Despite outside criticism, USF’s Taggart remains upbeat

Third-year coach Willie Taggart has managed to keep a positive attitude about his program despite two straight losing seasons and critics placing him on the hot seat. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

Willie Taggart vows that there is no self-help book he reads in order to have a positive attitude each day — a mirror does the job just fine.

These days, however, that reflection probably looks a little different to USF’s third-year football coach. His goatee has a bit more salt than pepper. Instead of countless headlines and stories proclaiming him as the savior of the Bulls, some are calling for his job with several major college football preview magazines and pundits placing the 38-year-old on the list of coaches on the hot seat.

Don’t expect any of that to lessen the width of his grin, though. Or his expectations.

“I don’t know any other way,” Taggart said. “If I get negative, I’m going to be no good at all — at anything. 

“That’s the only way I know.”

For nearly a half-decade, all USF has really known is the loss column.  

The Bulls are far removed from their days as world-beaters, toppling the giants of the college football world to hike as high as No. 2 in the nation as they did for one short week in the fall of 2007. 

Instead of breaking into the top 25, they’ve been lucky to break 17 points on the scoreboard. 

Since its last victory against a Power Five opponent — a 23-20 triumph at Notre Dame to open the 2011 season — USF has tumbled to a 14-34 overall record with no bowl appearances.

The Bulls have churned through four offensive coordinators, four defensive coordinators, six starting quarterbacks and two head coaches. On top of everything, attendance at Raymond James Stadium has sunk, averaging few more than 20,000 spectators per game last season in actual attendance, according to Tampa Sports Authority.

But on the 10th anniversary of USF leaping into the national foray by joining the Big East Conference in 2005, Taggart believes magic still remains somewhere inside the caverns of the Lee Roy Selmon Athletic Center.

Despite compiling a 6-18 record since inheriting the program from Skip Holtz following the 2012 season, Taggart insists the “downward spiral” has been halted.

For Taggart, it has never been a matter of if his team will turn things around, but when it does.

“You talk about culture, you talk about attitude — it’s about changing the attitude,” Taggart said. “It doesn’t happen overnight when you’ve been in a rut for so long. I think our veteran guys have been in our system now for two years, so they understand what that culture is supposed to be like.”

Taggart’s upbeat way of thinking has become contagious to his players, as well.

Middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez, one of the team’s vocal leaders, gives little credence to what outside critics think of the program.

“They don’t put in the work that we put in. They don’t really see what we have here,” said Sanchez, a former two-way standout at St. Petersburg’s Northeast High. “They’re judging us off of last year’s team. So, they don’t know what we have this year. 

“They don’t have the right to judge us, I don’t think, personally.”

Oh, but they will, and have done so already. 

USA Today placed the Bulls 103rd out of 128 schools in its preseason power rankings. Sporting News projected the Bulls to finish sixth — last — in the AAC Eastern Division behind UConn, which finished with two wins in 2014. Fox Sports predicts Taggart could be without a job if the Bulls can’t crack six victories in 2015.

Fortunately for the team, someone forgot to deliver those messages to 4202 East Fowler Ave. 

“We want to get to the point where we’re the No. 1 team,” Sanchez said. “Are we there yet? No. But we want to get to the point where we’re competing with the (University of) Floridas of the world, the Florida States of the world and the (University of) Miamis of the world; and we’ve gone, and we’ve beaten Florida State. We’ve beaten Miami. 

“We’ve done it before, we’ve just got to get consistent with it.”

To Taggart, who once turned Western Kentucky University from a 2-10 afterthought in 2010 into a bowl contender a year later, the formula is simple.

“We’re just trying to get our guys to get back to feeling that way, and playing that way, and acting that way daily,” Taggart said. “Just having a winning attitude in everything you do. 

“Just win.”