Willie Taggart enters third USF season on very hot seat

Willie Taggart's energy as USF coach hasn't waned but attendance has. Will he do well enough to earn Year 4?
Published August 7 2015
Updated August 9 2015

"The good news for Taggart is that the Bulls improved to 4-8 in 2014 after going 2-10 in 2013, but you have to think it's bowl game or bust for Taggart's Bulls in 2015." — cbssports.com

It was around the 27th minute of his inaugural preseason news conference, when someone asked why fans should dole out disposable income to watch his football team, that Willie Taggart's trademark ebullience spiked.

Suddenly, his makeshift podium was a pulpit. With buoyancy and brimstone, USF's third-year coach, still trying fervently to lead a Bulls nation out of the Division I wilderness, attempted to part the turnstiles.

"I think you've got a bunch of guys that's ready to settle some scores this year," he said. "THAT'S why you should go buy your tickets and want to be there, so you can say, 'I was THERE when they turned it around.' DON'T be that guy that wasn't there. You're gonna be ticked off, you're gonna be so mad. I want you to BE there and BE loud and BE part of that turnaround."

Two summers ago, when Taggart was urging everyone to "get on the bus" and being hailed as the homegrown rising coaching comet who would resuscitate USF in the wake of the Skip Holtz era, such a message might have elicited far more harrumphs and hallelujahs.

But alas, the flock is getting restless, and thinner. Plenty of Raymond James Stadium pews remain available. Many of those same fans once eager to hop aboard Taggart's proverbial bus now appear poised to ride him out on a rail.

Publicly, Taggart, a 38-year-old married dad of three who quarterbacked Bradenton Manatee High to a state title in the grunge-rock heyday, remains undeterred.

"That's one thing you will never see Coach T worry about — his job," he told reporters Thursday.

"I believe in what we're doing, I know what we're doing, and we're going to get it right, and we're going to get it right this year. We're going to get to those winning ways and everybody back to feeling good."

So far, positive vibes have been fleeting.

USF is 6-18 on Taggart's watch, with no win by more than eight points. Last season's actual average attendance for the Bulls' seven home games (per the Tampa Sports Authority) was 19,157.

The offense has finished 121st (255.5 yards per game) and 118th (304.7 ypg) nationally among Division I-A programs in Taggart's two seasons, averaging 1.4 offensive touchdowns a game. His defense, mostly sturdy in Year 1, gave up 589 and 590 yards to N.C. State and Cincinnati, respectively, last year.

"I don't think Coach Taggart's on the hot seat. I think USF's football players are on the hot seat," senior tight end Sean Price said. "Coach T has done a great job with what he's done, it's just our job to go out there and execute, so I wouldn't put any pressure on him at all."

Thing is, developing consistency on his staff and depth chart has been a similarly glaring struggle.

Through 24 games, Taggart has used five starting quarterbacks and has dismissed three coordinators (two offensive, one defensive). This past offseason alone, three assistants were let go (including both coordinators) and three more left for other jobs. His most experienced starting quarterback, junior Mike White, also bolted.

Presiding over it all is an athletic director, Mark Harlan, who didn't hire Taggart, and a new football administrative overseer, former Arizona coach Dick Tomey, whom some fans have deemed the interim coach-in-waiting.

Harlan chuckles aloud at the Tomey scenario and believes it's grossly unfair to declare a certain number of victories in 2015 as prerequisite for Taggart sticking around in '16. Peers, meantime, suggest a turnaround is near.

"I've been on the hot seat a bunch, too," UCF coach George O'Leary said.

"But I think he'll be fine. I think he had some great additions to his coaching staff; I think bringing Dick Tomey over there is really going to a help. I mean, he has talent there ,too, so he'll be fine."

Nonetheless, like his constituents, Harlan expects to see improvement, even if his definition of it remains vague.

"I've had a lot of conversations with Coach Taggart, robust conversations with him throughout the offseason, throughout the summer … about how we both share a feeling that this team has an opportunity to be really good this year," Harlan said recently.

"My obligation, my administration's obligation, is to provide support for our coaches in all our sports. I feel like we've provided Coach (Taggart) with the necessary support to have a successful season. And that's really where my expectations lie, a successful season that I believe we can have."

USF's gotta make it to a bowl game this year, man. That's the bottom line." — Tom Krasniqi, WDAE-AM midmorning co-host

Moments before addressing a Sarasota County booster gathering in early June, Taggart reflected on what he inherited — or didn't inherit — upon arriving back in the bay area after transforming alma mater Western Kentucky from a bottom-feeder to bowl qualifier in three seasons.

"I don't think anybody really realized the personnel that we had when we got (to Tampa)," he said. "A lot of spots, we didn't have."

Few would argue. None of Holtz's three signing classes attracted national acclaim or local talent, with only six recruits from the bay area (including Sarasota and Manatee counties) signing with USF in that span.

By contrast, Taggart has scoured his back yard to produce consecutive classes ranked first in the American Athletic Conference by at least one major recruiting service.

Additionally, a handful of prominent Division I transfers, including former nationally heralded prep dual-threat quarterback Asiantii Woulard (UCLA) and onetime St. Petersburg Catholic prep All-America offensive lineman Reilly Gibbons (Stanford) have come aboard. But developing those classes, Taggart insists, is a process.

This year's roster features 47 freshmen (true and redshirt combined).

"Everybody wants those guys to just come in and do it: 'Oh, you've got a top class, you're gonna be great!' " he said. "We've got to develop 'em, they've got to grow up. I know everybody doesn't understand that and doesn't get it. … I would've liked for it to happen quick, but we're not veering off the course."

Or are they?

His offense, with power running as its cornerstone and West Coast pass principles interspersed the first two seasons, now features more spread-style alignments and a much faster tempo. Taggart insists he wasn't forced into such modifications, adding his attack will remain power-based.

It's an organic evolution, brought about by increased depth and talent. In 2013 and '14, the Bulls simply didn't have the people to execute what they're doing now, he says.

"It's good for our personnel. It's good for the guys we recruited in here to play in that," Taggart said.

"Again, when we came here we didn't have any of that. We didn't have anything to run the power that we wanted to run. We had to recruit to it, and then when you recruit to it, you've got to let those guys develop. … And we're older, we're stronger, we're wiser now."

"If the Bulls aren't close to the AAC power they should be with their recruiting advantage in Year 3, Taggart probably won't get a Year 4." thebiglead.com

Memphis coach Justin Fuente might represent the template of optimism upon which Bulls fans can craft short-term optimism.

In Fuente's first two seasons, the Tigers totaled seven victories before finishing 10-3 and claiming a share of the AAC crown in 2014. Unlike Taggart, Fuente has built his system around one quarterback, junior Paxton Lynch, while his staff has remained mostly intact.

But his initial depth deficiencies mirrored Taggart's. Amid the early rockiness, Fuente said he remained oblivious to both kudos and clamor.

"I think each coach has to evaluate the way they handle all the external stuff, whether it's good or bad," he said. "And for me, personally, I try to insulate myself from it as much as humanly possible, while not being ignorant to what's going on in the real world, so that my decisions are made purely for what I believe to be in the best interests of the team.

"If you start to make decisions based on people outside the program and what they think or feel when they may or may not know what's going on, I think you can get into trouble."

Taggart, who's active on Twitter, doesn't seem as insulated. Still, for all the staff and scheme modifications, he remains adamant that his initial blueprint for success has not been unduly influenced. Senior safety Jamie Byrd concurs, saying Taggart "is not really worried about all the outsiders and the naysayers."

So let the national pundits and local skeptics eulogize. Taggart will continue to sermonize: His program will return to poll-busting, bowl-winning glory.

"I know what it was like here before, and I'm excited to get it back that way and be able to say I'm a part of that," Taggart said.

"I can tell you this, Coach T plans on being here a lonnng time."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.