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Charlie Strong a popular pick to replace Willie Taggart at USF

Willie Taggart has reportedly accepted the head coaching job at Oregon after four seasons at USF.   [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Willie Taggart has reportedly accepted the head coaching job at Oregon after four seasons at USF. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Dec. 8, 2016

TAMPA — Though the recruiting calendar is his enemy, USF athletic director Mark Harlan insists he won't rush the search for the fourth football coach in school history.

The process will be expeditious but not hasty, Harlan said Wednesday. He will huddle with other school officials in the quest for "an outstanding leader." A search firm likely will be employed to keep the process clandestine.

"The most important thing is to get the best guy that fits this program," Harlan said. "And the time that it takes, it will take."

Meantime, the prevailing sentiment from his fan base grows louder by the hour.

What are you waiting for? Call Charlie Strong!

The news of fourth-year Bulls coach Willie Taggart's departure for Oregon, first reported around dawn Wednesday by ESPN, still was on its initial ascent in cyberspace when Strong's name sprouted nationally and locally as a possible replacement.

Several other names — such as Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and former Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano — also were bandied about. But Strong, the 56-year-old former Texas and Louisville coach with Florida recruiting connections, was the landslide winner in online polls and local radio surveys.

"I think he'd be pretty good," said Bucs safety Major Wright, who starred at Florida from 2007-09, when Strong was the Gators' defensive coordinator. "He'd get the right guys into town, the right guys here to play for him. He's one of those coaches you want to play for."

Strong, who had four separate stints as a Gators assistant, didn't respond to a phone message Wednesday. He flourished at his first head coaching gig, leading Louisville to a 37-15 record and four bowl games in as many seasons (2010-13), but he went on to have three seven-loss seasons at Texas and was dismissed Nov. 26.

"I think (the Longhorns) were on their way," Fox Sports veteran college football announcer Tim Brando told 620-AM on Wednesday.

"Trust me when I tell you, (new Texas coach) Tom Herman's got a 10-win team before he sets foot in the program with what Charlie left behind. The infrastructure was in desperate need of repair, and he did that in the time he was there. … He got rid of the bad apples, cleaned it out, gutted it and he didn't get enough wins in the time that he did that.

"I don't think you have to gut anything at South Florida with what Willie's done."

Meantime, Harlan offered no clues regarding the prerequisites he's seeking in Taggart's replacement.

"Everything's on the table," said Harlan, who appointed Bulls co-offensive coordinator T.J. Weist as interim coach for the Dec. 29 Birmingham Bowl. "Just looking for an outstanding leader."

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Around 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, he said goodbye to one.

In a brief team meeting, Taggart spoke to Bulls players for roughly five minutes before being overcome with emotion, observers said.

A winner of only seven of his first 28 games at USF while trying to replenish a woefully shallow talent pool and find an offense conducive to his personnel, Taggart won 17 of his last 21, including compiling a program-best 10-2 record this year and a current No. 25 national ranking.

Taggart, 40, later issued a statement on his departure:

"To all of Bull Nation, my family and I want to thank you for our fantastic experience over the past four years. My time at USF, culminating with this season, has proven to be one of the highlights of my professional career. Thank you again, and I will always be a big fan of the Bulls!"

He exits less than a year after signing a new five-year, $9 million contract at USF, but he reportedly will earn more than $3 million annually at Oregon, which recently dismissed Mark Helfrich after going 4-8 in his fourth season.

"Oregon has a strong national presence and a proud recent history of playing among the nation's elite, and I look forward to the challenge of upholding the excellence," Taggart, who is the Ducks' first African-American football coach, said in a statement. "I can't wait to get started."

"I think the way we've performed and the way the country's taken notice, I'm not surprised that people are looking at our coaches here and responding to the success that we've had," Harlan said. "Like I've said before, if your phone's not ringing for your coaches, maybe you don't have the right coaches."

Times staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report. Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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