon.
“I was very happy for him, of course, because I always had a great relationship with Willie. He’s been a great young man,” said Steve Peebles, who was Manatee’s offensive line coach while Taggart was the quarterback. “I’m disappointed because I want him to stay in Tampa. I’m being a little selfish, but with the money they talk about nowadays and the opportunity to win national championships you can’t ever blame someone for leaving.
“I’m sure he’s torn a little bit because he’s as close to home as you can get — in South Florida — and be in major college football.”
I certainly think he's a good fit. I had a chance to watch him coach a year when my son played there. I liked his style. I think he's a guy that can relate to the players well. ... He has all the elements Oregon is looking for.
Tony Dungy, former Buccaneers and Colts head coach on ESPN
It will be a long way from Manatee County, where he grew up helping his parents work the vegetable fields of Palmetto. He grew up playing football at Lincoln Park, where he returned during the summer to host a youth camp. And then he went to play for Manatee High School, where he became one of greatest players in the program’s storied history.
Taggart spent his first two years on the bench behind future Nebraska star Tommie Frazier before finally cracking the starting lineup as a junior in 1992. Playing under Kinnan, Taggart won the Class 5A state championship as a junior and was an all-state quarterback as a senior. In two years, he posted a 26-4 record, while passing for more than 3,000 yards and running for nearly 1,000 more.
“People don’t understand how great of a coach Joe was and the sort of person he was,” said Steve Gulash, who played defensive tackle at Manatee with Taggart. “Harbaugh and all those guys are coaches, but the thing that makes them great is they do exactly the same things that Joe did and Nick Saban does, and Fisher does. And the great, consistently winning coaches all have different personalities, but the process to winning is the same.
“If you’re open-minded and you’re a young person, and you can be impacted and absorbent — and learn along the way — it’s unbelievable what will happen.”
Taggart left Bradenton for Bowling Green, Ky., after his senior year to play at Western Kentucky under Jack Harbaugh. He was recruited to the school by Jim Harbaugh, with whom Taggart still has a close relationship with, and became one of the greatest Hilltoppers in history.
He started for four years at WKU, which was a Division I-AA program at the time, and was twice a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given to the best player in I-AA. He finished his career as Division I’s all-time leading rusher for a quarterback and is one of only four Western Kentucky players to have his jersey retired.
“He came back a Christmas — I don’t know if it was after his sophomore or junior year — and he started showing Joe how they run the midline option,” former Manatee defensive coordinator Jim Phelan said. “It probably started then, his coaching.”
WKU was also the site of his first head-coaching job. He spent eight years as a Hilltopper position coach after graduating, then went to Stanford in 2007 to spend three years working for Jim Harbaugh as the Cardinal’s running backs coach, turning Toby Gerhart into a Heisman Trophy finalist.
In 2010, Taggart returned to Western Kentucky, where he went 16-20 in three years as head coach. In 2013, he returned home to coach USF and has posted a 24-25 record in his four years.
40-45Willie Taggart’s career record as a college head coach.
The turnaround Taggart has staged for his personal value has been remarkable. The head coach entered the 2015 season on the hot seat after failing to win more than four games during each of his first two seasons in Tampa. A 1-3 start caused his critics to grow louder and his fans to become more restless.
“He’s been exposed to a tremendous high school program, college program,” Kinnan said. “He’d been around people that knew how to win and was exposed to that type of environment.”
Taggart and the Bulls rallied to finish 8-5. He took them to the Miami Beach Bowl, at which South Florida lost a shootout to Western Kentucky. This fall, he took another step.
The Bulls entered the fall among the favorites to win the American Athletic Conference. Although South Florida missed a berth in the conference championship because of a loss to Navy, the Bulls finished 10-2 and entered the national rankings for the first time since Skip Holtz’s penultimate season with USF in 2011.
“Things just fell into place,” former Manatee defensive coordinator Jim Phelan said.
Taggart’s tenure at USF was marked by his relationship with the Tampa Bay area, and even more the 941 area code he calls home. Running back Marlon Mack, a three-time first-team All-AAC selection, was a star at Booker High School in Sarasota. Four of his players, including starting punter Jonathan Hernandez, played at Manatee and two others played at Braden River High School.
No one has been more important, though, than Kinnan. The legendary Hurricanes head coach, who led the 1992 team Taggart quarterbacked to a state championship, joined Taggart’s staff as a senior offensive consultant before the 2015 season. With an infusion of wisdom, USF developed one of the most dynamic offenses in the nation.
“The great coaches, they absorb, they take what’s worked for other people. They don’t assume they know it all and that’s what Willie’s done,” said Chris Conboy, who works in South Florida’s recruiting and coached quarterbacks at Manatee for Kinnan. “He had to change the offense a lot from what he was doing at Stanford and Western Kentucky because we didn’t have the sort of personnel at USF and in this area, really, to line up with three or four tight ends, so you have to be adaptable and part of that has to come from acknowledging that you can learn from other people and he was humble enough to do that.”
Willie Taggart timeline
- Manatee High School 1990-94
- Western Kentucky 1995-98
- Western Kentucky assistant coach 1999-2006
- Stanford running backs coach 2007-09
- Western Kentucky head coach 2010-12
- South Florida head coach 2013-16