USF's Willie Taggart out to reverse Bulls' fortunes
Willie Taggart wasn't kidding. Even through the phone, it was obvious he spoke these words with a straight face.
"With the new playoff coming, it's not about what league you're in," the new South Florida coach said. "If you can finish in the top four, you can play for a championship. Look at Notre Dame. They're not even in a conference. They're not settling."
Taggart has gotten the conference question a lot since he left Western Kentucky to take a job 35 miles from his hometown of Bradenton, Fla. USF is in the Big East. More accurately, despite the school's best efforts to relocate, USF is stuck in the Big East. If the Book of Revelation was about conference realignment, the Bulls -- along with the teams of Cincinnati and Connecticut -- would be stuck wandering the football wasteland while Raptured former conference-mates Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers partied up in high-dollar heaven.
It's easy to draw that line of demarcation as the power leagues continue to create deals (contract bowls, lucrative television pacts) that readily identify the haves and the have-nots. But those lines don't exist in Taggart's mind. He just left Western Kentucky of the Sun Belt Conference. Compared to that, the Big East -- even in its depleted state -- is a land of opportunity. So Taggart chooses to believe he can do great things in Tampa, even if few others have faith in the program or its conference home.
The USF job was a golden opportunity when Skip Holtz got the job in 2010. The BCS was still in place for the foreseeable future, and the Big East was an automatic qualifying conference. Given the easy access to a wealth of Sunshine State talent -- Florida, Florida State and Miami don't have enough spaces to sign all the great players nearby -- the Bulls should have dominated the Big East. They should have already won at least one conference title, should have played in at least one major bowl. Had they done that, they'd either be in the Big 12 or headed to the ACC. West Virginia and Louisville got their golden tickets because of football success. Combine football success with the nation's No. 14 television market -- according to Nielsen, the Tampa Bay area had 1.79 million television homes in 2012 -- and USF would have been a no-brainer. But the Bulls never could master that "football success" part of the equation.
Holtz squandered that opportunity. Now, Taggart must rebuild a program with the entire athletic department counting on him to make the Bulls attractive enough to get picked up in the next round of realignment. That's a heavy burden, but Taggart can shoulder it. The Group of Five conference schools that passed on Taggart on this spin of the coaching carousel will likely regret that choice. His 16-20 record in three seasons as the head Hilltopper may not look like much, but consider that he took over a program that had celebrated its jump from mediocre-to-above-average FCS program to FBS program by going 2-22 in its first two years in college football's top division. Taggart went 2-10 in a 2010 campaign spent eliminating a losing culture. The next two seasons, Taggart went 7-5 each year with fewer resources and fewer nearby recruits than his competitors. Former Western Kentucky athletic director Ross Bjork, who has since moved to Ole Miss, remembers being amazed when he looked at the offer lists of some recruits considering Western Kentucky. Class of 2010 quarterback Brion Carnes from Bradenton's Manatee High, for example, took an official visit to Western Kentucky. He signed with Nebraska. But Carnes seriously considered the Hilltoppers out of respect for Taggart, who is almost as legendary in Bradenton as Tommie Frazier, the player he succeeded as Manatee's quarterback. Meanwhile, Taggart made Bobby Rainey, a tailback he inherited, a star by running an offense similar to the one Taggart had helped Jim Harbaugh run at Stanford. Taggart also recruited current Western Kentucky star tailback Antonio Andrews out of my favorite high school program.
Taggart couldn't win most of those recruiting tussles at Western Kentucky, but he hopes selling proximity to home will help him overcome players' misgivings about USF's conference affiliation. Besides, the Big East is still a bigger name than the Sun Belt. "We've got the same size stick now," Taggart said with a laugh. "We're not using that switch anymore. That switch will sting a little bit, but eventually it's going to break." Taggart may have upgraded to a stick, but he'll quickly learn that in Gainesville and Tallahassee, Will Muschamp and Jimbo Fisher are swinging oak trees in the fight for the state's best players.
Taggart doesn't care. He's accustomed to hearing about what can't be done. No one thought Western Kentucky would post winning seasons in the FBS so quickly. When Taggart and the rest of Harbaugh's staff arrived in Palo Alto in 2007, people laughed at the notion that they could turn Stanford into one of the nation's elite programs. So while Taggart understands Florida, Florida State and Miami will beat him for recruits, he can use the evaluation skills he honed at Western Kentucky and Stanford to find the players those schools missed. "We're going to do it our way," Taggart said. "Sometimes you've got to go into the woods and find those guys nobody knows about."
We won't know for a year or two whether Taggart can succeed at beating the scrub palmetto in his home state for undervalued players, but we do know he knows how to change a losing culture. That's his first priority. "The first guys I've got to recruit are the ones on campus," Taggart said. "I've got to get them to buy in. Then I've got to find the guys who can take their jobs. If they don't work, somebody's going to take their jobs."
Taggart has taken a job at a program that blew a golden opportunity to improve its fortunes. Now, he'll either win enough to leave for a better job or get dragged down with the rest of the remaining Big East coaches. But there is also a third option. If he wins big and wins quickly -- and if one of the power leagues decides to expand again -- he might wind up saving the entire USF athletic department from itself.