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The three beginnings that led to Willie Taggart’s end at FSU

Taggart spoke in checks he couldn’t cash early, and his teams collapsed late.
Florida State coach Willie Taggart is seen on the sideline during the first quarter against Virginia Tech at Doak Campbell Stadium last September. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Florida State coach Willie Taggart is seen on the sideline during the first quarter against Virginia Tech at Doak Campbell Stadium last September. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Willie Taggart failed in his dream job as Florida State’s football coach for many reasons.

The mess he inherited from Jimbo Fisher. An awful offensive line that needed years to fix. Questionable coordinator hires. Blowouts in Year 1 followed by blown leads in Year 2.

But looking back after his dismissal Sunday, you can trace the end to three different beginnings.

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The first was at the very start — his introductory news conference in December 2017. The Seminoles were 6-6 and had just become the first program in four decades to lose its national-champion coach to another college school. Taggart was undaunted.

“It’s different for me because this is not a rebuild,” said Taggart, who rebuilt Western Kentucky and USF before a one-year stint at Oregon. “This is more of a realignment, if anything.”

He was wrong.

Willie Taggart does the Seminole chop in front of Doak Campbell Stadium before being introduced as Florida State University's new coach on Dec. 6, 2017. [MARK WALLHEISER | AP]

Maybe he didn’t know it as he tomahawk chopped inside Doak Campbell Stadium, but he should have by the spring or summer, once he had a chance to look under the hood and examine the faulty system he inherited. FSU was more than a tune-up away from championship contention.

Taggart didn’t act that way. He didn’t add enough transfers to revamp a historically bad offensive line. He spoke in checks he couldn’t cash. His relentless optimism set up unrealistic expectations for a fan base that might have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, if they had known what was coming.

They found out quickly, with Taggart’s second beginning: His opening-night loss to Virginia Tech.

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The momentum he built through his first few months by salvaging a top-12 recruiting class and bringing back Bobby Bowden and Deion Sanders died with a 24-3 defeat at Doak Campbell Stadium.

It was a sign of things to come, with Taggart getting outcoached and his offensive line getting overpowered. That beat-down was one of the six losses by at least 19 points that FSU suffered during his inaugural 5-7 season.

Even then, FSU felt optimistic about the direction of Taggart’s program. He hired controversial $1 million assistant Kendal Briles to light up the scoreboard. Taggart claimed his ’Noles had improved their culture, learned to handle adversity and boosted their academics. It all sounded great until his third, and final, beginning.

Florida State coach Willie Taggart shakes hands with Boise State coach Bryan Harsin after the Seminoles' 36-31 loss in the 2019 season opener. [MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times]

FSU jumped out to an 18-point lead in its season opener against Boise State before withering. As the Seminoles’ lead slipped away, so, too, did Taggart’s chances of proving this team, this year, would be different. His second chance at a first impression collapsed into a 36-31 home loss.

Then things got worse.

The next week, FSU hosted Louisiana-Monroe, a mediocre Sun Belt team with one winning season this century. Again, the Seminoles jumped out to a big lead (21 points). And again, Taggart’s team failed to hold it. The 45-44 overtime victory (thanks to the Warhawks’ missed extra point), was hollow.

Taggart’s Seminoles blew fourth-quarter leads in three of their next five games, too (although they held on to beat Louisville). The final one was the final straw.

Needing a late field goal to beat Wake Forest, Taggart balked. FSU’s kicking team couldn’t get on the field quick enough, forcing Taggart to call a timeout and inadvertently ice its own embattled kicker.

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The 50-yard attempt in the rain missed, and the conversations surrounding Taggart’s $17 million buyout began to shift. The end began to seem inevitable.

“Obviously, I am disappointed in the decision today as I believe our future is bright at Florida State,” Taggart said in a statement Sunday. “Building a program and a culture takes time, and I regret that we will not have the opportunity to continue to coach these incredible young men.”

Taggart no longer has that opportunity after Saturday’s 27-10 home loss to Miami. The insufficient line Taggart didn’t fix gave up a program-record nine sacks. Taggart was overmatched and outcoached in another three-score loss fueled by another fourth quarter of decay.

It was a fitting echo of all three of Taggart’s failed beginnings. And it resulted in his end.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes

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