There were a handful of faces Willie Taggart grew accustomed to seeing whenever he would get those rare chances to peer into the crowd at Raymond James Stadium during his nearly four years as South Florida’s head coach. Taggart grew up as one of six children in Palmetto and, optimistically, he hoped returning to Tampa as USF’s head coach would mean more chances to see his family.
Those chances never came as frequently as he hoped. Guiding the Bulls back to glory was a busy job. Game days, ironically, were the time when he truly had those reminders of home. He could see some of his brothers and sisters. He could see his mother, Gloria James, who still lives in Palmetto.
“I think that’s the part that I’ll miss more than anything,” Taggart said Tuesday, “because it was the one time in my college coaching career that they’ve been able to experience it with me.”
It’s now been a week since Taggart accepted the head coaching job at Oregon after spending four years back near home with USF. The job was as close to his hometown as he could get in college football, but it wasn’t the one he would need if he wanted to one day win a national championship, and that, he says, was the primary motivation for joining the Ducks. It wasn’t easy to leave, even if it was the logical decision.
Only two years ago, Oregon was in the College Football Playoff National Championship game. This past summer, the Big 12 Conference opted not to expand, leaving the Bulls in the American Athletic Conference. Taggart could only take USF so far — and he leaves the Bulls as the 25th-ranked team in the country just before they play South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
“It was a tough decision,” Taggart said. “I think it was more tough because of the players and the relationship that I built with them, not necessarily because of leaving home. I always had a goal and dream of having an opportunity to win a national championship. We’ve worked really hard to get into that position and then this opportunity came.”
The idea of that opportunity arising in Oregon didn’t happen until the regular season ended and Taggart’s agent called with word from the Ducks. Oregon, one of the premier programs of the past decade, wanted to consider Taggart for the vacancy left when Mark Helfrich was fired. The idea of leaving Tampa prompted a mix of emotions.
Taggart had lifted the program back to national relevance in less than four years with a group of players largely from the Tampa Bay area he calls home. He and his wife had just built a house in Tampa. Taggart’s oldest son, Willie Taggart Jr., is less than halfway through his freshman year at Tampa Catholic High School.
“You started something there and you ask yourself do you think you’re going to have a chance to win a championship at South Florida,” Taggart said, “so all those things are running through my head, but when (my agent) called and said that (Oregon was) interested and they wanted to meet, I was excited. I was ready.”
It’s too early for him to make any official decisions on the rest of his coaching staff in Eugene, Ore., but USF defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie, another Palmetto native, seems like a logical choice to join him, possibly as a position coach. Woodie was a position coach through Taggart’s entire tenure at Western Kentucky and followed him to USF. He was promoted to defensive coordinator after last season, but the defense was ranked toward the bottom of the country in most major categories this fall.
Senior offensive consultant Joe Kinnan’s future remains a bit murkier. The 71-year-old former Manatee High School head coach, who coached Taggart to the 1992 Class 5A state championship, was noncommittal about his future last week, and Taggart couldn’t shed any light specifically on Kinnan a week later.
“Honestly, I’d like to bring them all if I could, but that can’t happen,” Taggart said of his Bulls coaching staff. “I thanked every single one of them because this wouldn’t have happened without those guys, so it was tough. It was tough more than anything because, again, you can’t take everybody.”
It does seem inevitable, though, that Taggart’s move to Oregon will establish some sort of pipeline for Florida high school talent to the West Coast. Taggart has already offered Cocoa High School quarterback Bruce Judson, Armwood High School athlete Darrian McNeal, Deerfield Beach High School wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, Palm Beach Gardens High School edge rusher VanDarius Cowan and Hillsborough High School defensive end Zachary Carter since joining the Ducks.
One of the last items he detailed before hanging up the phone Tuesday is his recruiting plan. At Oregon, recruiting is national, which means Florida — and particularly Manatee County — are ripe for scouting and signing.
It can still be a tie to home for Taggart, who begins to sign off in a way that should become familiar for as long as he spends in Oregon.
“Go Ducks,” Taggart said, and then he adds a specifically tailored message for the moment.
“And 941 for life.”