Willie Taggart remembers the first time he ever crossed paths with a professional athlete or college coach. It was a bit before his career at Manatee High made him one of the most prolific high school quarterbacks in Florida’s history. He was just a child spending his weeks playing for the Palmetto Eagles, and his Sundays at Tampa Stadium selling coats at Buccaneers games to make a little extra money.
When the games ended, he and some teammates would sneak down to Tampa Bay’s locker room for passing interactions with some of the Bucs stars. He remembers meeting quarterback Vinny Testaverde and running back James Wilder.
“That was big time for me,” Taggart said. He had his glimpse into the fact that the faces who filled his Saturdays and Sundays of watching football were real, attainable people.
A few years later, Jim Harbaugh began recruiting Taggart to come play quarterback at Western Kentucky for his father, head coach Jack Harbaugh.
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“It became more personal,” Taggart said. “That’s when things really started to turn for me.”
Since Taggart became the head coach at South Florida in 2013, he’s taken youth camps around the Tampa Bay region, reaching into the community that birthed him to provide the sort of mentorship he only had in fleeting glimpses during his childhood in Manatee County.
Sitting in his office a few months ago, Taggart thought about all the camps he’s done around the region and realized he hadn’t done one in Palmetto. Lincoln Park, just a few hundred yards away from his mother’s home, was a logical destination.
On Tuesday, he concluded a two-day stay in the county with the Willie Taggart DGA Camp in Palmetto. More than 100 children between first and eighth grade turned out to work with Taggart and the rest of his USF coaching staff.
“I know how it was for me growing up,” Taggart said. “I would’ve loved to be around a college staff, being coached up by college coaches. We didn’t have that back then.”
The Bulls’ coaching staff, which includes former Palmetto head coach Raymond Woodie as defensive coordinator and former Hurricanes head coach Joe Kinnan as senior offensive consultant, led campers through stretching lines and makeshift drills.
Being able to go through life, and accomplish a lot of those dreams, and goals and aspirations that I had, I always think about what can I do back home to make a difference.
Willie Taggart, South Florida head coach
A handful of USF players also helped run the camp, including former Canes guard Michael Galati and former Sarasota Booker star Marlon Mack.
The running back, who has been a first-team all-conference running back during each of his two seasons in Tampa, recalled the first time he met Taggart. Taggart could relate to Mack’s upbringing and the pride so many young athletes take in the 941 area code.
“He just spoke to me like this: ‘You want to put on for the city,’” Mack said just before the camp began at 9 a.m. “I want to be known in the city. I came here, I was born here. It’s just one thing I want to do.”
When Taggart was being recruited to play in the Football Championship Subdivision, which was known as Division I-AA at the time, the Bulls didn’t even have a program. There was no Division I program with a distinct Tampa Bay identity as Florida and Florida State split talent from the area.
Taggart refers to the seven counties that make up the Tampa Bay Area — Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando, Pasco, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota — as “in-state” for USF. It’s become an area of recruiting priority and a region where Taggart’s story resonates. It’s where he’s best suited to be a role model.
Woodie, who is a few years older than Taggart and played for the Tigers, also grew up down the street from Lincoln. He was a star at Bethune-Cookman and then briefly played in the Canadian Football League before returning to Bradenton to coach Bayshore.
The night before the youth camp in Palmetto, Woodie and Taggart went to the 13th Avenue Dream Center in Bradenton for a youth coaching clinic. The first person Woodie saw was Paul Maechtle, the legendary former Southeast head coach who won a pair of a state championships in the 1990s.
Woodie and the Bulls had a message they wanted to share this week. Maechtle had as good a grasp as anyone.
“You have to start somewhere,” Woodie said. “You’ve got to want to get better. You can always learn something from someone.”