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TAMPA – In places as distant and disparate as Boston, Kalamazoo, Mich., and the 4200 block of East Fowler Avenue, the route to success in college football – whether the MAC title, the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl or the BCS – merges in roughly the same place.
All roads lead into the Sunshine State for ambitious coaches.
Of the 25 head coaching changes this year in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A), at least 19 involve men who once coached in the Sunshine State or were known for their recruiting efforts there.
That new crop of coaches includes USF’s Willie Taggart, a Bradenton native who used his connections around the state to build Western Kentucky’s fledgling program, then leveraged his success there into the same position with the Bulls.
Similar moves this winter portend something of a trend among those major-college athletic departments looking to establish top football programs: finding the head coach who can consistently convince Florida recruits to suit up for their team.
“This all began with former (graduate assistants) and assistant coaches who had to pound the pavement (in Florida),” said Larry Blustein, a longtime South Florida-based recruiting analyst. “Wherever they were before now, they had the opportunity to come into here and tap into the state. And now they’re becoming head coaches.”
Just check their resumes.
Mark Stoops worked as an assistant at USF, Miami and most recently as defensive coordinator at Florida State before taking over at Kentucky. New Boston College coach Steve Addazio, a one-time offensive coordinator at Florida, had nine players from Florida on his roster at Temple. Dave Doeren, who was hired at North Carolina State, had 11 Floridians on the roster of this year’s MAC champion, Northern Illinois.
Many local recruiting analysts and coaches point to Howard Schnellenberger, a former coach at Miami, Louisville, Oklahoma and Florida Atlantic, as one of the first who made Florida recruits a priority.
After leaving his offensive coordinator position with the Miami Dolphins to become head coach at Miami in 1979, Schnellenberger declared he was going to recruit only the “State of Miami.”
That territory ranged from the counties of South Florida to Tampa and Orlando and turned up future NFL players like Bernie Kosar, Michael Irvin and former Hernando High star Jerome Brown.
The Hurricanes won four national championships from 1983-1991 under three different coaches.
That model for program building was replicated by Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who won two national championships and finished with 389 career wins – the most by any Division I-A or FBS coach – by cultivating in-state talent.
“Coach Bowden made it a requirement to recruit local kids,” said Ronnie Cottrell, a former Florida State assistant and current Tallahassee Godby High coach. “He knew that if you can capture a large number of those kids, you can be in a position to win a national championship.”
But even for colleges that weren’t in position to win national championships, Florida athletes were still an appealing option.
David Wilson, a recruiting coordinator at Troy State in the early 1980s, said identifying second- and third-tier talents in the state paid off greatly for schools that played in Division I-AA and lower levels of competition.
“There are just so many more athletes here in the state of Florida,” said Wilson, currently director of player personnel for the Tampa Bay Storm. “Taking advantage of the kids down there was important to us and went a long way toward us winning Division II championships.”
ESPN recruiting analyst Corey Long said Cincinnati was so appealing to Tommy Tuberville, head coach at Texas Tech the past three years, that he was willing to leave the recruiting hotbed of Texas.
“He wasn’t crazy about Texas talent,” Long said of Tuberville, who was a defensive coordinator at Miami from 1986 to 1993. “He feels like Cincinnati gives him a better track to get back recruiting in Florida.”
Here in the bay area, Plant High coach Robert Weiner has gotten used to the steady stream of college assistants - from all over the country, from all sorts of divisions - coming into town looking to uncover talent.
Fast talent, in particular.
“Even the Ivy League schools, they want smart Florida athletes,” said Weiner, who has at least a half-dozen major-college recruits on his roster. “They think they can tap into the same things that the other schools have. They always want to look at the skill players.”
That includes Taggart, who swung by Weiner’s office on the first Monday morning after being hired at USF. He wanted to reaffirm his commitment to linebacker Mitchell Wright, who pledged to the play for the Bulls earlier in the year.
Taggart understands he was brought to Tampa, in part, because of his ability to lure athletes to Western Kentucky. More will be expected at a school with more resources and in closer proximity to top recruits.
“I always recruited down here and built the relationships with the coaches,” he said during a two-minute phone interview last week on ESPN’s College Football Live.
“It helped up there at Western, and now coming back and being right here in the backyard, it only can help me more.”
A number of local recruits have been impressed with the new coach.
“It does make the school very attractive,” said Freedom defensive back Nate Godwin, a Minnesota commit who was offered by USF on Friday. “He is a winner and great recruiter. And has the resume to prove it. A lot of people feel he will turn around this program, including me.”
“I guess they feel they have a better chance of getting me now,” said Hillsborough running back and linebacker Nigel Harris, a consensus three-star recruit. “Coach Taggart is coming from a wining program at Western Kentucky and I think that’s a sign (USF) is going to be on the upswing.”
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @jdhometeam.