BRADENTON -- Willie Taggart is considered one of the best college football recruiters in the country.
The USF head football coach and former Manatee High quarterback added a little more versatility to his reputation when he spoke before the Manatee Chamber of Commerce on Monday.
Taggart turned the USF football team around last season after inheriting a program that was nearly in a shambles. But he was disappointed that attendance at Raymond James Stadium, where the Bulls play their home games, continues to decrease.
Appearing before the chamber with assistant coaches and local heroes Joe Kinnan and Ray Woodie, Taggart made a plea for the local fan base to help.
"I want to deputize each and everyone one of you and send you on a mission," Taggart told the audience at the Renaissance on 9th. "Your specific mission is to go out and get five new fans to become season ticket holders. If you can't get five, get two. If you really try hard and you can't get two, I would be very proud of you if you got one."
After four straight losing seasons, USF won eight games and was in the running to make the conference championship game until the final week of the season.
Taggart said he thinks fan support can put the team over the top next season with so many starters returning, especially at key positions.
"I guarantee you it will make a difference for this football team," Taggart said. "Please don't see it as a job. It can be great satisfaction of pulling people together. Every time you go out and get a new fan (second ticket holder) call me and I will get back to you."
College football attendance is down all over the country. USF has been hurt because it is no longer in a BCS Conference (now considered the Power Five) and its string of losing seasons.
USF's best home attendance was in 2007 when it attracted 53,160 and had two of the biggest crowds in history against West Virginia (67,012) and UCF (65,948).
Getting back to that 2007 season might be difficult, but Taggart believes the only way to find out is to win and recruit the fan base to return. The average paid attendance in 2015 was about 26,500, but the actual crowd (people who crossed the turnstiles) was significantly less.
"We all know what it was like around here when football started," Taggart said. "Everyone talked about USF being that sleeping giant. Now we are starting to wake up and you want to be part of it."
The Bulls have a lot of key returnees, led by quarterback Quinton Flowers, who was the player most responsible for the turnaround, and Marlon Mack from Sarasota, who led the American Athletic Conference in rushing.
"The first time I can say we are loaded and have quality depth at every position that will make for good competition," Taggart said. "But we need that unrelenting fan base. This is our community team. Just go across the Skyway Bridge to watch us and if you are afraid of that bridge you can take 75."
Taggart took over the program in 2013 from Skip Holtz, who in his last two years was 2-12 in the Big East Conference and 8-16 overall while struggling to recruit players from Florida and the Tampa Bay area specifically. Taggart recruited the area heavily and it paid off handsomely with an 8-5 season, but he says recruiting never stops.
"It's easier to recruit now and getting in the door is half the battle," Taggart said. "I always say recruiting is like brushing your teeth and combing your hair. You stop and you start to look bad, and we don't want to look
bad so we have to keep doing it."
Taggart says the USF football program is now on the cusp of returning to its glory days when it was once ranked No. 2 in nation, but its opponents in the AAC are intent on pushing them backwards.
"They want to make us an ordinary team who made a little noise and falls back to the pack," Taggart said. "But this is not an ordinary football team and the doors of opportunity are open and everyone of you can help. We need unrelenting fan support. I am talking about an army of Bulls fans overflowing RayJay. Fans who become such a force at a game that it adds strength to the effort of our team on the field."
Alan Dell, Herald sports columnist/writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports