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FSU’s Willie Taggart: An expected ascension, if a tad early, to his dream job

In a little over two years, the former USF coach rapidly rises through the Power Five ranks to land at a coveted spot in Tallahassee.
Willie Taggart on his road to FSU: “Life has a strange way of putting us where we’re supposed to be, and a crazy way of getting us there." (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser, File)
Published Apr. 9, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — Never before in Willie Taggart's coaching life did his two-word mantra carry as much urgency as it did on that warm early-October afternoon in 2015.

Do Something. Taggart's career at USF, a rung below abysmal to that point, hinged on the 1-3 Bulls honoring that concise mandate against Syracuse. One more offensively anemic effort likely would have been the last on Taggart's watch, or so he suspected.

"Well to listen to everybody, I was getting canned," said Taggart, who owned a 7-21 record in two-plus seasons as Bulls coach at that time. "No one told me that, but what everybody else was saying was, that was what was gonna happen."

Fate pre-empted a firing. Earlier that week, Taggart had agreed to unshackle sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers from the rigid reads of his new power-based, spread offense. In essence, he allowed Flowers to be … well … Flowers.

"I was holding him back," Taggart recalled. "And not only was I holding him back, I was holding myself back. I was trying to get adjusted to calling the plays. And that game it was like, 'The hell with it.' I just called anything and called it fast."

RELATED: Taggart to NFL GMs: Ignore Quinton Flowers at your own risk

USF demolished Syracuse 45-24. The rest is history — at warp speed.

Less than 2 1/2 years later, Taggart sits in a spacious third-floor office with wood floors adjoined by a receptionist's area and a small lobby. The furniture — leather sofa, end table, round conference table and desk — is varied hues of brown. One of his two desktops features a Seminoles logo screen saver.

Floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlook Doak Campbell Stadium. In less than 27 months, Taggart sprinted the gamut of the coaching profession, starting at near casualty and ending at scorching commodity.

But FSU's first-year coach, now earning nearly three times as much as he did in 2015, insists he's not terribly surprised by the briskness of it all.
Well, maybe a little surprised.

"Life has a strange way of putting us where we're supposed to be, and a crazy way of getting us there," Taggart said from his conference table on a recent March morning. "That's kind of how I look at my journey, just this thing called life. To me, I'm where I'm supposed to be, but I've been working to get to that position, too. So I'm not necessarily surprised at anything because that's what I've been working for.

"I guess I'm shocked that it happened this quick, but this is where I want to be."

Reared in a household of FSU zealots, Taggart, youngest of John and Gloria Taggart's five kids, says his current job always has been his dream job. He mentions 'Nole names from a prior heyday, such as Deion Sanders and Charlie Ward, with a reverent tone.

His family's well-chronicled passion for the Seminoles, even to the point of siblings rooting against Taggart when his Bulls played FSU, is corroborated by the 41-year-old coach.

"I was like, 'What happened to blood is thicker than water? What has Florida State done for you?' " Taggart recalled. "But that's how it was."

He presumed an opportunity to lead the 'Noles would develop in time, like a well-plotted wheel route. Life called a curl instead. No sooner than he bolted USF, for the same job at Oregon, Taggart abruptly turned his way back toward Florida.

In less than 26 months, he:

• won 17 of his last 21 games at USF

• took the job at Oregon

• endured a mini-scandal when three Ducks players were hospitalized after a winter workout

• led Oregon to a 7-5 record after it went 4-8 in 2016

• and took the FSU job.

Amid that whirlwind his father died last August. John Taggart, who tried to conceal the severity of his liver cancer from his kids, was 70 and still working at a Palmetto seashell company nearly until his death. His youngest son sensed something wrong during a visit back home in July.

"Usually when I bring my kids and all, he's out and playing and joking with them," Taggart said.

"He came out and spoke to everybody, and then he went back to his room and laid down. I told my wife, 'That's not my dad, something ain't right.' Then my mom called me and told me she had to take him to the hospital, 'cause he never did really want to go. … And then two weeks later he was gone."

Four months later, when the FSU opportunity presented itself, Taggart would consider that tragedy as a cosmic indicator of sorts. His mom now a widow and still residing in Palmetto ("She ain't leaving," Taggart said), FSU had become a job he not only wanted but needed to accept.

"I always thought it would be a little later on in my career," he said.

His arrival generally has been greeted in Tallahassee like a breeze in August.

The edginess of the Jimbo Fisher era, especially as Fisher's relationship with the school (and FSU's 2017 season) deteriorated, had a stifling effect. Taggart came in with his own Harbaugh-inspired lingo "Have a great day if you want to. Attack each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind" and a figurative olive branch.

"Oh, man, he seems like a great guy," former 'Noles safety Derwin James said.

Taggart opened the first two spring practices to the public and has allowed reporters in for significant parts of ensuing workouts since. Bobby Bowden, who had mostly kept his distance since being forced out in 2009, accepted a Taggart invitation to a recent practice.

"He's got a good personality, and he seems to always be happy," Bowden told the Orlando Sentinel. "And that's the kind of people you like to be around."

Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, left, watched the Seminoles practice on Wednesday, April 4, 2018. It was Bowden’s first football practice since retiring in 2009, he said. (Safid Deen/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Speaking of FSU legends, Taggart hasn't so much embraced the program's history as he has bearhugged it.

"I'm the head coach now, some of these guys I always wanted to meet — I get a chance to meet 'em now," he said.

He hung with Sanders at the Independence Bowl, and has brought in dignitaries such as Derrick Brooks and Peter Warrick to address the team. At an FSU coaching clinic last week, Bowden and his longtime defensive coordinator, Mickey Andrews, both appeared.

Before that, Taggart and staff salvaged the Seminole recruiting class with breakneck proficiency. FSU's class, ranked 64th by 247Sports upon Taggart's arrival, finished 11th on signing day.

And so warp speed remains the Taggart tempo. Four months after pulling up to his destiny, he hasn't taken his foot off the gas.

"These cats here, they're in real good hands because I think he's bringing a little fresh bit of air here, accountability, all that," former 'Noles receiver Auden Tate, a Wharton High alumnus, said at FSU's recent pro day.

"I just got back here and everything's like, it's changed, but it's changed for the better."

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

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