A day after publicly making a controversial about-face on USF football coach Willie Taggart’s policy banning players from Ybor City, athletic director Mark Harlan said he stands by his decision.
In the wake of Sunday morning’s murder of former USF defensive lineman Elkino Watson outside The Orpheum nightclub, Taggart said Monday in his weekly teleconference with reporters he had issued a team-wide ban from the region for safety reasons.
“Our guys have to find other places to go have fun,” Taggart said. “Ybor will not be one of them.”
But just five hours later, Harlan issued a public statement, backpedaling on Taggart’s ban, saying he holds Ybor City in “high regard” and no student athletes will be forbidden “from visiting any areas of our beautiful city.”
Watson, 23, and Desmond Horne, 22, were both stabbed in a parking lot near The Orpheum at 1915 East 7th Ave. around 3 a.m. Sunday in an event that reportedly stemmed from an altercation inside.
Both men were transported to Tampa General Hospital, where Watson later succumbed to his injuries. Horne, who previously tried out for USF’s football team in the spring but did not make the cut, is listed in stable condition.
At the time of the incident, The Orpheum was hosting an event that was billed as an “official” after-party for USF’s 51-3 victory over Florida A&M on Saturday. Harlan reiterated it was not university-sanctioned and that the school will be looking into why the venue used the school name.
The decision to overrule Taggart sparked rampant speculation that Harlan was caving in to the pressure of prominent USF boosters and business owners instead of student safety.
In an interview Monday with the Tampa Bay Times, Richard Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant Group and a prominent athletics donor, said he “took offense” to Taggart’s initial statement and emailed Harlan to voice his displeasure.
“They know it to be a safe place,” Gonzmart told the Times. “I’m just insulted that the coach said that.”
Addressing a room full of reporters Tuesday inside the Lee Roy Selmon Athletics Center, Harlan admitted Gonzmart was the first to alert him about Taggart’s comments. But he insisted that was not the reason he overturned the initial ban.
The Oracle filed a public records request Tuesday afternoon seeking all emails between Harlan and Gonzmart since the incident.
“Let me make it very clear: in this business, there’s opinions all the time,” Harlan said. “That’s part of the gig, so to speak. But it was no influence at all.
“This is a belief that I’ve had and I think I’ve talked to some of you about this before. We work at a public institution. And banning things is not the way you teach anybody anything.”
After being advised by Gonzmart, Harlan said he called Taggart to discuss the coach’s comments.
“This wasn’t about being mad at coach, this was just about disagreement on that particular matter,” Harlan said. “It was a conversation like we always have. It wasn’t about being mad, and it was completely forgivable in all ways possible.”
Taggart apologized for what he said was an “in the moment” reaction and quelled any conjecture that there might be some infighting between him and Harlan, who was hired to replace former athletic director Doug Woolard in March.
“I could've been more specific because it's not Ybor, there's a lot of great places,” said Taggart, who was hired in Dec. 2012 by Woolard. “Again, I was kind of in the moment of thinking one thing and I got hit with that question and that's how I responded. Again, if I could've done it over I probably would've responded differently, but that's where we're at.”
A closed memorial service was held inside the Sun Dome on Tuesday night for current and former players and other student athletes that knew Watson. Harlan said he hoped the program could move forward from his ruling and focus on Saturday’s game at No. 11 Florida State.
“At the end of the day, (overturning Taggart’s decision) was something that I was driving … and the way I believe is that I needed to correct the record, and I needed to do it quickly, because it was very staunch in my beliefs on this particular matter,” Harlan said. “My relationship with this football coach is very, very strong. So I know where I stood with him.
“And that’s what matters at the end of the day.”