Willie Taggart, who left the Tampa Bay area to play and coach at Western Kentucky, is coming home as the next coach of USF football.
Taggart, 36, a Palmetto native who played against USF in the Bulls' first season and has coached the Hilltoppers this season to their first bowl game, told his players he is leaving his alma mater during a team meeting Friday night after practice.
He arrived in Tampa Friday night.
"I'm looking forward to getting to know all the Bull Nation and go from there," he told WFTS Ch. 28 at the airport.
Taggart is likely to be introduced today as just the third coach in the Bulls' 16-year history, replacing Skip Holtz, who was fired Sunday after three seasons and a 5-16 record in Big East play.
Taggart, who won a state title in 1992 as a player at Bradenton Manatee High, has come up through the Harbaugh coaching tree — Jim, now coach of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, recruited him to play for his father, Jack, at Western Kentucky, where he became an assistant coach the year after he finished playing. He helped coach WKU to a I-AA national title in 2002, then joined Jim Harbaugh's staff at Stanford for three years before returning to WKU as head coach when Jack Harbaugh retired.
"I see a lot of similarities between coach Harbaugh and him," said Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, the 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up who had Taggart as his position coach for three years at Stanford. "They have similar philosophies when it comes to being relentless, being tough, running the ball. He takes such great pride in running the ball, and that's kind of gone by the wayside in college football."
Taggart has engineered a USF-like growth at WKU, which had lost 20 in a row when he became head coach. After a 2-10 debut in 2010, he has turned the team around to 7-5 records in the past two seasons, with a win at Kentucky in September. With a 16-20 career record, he'll be one of the youngest head coaches in Big East football history — Bucs coach Greg Schiano was just 34 when he became head coach at Rutgers in 2000.
Taggart will take over a USF program that has finished last in the Big East in each of the past two seasons, with 1-6 records in Big East play. The Bulls finished 5-7 in 2011, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2004, and this year's team had a 3-9 record, the worst in the Bulls' 16 seasons.
In the six days since Holtz's firing, the possibility of Taggart's hiring has brought considerable buzz in the Tampa area, with area coaches endorsing him as a young coach who would ramp up the Bulls' recruiting efforts. He'll need to quickly address glaring needs at quarterback and running back — QB Asiantii Woulard, a top-rated recruit from Winter Park who had backed out of a commitment to USF after Holtz was fired, seemed pleased with Taggart's hire. "Excited to see what Taggart has planned for #USF!" he tweeted Friday.
Taggart's hiring should also be a homecoming for current WKU graduate assistant Marquel Blackwell, USF's all-time leading passer, who joined Taggart's staff this summer and is likely to be part of his USF staff. Ray Woodie, who coached at Palmetto before joining Taggart at WKU, has been a top Florida recruiter and would logically join Taggart in Tampa as well. He should be able to fill his staff with current USF assistants, as well as other promising coaches from the Harbaugh tree.
His hiring will also make Taggart the only African-American head coach among Florida's seven I-A football programs, though Florida International is in the process of hiring a new coach. In the hours that followed news of his hiring, many Bulls fans announced their approval, including ESPN basketball personality Dick Vitale, who lives in Lakewood Ranch and has followed Taggart's career.
"A great choice by USF — WILLIE TAGGART has the complete package — can coach -—can recruit — can motivate -—can communicate with media," Vitale tweeted.
News of Taggart's decision was reported first by 620-AM WDAE.
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.