Wednesday, January 24, 2018

New coach Willie Taggart makes USF Bulls believe


The atmosphere changed at USF on Saturday afternoon.

Suddenly, the air crackled with energy and confidence. Willie Taggart, the new guy in charge, stood in front of the room, his voice bouncing off the wall like a preacher in the middle of a revival.

He smiled and he shouted and he promised, and at the moment, it was impossible to doubt him.

Yes, he was going to recruit.

Yes, he was going to lead.

Yes, he was going to win.

This is the easy part, of course. A new coach has never lost his introductory news conference. Everyone uses the same phrases, and everyone hits the same bullet points, and everyone thinks the future glitters in the distance. On Day 1, everyone sounds the same.

And yet, there was something about Taggart that invited you to believe. He is young, 36, and his career is only three years old. But he sees the USF program the same way that the faithful see it, as a place where the right coach, with the right players, can build success.

He talked about recruiting. He talked about winning championships. He talked about being ranked. He talked about filling Raymond James Stadium. He talked about hard work and tough kids and building something special.

Do you believe him yet?

"I've won all my life," Taggart said. "I won in high school. I won in college. I've won in life. I'm a winner. I don't believe in that losing stuff. Winning is not that complicated. There is no reason for us not to be successful.

"We're not going to bow down to anyone, not any man and not any program."

By this time, the packed room was cheering and whooping. If someone had brought a blocking sled, the crowd would have pushed it through the plate glass windows.

He had them now, and Taggart paused. He grinned.

"What we have to do is put everyone on the bus, put them in the right seat, and let Coach T drive this bus."

If things go right, who knows? Maybe Taggart can drive it over the rest of the Big East.

Say this for Taggart. He makes a fine first impression. His voice can go from funny to fiery in about 11 seconds. His personality boils out of him, and it is easy to imagine how it will affect 18-year-old linebackers and running backs.

Granted, you do not judge a coach by the way he says what his fans want to hear. Even given his reputation for toughness, for organization, for leadership, it will take a lot of recruiting and a lot of winning before it can be decided whether Taggart is indeed the right coach.

In the meantime, there is a trusted voice in his corner. If you want to know about Willie Taggart, why not ask Tony Dungy?

Dungy, a self-professed fan of USF, sat in on some of USF's interviews during its six-day coaching search. He liked what he heard from Taggart.

"I think he's going to be a great fit," Dungy said. "He's special. His personality and his drive will rub off on other people. He has a vision of how to win.

"One thing that attracted me to Willie … he reminds me a lot of myself at that age. There isn't a lot of flash, not a lot of glitter. He's not going to wow you with this, that or the other. I can see the commitment to his style of play. He's going to be very businesslike. In terms of substance over style, that's what I saw."

Can he recruit? If he can fill the room the way he did Saturday, if he can make heads nod, you bet he can. Most of the people in the room would have signed whatever scholarship was available. There is risk with every coaching hire at every school, but yeah, it is easy to like Taggart's chances.

Forty-five minutes later, Taggart sat in a conference room. The introduction was not a performance, he said. It was who he is. The enthusiasm is real. The belief, too.

So you ask him: Should USF win Big East titles?

"No doubt about it," he said. "I look at this program being a top-25 program every year. Every year. Including next year. There is no reason we shouldn't. We're going to set our expectations high."

And should USF get into the top 10?

"No doubt about it," he said again. "I always said I wouldn't leave Western Kentucky unless it was for a place where we could win the national title. I think you can do that here.'

And should USF be able to compete with Florida and FSU and Miami?

"We should work to get there. It's not just going to happen overnight. We have the resources. We have the recruiting base. We have all the things we need to get there.

"One thing I'm excited about: Now I have pretty much the same stick as everyone else. I don't have the switch anymore. That switch will hurt a little bit, but it will end up breaking."

Today, Taggart says, the recruiting starts. He needs offense. He needs defense.

Along the way, perhaps he will recruit a few more believers. Listen to him, and you might become one yourself.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. at 98.7-FM the Fan.

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