PALMETTO — The wide, green fields where Willie Taggart first learned about hard work had no yard lines, no hashmarks, and certainly no end zones to dream of reaching.
Here, not an hour south of where he will proudly stand this fall as USF's head football coach, a young Taggart, tiny bucket in hand, would watch his parents, John and Gloria, work the fields. They picked tomatoes and potatoes and oranges, whatever was in season, whatever would help keep six children fed and happy.
They didn't bring their youngest son to the fields often, and the simplest lessons they wanted to drive home to all their children were the true value of a hard day's work, of taking pride in what you did.
The second lesson was more profound: You can be more than this.
"Growing up, watching my mom and my dad working, I learned how to work, to work at all costs to take care of your family," Taggart, 36, said. "I also learned what I didn't want to do when I got older. I thought it was one of the better things for me to be put in that situation. It helped me along the way."
Gloria James, wearing a USF shirt in her son's new office overlooking a sprawling practice facility, remembers telling her children never be ashamed to work anywhere — a $3 job, she'd say, was better than no job, and you can take something from any kind of work.
"You go to school, you learn letters, learn how to add and subtract, but the world teaches you," she says, fully expecting all of her children, most of her 18 grandchildren and some great-grandchildren to be in attendance at Raymond James Stadium on Aug. 31 for her son's first USF game. "All you have to do is pay attention."
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What Taggart remembers most about his childhood is the constant comfort of family around him, gathering for cookouts in Palmetto, visiting cousins in Largo. Until coming to USF in December, he had been away from home since he left for college at Western Kentucky in 1994; when he returned there as head coach three years ago, his parents came up for one or two games a year. Now, they're an hour's drive away, from not only Taggart and his wife, Taneshia, but their two sons, Willie Jr. and Jackson.
Taggart's parents, for the record, don't call him Willie. They don't call him Coach, and don't even call him "Skull," the nickname friends gave to the skinny kid with a big, smiling head on a little body. They call him "Man," which has evolved from when they once called him "Lil' Man," always trying to keep up with his brother and four sisters.
Taggart rarely needed more than football to be happy. His first football game was in the Oakwood Village apartments, where kids would start playing in the center yard at 8 a.m. on summer days before the midday heat came in. On weekends, they'd band together and play kids from rival apartment complexes he can still rattle off. "Football, literally every day, all day," Taggart said.
John Taggart, now 66, had wanted his youngest son to play basketball. He, too, was a small man at 5 feet 9, but he loved the thrill of deftly driving around a larger opponent. There was no basketball court nearby, and Willie remembers neighborhood youths ripping the wheel off an old bike, knocking out the spokes and nailing the rim to a telephone pole for a makeshift basket.
Willie played basketball his freshman year at Bradenton's Manatee High, but his love was always football, any football really. His sister Cynthia remembers when Willie got Tecmo Bowl for the family Nintendo, and he would go directly from a neighborhood game to playing football inside, stopping only for a quick lunch at McDonald's, always the same: double cheeseburger, strawberry milk shake.
His brother Eddie Butler, six years older, played at Manatee High, giving him a constant motivation to hold his own against bigger, older players.
"He would never pick me on his team," Taggart remembers fondly. "His friends would pick me, and somehow, I always found a way to score the winning touchdown and beat him."
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This month's season opener won't be the first time Taggart's family has come to Tampa to cheer for him in a USF football game. He came to town as Western Kentucky's quarterback in 1998, and he still has a picture in his office showing him in his red No. 1 Hilltoppers jersey, with six USF players working to bring him down.
His father wore a WKU shirt that day, and when the Bulls led 17-0, he remembers a USF fan chiding that they'd come all that way to get their butt kicked. A Bulls fan offered Taggart's sister Charlene a USF towel, and when Taggart scored late in the first half, she laid it down at her feet and danced on it in celebration.
Taggart scored again early in the third quarter, and he won the game with a third rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 31-24 WKU victory, finishing the day with 206 rushing yards. Until last year, it was the largest deficit overcome by a USF opponent, and those moments — now rooting for USF — are what the family will enjoy together.
"Everyone being in one spot at one time is something my mom really always wanted," Cynthia said. "She knew we had to grow up one day and venture out on our own. For him to come back home has brought such excitement to my mom and my father. He's just a skip and a hop away now."
That turnaround that day foreshadowed what has been his entire coaching career. WKU, close to shuttering its program when he arrived, developed into a Division I-AA power, winning a national championship when he was co-offensive coordinator in 2002. He spent three years at Stanford, helping Jim Harbaugh resurrect the Cardinal program to national relevance. And WKU had a 20-game losing streak when he came back as its head coach in 2010; his team last season played in the school's first bowl game. Given all that, bringing USF back from a 3-9 record last season and back-to-back 1-6 marks in the Big East doesn't seem so difficult.
Football greatness has emerged before from those same hard fields in Palmetto. Before Taggart was born, his parents worked the same fields with Henry Lawrence, a former Florida A&M standout who would go on to win three Super Bowls with the Oakland Raiders as a defensive tackle. When USF held a homecoming gathering in Palmetto for Taggart this spring, Lawrence was there, recognizing a competitive spirit he saw more than 40 years earlier, when nobody was as productive or efficient at his job as John Taggart.
"His dad was an exceptional individual. His parents, they were smart people, and they were awesome workers," Lawrence said. "If you beat Taggart in the fields, you'd done something. That was our standard back then."
When John Taggart started working in Palmetto, he might make $25-$30 a day. That dogged work ethic carried over to his son, who worked shifts on a factory line until 1:30 a.m. during his summers in college, but now earns $1.15 million a year as the Bulls coach.
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What Taggart has been able to accomplish may be best appreciated back where it all started for him. Less than a mile from where he grew up, in a living room whose walls are filled with hundreds of pictures with former players, Eddie Shannon smiles at the mention of Taggart's name.
Shannon, 91, was born in Palmetto and has lived in the same house since 1955. He was FAMU's first paid athletic trainer in the 1940s, working with a future Wimbledon champion in Althea Gibson. In the days before integration, he built a football powerhouse at all-black Palmetto Lincoln, losing two games in 15 seasons. He spent another 18 years coaching at Manatee High, and he had retired when Taggart played there.
Shannon would still deliver the occasional pregame speech, and Taggart vividly remembers the way he'd fire up a locker room, telling them they'd be so sharp on the field they could "kill a mosquito with an axe." Shannon has seen his players reach the highest levels of football, but now sees an African-American as the coach at USF, which didn't exist when he bought his current home, and knows how that inspires today's children, playing on the same sandlots around town.
"It lets them understand you can continue to make progress," said Shannon, who hopes to attend a USF game this season. "Not only to play football, but to be a head coach, they now know you can do that. It's a great thing. It's real educational for young people.
"It opens their eyes. He sets a good example of leadership for young men of color, to let them know they can do a whole lot of things. Who would believe that? It's going to help someone else. It's history in itself. So many people get a chance to see him, see what he's doing. You don't know how far you can go."