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How Willie Taggart went from the hot seat to hot commodity in one game

After one year at Oregon, former USF coach Willie Taggart is coming back to Florida, this time to coach Florida State.   [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
After one year at Oregon, former USF coach Willie Taggart is coming back to Florida, this time to coach Florida State. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Dec. 5, 2017

TAMPA — Wacky thing, that college coaching profession. Where else do career trajectories so frequently turn on a dime? In what other line of work can one game — or one play or one athlete — alter fate so drastically?

Think about it. Were it not for Lindsay Scott (see Florida-Georgia game, 1980), maybe Vince Dooley never becomes a University of Georgia icon. Were it not for a Hail Mary in Miami, Doug Flutie probably doesn't evolve into a 5-foot-10 folk hero.

And were it not for Quinton Flowers, and a fateful decision to let him be himself, Willie Taggart likely isn't Tallahassee's newest multi-millionaire.

Taggart has accepted an offer to become FSU's new coach, continuing his comet-like ascension in the collegiate stratosphere. The 41-year-old married dad of three had breathed life back into Oregon, which improved from 4-8 to 7-5 in his lone season in Eugene, after resuscitating USF's downtrodden program.

In Taggart's final 21 games as Bulls coach, they were 17-4.

But they were 7-21 before that, and it is widely believed Taggart would have been fired at 7-22.

Flowers rescued him. Or perhaps more specifically, Taggart allowed Flowers to rescue him. Otherwise, Taggart may be coaching tight ends for Jim Harbaugh (one of his closest friends) today.

RELATED: USF coach Taggart is 'other' Harbaugh brother

"It just goes back to when Coach T gave me the go word," Flowers said last fall.

That green light was engaged for the Bulls' home game against Syracuse on Oct. 10, 2015. To that point, Flowers had appeared confined in the new spread, zone-read system installed by Taggart following an abysmal 4-8 season in 2-14.

Mostly, he seemed unwilling — or unable — to improvise as Taggart appeared bent on establishing the power run out of the formation.

"I was playing like a robot," Flowers said.

The low point came in a 24-17 home loss to Memphis before an actual Friday night home crowd of 14,305 (per the Tampa Sports Authority) on Oct. 2. Each of USF's first nine possessions began with a run, though Flowers himself ran only twice all night.

In one futile stretch, the Bulls punted seven times in eight possessions, netting 111 yards.

"I could've done some things better for them to help them in that game," Taggart said in a somber postgame news conference.

RELATED: Parents, roots instill Taggart work ethic

What transpired in the ensuing days has become part of Bulls lore. A few nights later, Taggart had his quarterbacks and running backs at his house for a Southern dinner of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and other trimmings.

Tailback Darius Tice, who played against Flowers while at Miami's Northwestern High and had seen him at his most dynamic, recalls initiating the conversation. One of USF's most extroverted characters, Tice tried getting his peers to loosen up. Then he turned to Flowers.

"We call Quinton Flowers 'Wink,' so I was like, 'Man, you've got to play like you played in high school, just do what you want,'" Tice recalled earlier this week. "Everybody was laughing and I said some other things. I was like, 'Man, go out there and have fun. … You scared, man, do what you want.' "

In a 2016 interview, Taggart said he recalled pulling Flowers aside after dinner.

"I held Quinton back and said, 'You know what, Tice and D'Ernest (Johnson) and those guys were joking with you and everything, but what they were really doing was screaming into you what they're looking for from you,' " Taggart said.

" 'They want you to lead. They want you to go out and they've been waiting for a guy at quarterback to do that.' "

Flowers' response: Let me go, Coach.

Taggart obliged.

RELATED: Confident coach Willie Taggart takes control of USF Bulls football

"If we lost, Coach T … would've gotten fired," Tice said. "He was like, 'Man, just go out there, play loose. I don't care what you do, go out there and do what you do.' "

Against Syracuse, Flowers passed for a then-career-best 259 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for 55 yards and a score. The Bulls embarrassed the Orange, 45-24.

It started a 27-6 run for USF that has included three bowl trips. Flowers has evolved into the school's career leader in total offense (11,385 yards), and needs a win in the Birmingham Bowl to tie Marquel Blackwell's school record for career victories (30) by a starting quarterback.

Taggart, meantime, keeps climbing tax brackets at a staggering clip. He might owe it all to one timely dinner.

One that easily could've been a last supper.

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

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