FSU football coach Willie Taggart gets local hero’s welcome

"Back home, baby," Taggart said as he stepped onto a big stage.
Florida State Head Coach Willie Taggart is seen speaking to reporters before the Seminole Rally at the Mertz Theatre in Sarasota, Fla.. [ ANDRES LEIVA   |   Special to the Times ]
Florida State Head Coach Willie Taggart is seen speaking to reporters before the Seminole Rally at the Mertz Theatre in Sarasota, Fla.. [ ANDRES LEIVA | Special to the Times ]
Published June 11, 2018|Updated June 12, 2018

SARASOTA — He slithered and scrambled his way into the local consciousness in the fall of 1991.

Manatee High's Willie Taggart, 145 pounds in a sopping jersey, suddenly found himself with the keys to the Hurricanes' ruthlessly efficient option attack. Prolific starter Tommie Frazier was nursing a knee injury, leaving most of Bradenton to wonder if the offense would flourish or flounder under the first sophomore quarterback to start for legendary coach Joe Kinnan.

"He was lean," former 'Canes quarterbacks coach Frank Turner said. "I was always worried he would get hurt."

Brandon High barely got a paw on him. Taggart rushed for a touchdown on his second carry and finished 10-for-14 in the air for 129 yards in a 44-0 romp.

"He just played great," former Manatee receivers coach Chuck Sandberg recalled. "He managed the game well, great reads, and we had a good game plan. So really that was kind of the start for Willie kind of getting involved at the varsity level as a sophomore."

RELATED: When Willie Taggart filled in for Tommie Frazier at Manatee High

More than a quarter-century later, Taggart's return to the area Monday evening as Florida State's new head football coach seemed as triumphant as his varsity debut was auspicious.

He mingled with boosters wearing Taggart Time T-shirts and sipping wine at an elegant Sarasota theater. The Manatee drumline welcomed him to the stage with the Warchant. And when he was finished speaking to the Sarasota and Manatee Seminoles booster clubs, the sold-out crowd of 500 gave him a standing ovation.

"I always say, life has a crazy way of putting us where we're supposed to be," Taggart said.

Monday's backdrop stood in stark contrast to Taggart's boyhood home, the Oakwood Village apartment complex 12 miles north in Palmetto.

Taggart's parents picked oranges, potatoes and tomatoes in a town where more than a quarter of the children lived below the poverty line. He used to sit under a tree outside his apartments and dream about becoming successful and rich.

"I wanted to be successful and be in a position where I could look out for my family one day," said Taggart, who landed a six-year, $30 million contract in December.

"I thought it would be football playing, and it was football but it was coaching."

Those who knew Taggart back then aren't surprised by the success he has achieved. It was apparent with that dazzling relief effort in 1991.

"Early on, you knew he was a special player," said Robby Stevenson, a Manatee High teammate who later punted on the Gators' 1996 national title team. "All-American Tommie gets hurt, and he comes in and doesn't skip a beat."

Taggart might not have had the talent of Frazier, who later quarterbacked Nebraska to back-to-back national championships. But he made up for it in other ways, which explains why he led Manatee to the 1992 state title in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year after Frazier's graduation.

"He was so quick that the defenders never got direct hits on him," Turner recalled.

"He would duck a hit, slide off a hit, jump inside of a hit. I mean, they'd have (defenders) come on him pretty squared up, but he just would not give them a target. He was amazingly quick. That's why he stayed injury-free, because he was so quick."

His abilities transcended his athleticism.

Taggart understood the Hurricanes' offense the way you'd expect from the future coach of a major college program. He related to everyone in the locker room, whether they were childhood friends from Palmetto or football newcomers like Stevenson.

"Have you ever met a guy that you walk away from … you go, 'Man, how do you not like that guy?' Willie's that guy," Stevenson said. "That was Willie in high school, and I know that's Willie now."

The Willie now shares other traits with the Willie that Stevenson met 27 years ago.

The personability he had in the Manatee locker room has helped him develop into one of the nation's top recruiters. Taggart still professes to live and run his program with his mother's advice — treat others like I want to be treated. His "Do something" catchphrase? That came from a high school teammate.

But the Willie now has also evolved from those days.

Back then, Taggart led more by example than words. "He was a very soft-spoken guy," Sandberg said.

Now he cracks jokes during speeches to jam-packed crowds.

Monday night, a young fan asked if Taggart was ready to win more than predecessor Jimbo Fisher.

"I'm ready," Taggart said, "to win more games than Bobby Bowden."