TAMPA -- When the critics were piling on and nearly every publication had University of South Florida head coach Willie Taggart on the head coaching hot seat earlier this seaosn, the guy who grew up in Palmetto and was raised by poor migrant workers never wavered.
He preached to the Bulls that life might not be easy, but it can be good if you want to make it that way.
Now, with the Bulls in position to end their regular season with an 8-4 record if they can score a road victory over rival UCF on Thursday night, Taggart said he feels no redemption.
"I am the same Willie Taggart everyone knew at Manatee, just a little older," Taggart said. "I am not going to change when it is bad and I am not going to change when it is good. I'm just trying to get my team to play better."
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The USF football team he took over in 2013 is certainly better. After going 2-10 and 4-8 in their first two seasons under Taggart, the Bulls have won six of their last seven.
USF (7-4, 5-2) has a chance to win the American Athletic Conference East Division with a victory over UCF (0-11, 0-7) and a Temple loss to Connecticut on Saturday. Either way, the Bulls are bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
The college football world seems shocked at the USF turnaround, but Taggart is not shocked at all.
"I don't feel any redemption or relief. I knew this would work," Taggart said, "Whenever you have a plan and go out and work really hard to get it accomplished, you appreciate it, but I never doubt
ed. We knew it would work. I am just happy for our players, the coaches and our fan base. They've been waiting for a long time."
USF started the season 1-3, but Taggart said he felt the team would have a good year after the Bulls lost to Maryland 35-17 in the third game. The following week they lost to then undefeated Memphis, 24-17, holding the high-flying Tigers to their lowest point total of the season.
"I watched those games and saw that we just missed out on opportunities because our guys were still getting accustomed to each other and to our scheme," Taggart said. "It was also a new scheme for me calling the plays. I had to get accustomed to that and doing things fast because we were using an up-tempo offense. As the year went on, we became comfortable with each other and the plays started to work."
After the Memphis game USF took off, winning six of seven while scoring over 30 points in four of those games. In their last two games, the Bulls beat up Temple 44-23 and drilled Cincinnati 65-27.
"The biggest change has been in the attitude of our players," Taggart said. "They are confident and believe they can beat everybody. Every practice since the Memphis game has been outstanding. The guys are coming to practice locked in and ready."
The postgame press conferences during the last two years were anything but pleasant and often focused on the losing and negativity. Taggart said he understood it and never let it bother him.
"I would just be me. I don't hear all the negative stuff and I don't hang around negative people," Taggart said. "I go to work and am around my guys and go home. But you know it's out there when you are not playing well and are getting asked those questions. But you can't get caught up in it. Then you are in trouble."
Taggart's best move with player personnel was inserting Quinton Flowers at quarterback. Flowers was heavily recruited by the major college programs, but all those schools wanted him as a defensive back.
Taggart saw him as another Tommie Frazier, the local legend who starred at Manatee High before leading Nebraska to two national titles. Frazier is now in the College Football Hall of Fame.
"Some of the things those two guys (Frazier and Flowers) do on the football field are just ridiculous," Taggart said. "Quinton has been the catalyst for our entire football team with what he has done and how he inspires everyone. He came along and got everybody excited,"
Taggart has never forgotten his roots and knows how valuable they can be. He brought in Joe Kinnan, his former coach at Manatee, Danny Hope, who also coached at Manatee, and Ray Woodie, former coach at Palmetto and Bayshore.
Taggart still keeps in touch with his college coach at Western Kentucky, Jack Harbaugh, and his two sons, Jim and John Harbaugh, the head coaches at Michigan and the Baltimore Ravens, respectively.
"They gave me the blueprint and when things were going tough they kept me focused (by) telling me to stay the course," Taggart said. "Some people called me stubborn, but we call it patience."