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 program over to Willie Taggart, 36 years old.
"That's what we are as an institution," USF's president said after an energetic introduction by the Bulls' new coach, hired from Western Kentucky last week. "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 past two seasons, as the Bulls struggled while finishing last in the Big East, leading to the firing of coach Skip Holtz a week ago today. As USF enters its 17th season in 2013, it has a coach young enough to have beaten the Bulls as a quarterback at Western Kentucky in 1997, in the USF program's first month on the field. The enthusiastic Taggart said he is committed to giving USF the kind of ascent his career has had.
"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 it done here," Taggart said in a room packed with family and friends from his hometown, 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 is $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 also will 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 young coaches from the Harbaugh family coaching tree, which helped him blossom.
"We've got a winner in Willie Taggart," said athletic director Doug Woolard, who needed only six days to find USF's third 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 Taggart's mentor and friend 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who had Taggart on his staff at Stanford for three years. (Harbaugh's brother John is the Ravens' coach.)
"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 football coach among Florida's seven Division I-A programs, and with Stan Heath coaching men's basketball, USF becomes one of five current I-A programs in the nation with African-Americans in both positions, along with Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio), New Mexico State and Stanford.
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 it win a I-AA national title as an assistant. After helping Harbaugh build a winner at Stanford, he returned to WKU, which had lost 20 in a row when he took over as 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.
Taggart comes with a reputation as a tireless recruiter, believing "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 (area codes) 813, 941, 863, whatever, no reason for you not to come here and play football."
That apparently works for the 954 as well. Taggart picked up his first commitment Saturday, from Mike White, a 6-foot-5 quarterback who earlier in the day led Fort Lauderdale University High to a comeback victory in the Class 3A state title game.