TALLAHASSEE — When Willie Taggart arrived at Florida State, it looked as if he was taking on a different kind of challenge than the ones that got him his dream job.
Western Kentucky, USF and Oregon all struggled immediately before his arrival, which is why all three needed new coaches. They had just fired their last one.
Not FSU. Jimbo Fisher left on his own for Texas A&M. Although Fisher’s last season was a disappointment, the Seminoles were a year removed from five consecutive trips to top-tier bowl games.
“It’s different for me because this is not a rebuild,” Taggart said during his introductory news conference. “This is more of a realignment, if anything.”
As Taggart prepares to open his second preseason camp at FSU, the myth of realignment has disappeared. The ’Noles are 12-13 in their past two seasons, just signed their lowest ranked recruiting class since 2007 and are likely a year or two away from having their offensive line return to respectability.
With the gold-colored glasses gone, FSU looks a lot more like the Oregon or USF team that Taggart inherited than the one that won a national title in Pasadena six years ago. That’s not a good thing for these 2019 ’Noles, but it’s a reason to be optimistic about Taggart’s long-term tenure.
He has done this before.
“All these jobs are different,” Taggart said Thursday during a pre-camp news conference. “But all the things that we do is what we’ve done before, and I know it works.”
It worked at Western Kentucky; the Hilltoppers were 2-22 in the two years before his arrival but went to a bowl game in his final season.
It worked at USF; the Bulls were 8-16 before he got there and finished in the top 20 on his way out.
And it worked at Oregon, where he jumped the Ducks’ win total from four to seven in one year.
Taggart is trying to do the same thing at FSU by fixing systemic cultural issues. The ’Noles have withered under adversity for most of the past two seasons. Their academic progress rate is last among Power Five teams. Taggart knows from experience that there’s a correlation between the two.
“Talent is not the issue,” Taggart said. “Our guys buying in to what we’re doing and believing in each other (is the issue).”
Taggart implied Thursday that the buy-in wasn’t there last year. Why should it have been? Most of the roster was recruited by the previous regime. Many of the players he inherited had experienced tastes of success — then saw the historic bowl streak end with the new coaching staff.
But Taggart has seen signs of acceptance this offseason. It no longer feels like pulling teeth to get his players to do what they’re asked.
“They understand what they don't want to do anymore and understand what we need to do going forward,” Taggart said.
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Almost all of the things Taggart wants to see have little to do with football. Staying out of trouble. Doing more community service. Going to class. Getting better grades.
“When those little things start to happen,” Taggart said, “you start to see a culture change.”
It’s clear now that FSU’s culture needed to be changed. We’ll find out soon whether Taggart is the right one to change it.