Taggart, just 36, 'excited' to take reins at USF
TAMPA -- There were ample proven, established, veteran college football coaches eager to take over at USF, so Judy Genshaft was asked Saturday what gave her the confidence to hand her school's football program over to Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart, just 36 years old.
"That's what we are as an institution," the USF President said after an energetic introduction by the Bulls' new coach. "We're a young institution that surprises people about how fast we can move and how much we can achieve. I see that in Coach Taggart. I think he's going to be very surprising."
USF's reputation as a young up-and-comer has taken a hit in the last two seasons, as the Bulls struggled in finishing last in the Big East, leading to Sunday's firing of coach Skip Holtz. As USF enters its 17th season in 2013, they have a coach young enough to have beaten the Bulls as a quarterback in 1997, in the program's first month of existence. The enthusiastic Taggart is committed to taking USF back on the same kind of rapid ascent his own career has taken.
"I always said I wouldn't leave WKU unless I had a chance to go win a national championship. I truly believe that can get done here," Taggart said in a room packed with family and friends from his hometown of Palmetto. "It wasn't too long ago where USF was No. 2 in the country. It's been proven we can get there. ... My vision for our football program is to win multiple championships in a first-class manner."
It's an emotional homecoming for Taggart, who won a state title at Bradenton Manatee in 1992 and left home in 1994 to play at WKU, where he stayed as an assistant coach, then returned in 2010 for three seasons as head coach. Accustomed to seeing his parents only a few times a year, he's excited to now have his family an hour from home.
"Now I get to see them whenever I want to ... very, very excited to be back home," said Taggart, who has two young boys, Willie Jr. and J.T., with his wife Taneshia. "It's been a long, long time."
Taggart's contract will pay him $1.15 million a year for five years, considerably less than the $2 million Holtz would have made, but also more than double the $475,000 he was making at WKU. USF will also reimburse him for his $500,000 buyout, and he'll have $1.9 million to build a staff, using his connections from WKU, current USF assistants and other young coaches from the Harbaugh family coaching tree.
"We've got a winner in Willie Taggart," said athletic director Doug Woolard, who needed only six days to find USF's third-ever head coach. "He's young, dynamic, driven, innovative and successful. He does things the right way, and he cares about the student-athletes under his leadership. When we began the search, we were looking for a man with just those qualities."
In the interview process, Woolard turned to former Bucs coach Tony Dungy, who sat in on all candidate interviews and said he appreciated parallels drawn between Taggart and his mentor and friend, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who had him on his staff at Stanford for three years.
"Working for Jim, some of those philosophies have rubbed off, so I see a lot of the same things," Dungy said. "Willie, he's special and you just get that feeling being around him of that ability to rub that off onto other people. ... His personality and drive will rub off on his team."
Taggart is the only African-American head coach among Florida's seven I-A programs, and along with men's basketball coach Stan Heath, USF is one of five I-A programs in the nation with African-Americans in both key positions, along with Stanford, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and New Mexico State.
"I'm aware I'm probably the only African-American coach in the state. Hopefully after day, it'll be all about one of the best coaches in the state of Florida," he said.
Taggart spoke with emotion and confidence, citing a career of turning programs around. WKU's program was close to being shut down when he started playing there, and he helped win a I-AA national title as an assistant. After helping Jim Harbaugh build a winner at Stanford, he returned to WKU, which had lost 20 in a row when he took over as head coach. His team will play in its first bowl game this month, fresh off its second straight 7-5 season.
"It's not a marathon. It's a sprint," he said, setting expectations for a quick path to success in a new Big East lineup next fall.
On competing against the state's traditional big three -- Florida, Florida State and Miami -- he didn't flinch, saying he wants to go after the state's best recruits and start winning those battles to bring the program to a higher level.
"We're not going to bow down to anyone, no man or no program," he said. "That's what it's going to take to win a national championship. They're going after the best, but we're going after the best, too."
Taggart comes with a reputation as a tireless recruiter, believing that "recruiting is like brushing your teeth and combing your hair. As soon as you stop, you start to look bad. ... There's no reason for any kid in the 813, 941, 863, whatever, no reason for you not to come here and play football."
That apparently works for the 954 as well, as Taggart picked up his first commitment on Saturday, getting a pledge from Mike White, a 6-foot-5 quarterback who earlier in the day led Fort Lauderdale's University High to a comeback victory in the state championship. Taggart had 30-plus Floridians on his WKU roster, and now, with a big program in the middle of his home state, with new facilities and the warm weather he grew up enjoying, he's never had more selling points to help him recruit.
"I feel like now I've got the same size stick as everybody else," he said.