When Willie Taggart first visited Oregon before taking over as the Ducks’ head coach last December, there was a giant cutout version of himself waiting in the lobby of the school’s lavish football facility.
Taggart, who had just performed a magic act by turning a forgotten South Florida program into a 10-win team in 2016, giggled to himself as his car pulled into the Oregon complex. For a second, the 40-year-old coach felt like a kid on a recruiting visit.
“I thought, ‘Ah, that’s pretty cool right there,'” Taggart would later tell ESPN when talking about his journey to Oregon.
Even after moving into a new house that was built from scratch just a few days earlier in Tampa, Florida, Taggart, who was South Florida’s coach at the time, knew that getting the chance to coach for a prestigious program like Oregon was something he absolutely couldn’t pass up. Taggart envisioned himself staying in Eugene for as long as he could. He was surrounded by arguably the nation’s best facilities, there was endless fan support, he had faith in his administration, and he felt like he could compete with the Alabamas and Clemsons of the sport in recruiting.
“It’s a challenge that I always wanted,” Taggart told ESPN in September. “I worked really hard to be in this position.”
But something continued to eat him up inside. Even with the momentum he was helping to create within the program, the passing of his father, John, in August devastated him. He had lost one of his closest friends and it reinforced how important family was to him.
The problem was that most of his family was more than 3,000 miles away in Florida. Despite the excitement he had in his first season with the Ducks, being so far from those closest to him was hard, a wound that football alone couldn’t heal.
So when one of the wildest college football coaching carousels started spinning in November, Taggart was intrigued by the idea of returning to his home state. He wasn’t going to leave for just any job. He was too invested and too happy with Oregon and his life in Eugene. But the opportunity to be closer to family and coach at an elite program was something that tugged at his heart.
On Dec. 1, Jimbo Fisher resigned at Florida State to become the head coach at Texas A&M, opening the door for Taggart’s dream job. After a couple of days of negotiations, Taggart on Tuesday was officially announced as the Seminoles’ next head coach, allowing him to go home and coach at a school he had admired for most of his life.
Taggart’s trek from Bradenton to Tallahassee is certainly one filled with intrigue and curiosity. The charismatic Taggart, who instilled energy into Oregon’s program with both his coaching style and his personality, is considered one of the game’s brightest offensive minds. But there was thought to be risk in hiring a coach with a 47-50 career record, with fewer than 365 days at a Power 5 program. His job at South Florida was in jeopardy after a 6-18 start, and he entered November 5-4 during his first season with the Ducks.
However, that’s a helicopter view of Taggart’s coaching career. Diving deeper, you see that there are levels to his success at all three head-coaching stops.
Taggart, who spent three seasons as Jim Harbaugh’s running backs coach at Stanford from 2007-09, first took over a Western Kentucky program that won two games in the two seasons before his 2010 arrival. He left with 14 wins in his last two seasons.
After ranking 121st and 118th nationally in total offense in his first two seasons at South Florida, the Bulls rose to 35th and then 11th in 2015 and 2016, when he moved to an uptempo spread attack, which he coined his “Gulf Coast” offense. During those two years, the Bulls went 18-7 and averaged 476.6 yards and 38.7 points per game.
Taggart completely changed his offense, building his high-octane attack around quarterback Quinton Flowers, who would churn out 7,629 total yards and 76 touchdowns.
Taggart’s on-field introduction to the Oregon faithful was a 77-point explosion against Southern Utah, then the Ducks hitting at least 42 points in three of their next four games. However, the loss of star quarterback Justin Herbert to a collarbone injury in Oregon’s 45-24 win over Cal put a major dent in Taggart’s plans.
Leaning on freshman Braxton Burmeister, the Ducks went 1-4, averaging just 8.5 points in those losses. However, the Gulf Coast offense was back in full force when Herbert returned in the Ducks’ 48-28 win over Arizona. He also led Oregon to a 69-10 win over Oregon State in the regular-season finale.
“I had to put on a show,” Taggart said after the Oregon State game.
That’s where you can’t ignore the upside that Florida State is getting. Taggart, a quarterback himself at Western Kentucky, has been able to win with quarterbacks that he has closely worked with. In Taggart’s last year at Western Kentucky, Kawaun Jakes threw for 2,488 yards with 22 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Flowers has become one of the Group of 5’s best players over the past couple of seasons, while Herbert, who was a budding star in 2016, threw for 1,750 yards with 13 touchdowns to three interceptions in seven games this season. He passed for at least 235 yards in the six games he played from start to finish.
“He’s really smart and he knows so much about the game,” said Herbert, who told ESPN that Taggart helped him better understand footwork and reading protections and coverages.
As for recruiting, Taggart is regarded around the country as a bulldog recruiter. He brought quality talent to both Western Kentucky and South Florida, but he made an immediate recruiting impact at Oregon by signing the No. 23 class in the country. Four ESPN 300 members joined Taggart in Eugene, with top cornerback signee Thomas Graham Jr. becoming an immediate contributor with his 11 starts and three interceptions this season.
The 2018 class was shaping to be one of Oregon’s best. It’s currently No. 6, according to ESPN’s RecruitingNation, with nine ESPN 300 members in it. In his first Oregon class, Taggart signed seven players from Florida. Oregon’s previous five recruiting classes had a combined total of three Floridians.
One blemish on his résumé that Taggart struggled to erase was his grueling January workout that sent at least three Oregon players to the hospital. Taggart was criticized for what happened, but his players stood by him. His tactics were meant to break players mentally and physically, and while they might have been extreme, players told ESPN that they actually brought the team closer.
“It definitely is night and day,” linebacker Troy Dye said of the team atmosphere compared to last year. “You can ask anybody on the team and people actually enjoy coming to the building now. People enjoy being here and are happy and grateful.”
Taggart will arrive at Florida State with a mountain of expectations, despite his relatively short coaching career. He passed his quiz at Oregon, but Florida State is a mid-term. Whether he’s ready for a job this big or a spotlight this bright is yet to be seen, but Taggart has always enjoyed either building from the ground up or being doubted.
In Tallahassee, we’ll find out what Taggart is truly made of.