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Jones: If a Power Five team comes calling, can USF keep Willie Taggart?

Will it be so long, USF, if a Power Five conference comes calling for coach Willie Taggart? (Photo by Jason Behnken / Getty Images)
Will it be so long, USF, if a Power Five conference comes calling for coach Willie Taggart? (Photo by Jason Behnken / Getty Images)
Published Oct. 21, 2016

Just moments before kickoff last Saturday between USF and UConn at Raymond James Stadium, Bulls coach Willie Taggart could have taken a football and punted it into the stands and there's a pretty good chance it would have hit an empty seat.

That was a week after 16,585 showed up to watch USF's victory on Homecoming.

Then, this week, Taggart and the rest of USF found out that the Power Five lifeboat known as the Big 12 conference wasn't taking on any more passengers, leaving the Bulls to flail away in a second-tier conference.

Imagine what Taggart must be thinking right now. His team is 6-1, yet no one comes to the games and he's stuck in what appears to be a dead-end conference.

What the heck am I doing here? And … Why would I stay?

It certainly would make sense for Taggart, 40, to pack up his stuff and head on down the road. USF is not a destination job. It never has and never will be, not unless the school can somehow, some way sneak into a Power Five conference. And right now, that seems like a Hail Mary.

USF is a stepping-stone job. This is the job you take when you're at North Texas and you want to get to Texas. Want to go from Florida Atlantic to Florida? Make a pit stop in Tampa. When you're a coach, USF is the route you take on the way from being an up-and-comer to a big-timer.

And there's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes you simply have to realize what you are. USF is a middleweight, not a heavyweight. USF is a good school with a nice little program.

But it isn't big time. And that's the concern USF fans should have when Taggart answers the question of where he would like to be five years from now.

Then again, there are plenty of so-called "bigger'' jobs out there that really aren't better jobs.

For example, what's a better job: USF or Indiana? USF or Vanderbilt?

Indiana is in the Big Ten, but would you want to get your head bashed in every week by the likes of Ohio State and Michigan? Former Bucs coach Lovie Smith is in his first season at Illinois and if things go as expected, his next job (and it will be sooner rather than later) will be analyzing Rutgers games on ESPNU.

Or take Vanderbilt. Sure, it's an SEC job, but you'll never be able to stand toe-to-toe consistently with Alabama and Tennessee and Texas A&M. Mark Stoops left his job as Florida State's defensive coordinator to become the head coach at Kentucky, a basketball school in a football conference. In three-plus seasons, he is 6-22 in the SEC and is eventually going to be fired.

On the upside, Stoops has been paid well — about $3.5 million a year — and expectations are low. Still, this is not a good job.

So if you're Taggart, ask yourself, would you rather coach USF or, say, Rutgers? USF or Oregon State? USF or Iowa State?

Would you rather win eight or nine games a year and compete for championships in the American Athletic Conference? Or would you rather struggle to win four or five games by coaching at a bottom feeder in the ACC or Big 12?

When you think of it that way, USF doesn't sound all that bad.

But here's the problem. Taggart is a football coach. A very good football coach. And very good football coaches believe anything is possible.

Very good football coaches believe they can take over a horrible program like Rutgers and make it a national power. Very good football coaches believe they can go to Mississippi State and some day knock off Alabama. If they didn't believe such things then they wouldn't be good at what they do.

Take Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh led the University of San Diego to back-to-back 11-1 seasons then left to take over a rudderless Stanford program that was coming off a 1-11 season. At the time, Stanford felt like a hopeless job. But by his third season, Harbaugh had the Cardinal at 8-5, and by Year 4, it was 12-1.

Oh, did I mention how close Taggart is to Harbaugh and that it might be Harbaugh who tells Taggart where to go next?

Yes, Taggart grew up in Bradenton. This is home.

But home can also be where the fans are, where the big games are, where the money is.

Right now, that just doesn't feel like USF. And, you know, a pretty good school could come calling soon. Say, LSU or North Carolina.

Maybe Taggart can stay at USF and be the next Gary Patterson, who stuck it out at TCU through the Conference USA and Mountain West days to have a now-solid program in the Big 12. Then again, what if USF, without a big-time conference, turns into Rice?

These are things USF needs to think about over the next few months.

In the meantime, enjoy Willie Taggart as your coach.

While you can.