The success of the USF football team will hinge to a great extent on the Manatee County Connection.
Bulls head coach Willie Taggart put this group together, though the resident patriarch is Joe Kinnan, who led Manatee High School to five state championships in his Hall of Fame career.
The other newcomer on Taggart's staff is Danny Hope, who began his coaching career at Manatee as an assistant under Kinnan 40 years ago.
"You don't get to an opportunity to hire your high school coach who taught you a lot very often," Taggart said. "To have him here with his winning attitude and knowledge and things you can bounce off of him is valuable. He is a winner and it was important to get winners around here. Winners know how to prepare and do things to be successful."
Never miss a local story.
Besides finding the right quarterback, much of the Bulls success this year will depend on an inexperienced offensive line, which is one reason Hope was hired.
"I felt Danny has the personality that I want in our offensive linemen, which is blue collar, grimy and a get-after-it mentality," Taggart said. "Don't make any excuses just get it done. Danny is not afraid of any man or any situation and that's how we want our guys to be."
Ray Woodie, who was head coach at Bayshore and then Palmetto where he was a standout linebacker, has been with Taggart for the past five years. A highly successful recruiter, he is assistant head coach and coaches special teams and linebackers.
The quartet has joined forces to help turn around the Bulls, who have struggled through four-straight losing seasons, the last two under Taggart.
Taggart was a star quarterback at Manatee under Kinnan where they won a state title and advanced to two-straight state championship games. Hope coached four years at Manatee and was part of Kinnan's first state title team in 1983.
Kinnan was offensive coordinator at Eastern Kentucky in 1976 when he recruited Danny Hope out of Miami Killian. Almost four decades later, the relationship remains strong and the two hope they can bring life to a USF offense that has been dormant.
With Kinnan as offensive coordinator and Hope as a starting offensive linemen, Eastern Kentucky won a I-AA national title and finished runner-up the next season.
Kinnan left EKU after the runner-up season to take over as Manatee High's head coach and brought Hope with him. Hope was there from 1981 through '84 and the Canes were 44-4 during that stretch.
"It's an honor to be with a guy at the end of your career who is the same guy you started your career off with. It is very novel and very special to me," Hope said.
Kinnan has been at it the longest and was instrumental in jump-starting the careers of Taggart and Hope. He coached against Woodie and the two hold each other in the highest regard.
"I have great respect for those people, a couple of them I coached and they were pretty good players. I coached against Ray and I always thought he was special," Kinnan said. "It is enjoyable to come back and be united with them."
Taggart, Kinnan and Hope are offensive-oriented coaches, which is where the Bulls need to improve the most. Hope is co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Kinnan's title is analyst, which encompasses many things. Taggart will call the plays while spending the majority of his time with this unit.
Kinnan and Hope have had an extensive experience with the spread offense that the Bulls will implement this season. The goal is to run a quick paced offense while forcing the defense to stretch itself out.
Hope was head coach at Eastern Kentucky and then at Purdue from 2009-2012 and worked for 10 years under Howard Schnellenberger at Louisville.
"I want to help coach Taggart and I want us to win, that's why I came here," Hope said. "I want to win and have fun. I knew of Willie before I came here but I didn't know him though I met him when he was in the 8th or ninth grade. Coach Kinnan is a difference maker. Wherever he has gone, he has won."
This coaching staff, particularly with these four, has strong chemistry, which to Taggart is of the utmost importance. He said the players were silently screaming out to run a quick paced offense Kinnan and Hope are experienced with.
"I am another set of eyes," Kinnan said. "Danny, like me, is very technique-oriented. It's also about scheme, but fundamentals help you win and we are making sure we are fundamentally sound."
There are rumors that Taggart needs to win six games to keep his job, but Kinnan says he is not concerned with that and the staff is just focused on doing the right things.
"I've always been a firm believer, you do your best and winning takes care of itself," Kinnan said. "You don't need to be obsessed with winning. If you do the little things and work hard, it will work out. Willie has assembled a good coaching staff that is on the same page, which is extremely important."
Taggart said the uptempo spread offense became something the players yearned for last year because nearly every time he called it, they moved the ball.
"It was my idea to switch the offense. I thought we finally have the personnel to do it and it is the best way for us to win," Taggart said. "I am not worried about my job, that would be unfair to the kids. It would be selfish and I am not a selfish guy. We expect a big improvement this year. How many wins I don't know, but more than last year."
The Bulls were 4-8 last year and 2-10 in the first season under Taggart. Their offense was ranked 118th out of 125 FBS schools last season and 121st in 2013. Kinnan says those stats mean absolutely nothing.
"That is in the past and we can't look back. We are morphing into a different football team with a different offensive philosophy because we have a different type of personnel here," Kinnan said. "Look at TCU. In 2013, they were 4-8 and ranked 104th in total offense. In 2014, they were 12-1 and ranked fifth."