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Former USF coach Willie Taggart taking over at FSU

By Matt Baker | Times Staff
Published: December 5, 2017 Updated: December 5, 2017 at 07:11 PM
Oregon head coach Willie Taggart gives feedback from the sidelines against Oregon State earlier this month in Eugene, Ore. [AP Photo/Thomas Boyd]

Long before Willie Taggart got into coaching, he was indoctrinated into the tradition of Florida State University football.

He was raised in a home of Seminoles fans in Palmetto. His high school coach, Joe Kinnan, played for FSU. So did Tracy Sanders, his boyhood idol who went from Manatee High quarterback to Seminoles defensive back.

Now Taggart will be experiencing FSU football first-hand.

The 41-year-old former USF coach is leaving Oregon to return to his home state as FSU’s new head coach. Taggart replaces Jimbo Fisher, who led the Seminoles to the 2013 national title and was formally introduced Monday as Texas A&M’s new coach.

FSU is the latest stop in a dizzying rise for Taggart. It will be the fourth school he’s led in seven seasons and his third within the last year. In the past four decades, only seven other coaches have voluntarily left Power Five jobs after one season; only three — Todd Graham, Lane Kiffin and David McWilliams — did so to take another college position.

Taggart was happy at Oregon, a regular Pac-12 power with some of the best facilities in the country. But apparently a homecoming of sorts was too much for Taggart to resist, leading him to accept the job Tuesday.

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He will make history as FSU’s third coach in the past four decades and the 10th overall. He is the first African-American to be a full-time head coach for the Seminoles, who also have a black athletic director (Stan Wilcox) and men’s basketball coach (Leonard Hamilton).

Taggart’s ascent came from his ability to turn around programs, which is why his 47-50 career record doesn’t disqualify him from one of the top jobs in the country. He inherited a winless program at his alma mater, Western Kentucky, and left after back-to-back 7-5 seasons and the first bowl appearance in Hilltoppers history.

Before Taggart’s arrival in Tampa in 2013, USF was 3-9. By the time he left for the Ducks a year ago, USF was 10-2 and set to finish a season nationally ranked for the first time.

In his only season at Oregon, his Ducks finished 7-5 – a three-win improvement from 2016.

He won’t face such a drastic rebuild at FSU, even after the Seminoles struggled to a 6-6 finish. Under Fisher, FSU reeled in four consecutive top-six recruiting classes. The Seminoles return two quarterbacks with starting experience (Deondre Francois and James Blackman) along with promising freshman running back Cam Akers.

That doesn’t mean Taggart’s job will be easy. His first step is to salvage a recruiting class that’s in shambles, two weeks before the inaugural early signing period begins. The uncertainty cost the Seminoles seven recruits in the past six days, sending their class plummeting from No. 9 to No. 31 — below the likes of Baylor, Kentucky and North Carolina State.

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Taggart is regarded as an excellent recruiter; Oregon held the nation’s No. 6 recruiting class, which would be the Ducks’ highest finish in the Rivals era.

That class has strong local ties that would benefit Taggart in Tallahassee. Three Ducks recruits are from the Tampa Bay area: Armwood High four-star receiver Warren Thompson and his teammate, four-star defensive end Malcolm Lamar and Tampa Bay Tech three-star defensive end Jonathan King. A fourth — four-star Wesley Chapel High defensive back Isaiah Bolden — decommitted from Oregon after Tuesday’s news. He was previously committed to FSU.

Terms of the deal were not announced. Taggart made $2.9 million this season, according to USA Today. Another former USF coach, Jim Leavitt, could be a part of his staff; Leavitt was Taggart’s defensive coordinator at Oregon.

Taggart will be formally introduced Wednesday at 11 a.m.

Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report. Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.