Column: Is Willie Taggart’s bus veering off road?
When Willie Taggart took the podium for the first time to be introduced as USF’s third coach in program history Dec. 8, 2012, the Hall of Fame Room inside the Lee Roy Selmon Athletic Center burst into applause.
Bedecked in a black suit with a green tie and green USF cap, Taggart was hailed as the savior of the football program, which had just come off a 3-9 campaign — then the worst in its 16-year existence. The Bradenton native and father of three had turned Western Kentucky from a Division I-A bottom-feeder in the Sun Belt Conference into a team contending for bowl victories.
With a five-year, $5.75 million contract, Taggart was expected to reignite USF, return it to the days of top 25 rankings and in the national-title conversation after three underachieving years under Skip Holtz.
“I always said I wouldn’t leave WKU unless I had a chance to go and win a national championship,” Taggart told the crowd. “And I truly believe that can be done here.”
Thirty-two months after making that declaration, Taggart finds himself immersed in questions about his future.
The commendation that came with his hire has turned into whispers and doubts about whether or not he’s the right person to turn the program around following 2-10 and 4-8 seasons. The talk of national titles is gone, too. Instead, it’s taken a backseat to worries that USF might never reach another bowl game — something Taggart might have to achieve if he wants to reach a fourth season.
Here are the top five talking points of Taggart’s tenure so far:
This has been the single-most glaring question mark for Taggart since he first stepped foot on campus. Since the 2013 opener against Division I-AA McNeese State — a 53-21 loss — five different quarterbacks have taken turns under center with none permanently establishing themselves as the long-term starter.
Matt Floyd lasted fewer than three quarters against McNeese before being benched the remainder of the season — as a team captain nevertheless — and eventually left for South Alabama. Bobby Eveld was utilized in relief of Floyd and played several games before his senior year was abruptly halted upon sustaining a high-ankle sprain against Louisville. Mike White looked like the answer Taggart needed in a nationally televised meeting with Houston, throwing for 311 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, before struggling down the stretch and eventually losing the starting job midway through last season and transferring to Western Kentucky during the offseason. Steven Bench has fluctuated in and out of the gig, and now — as a senior — sits behind starter sophomore Quinton Flowers, a dual-threat and former four-star prospect, who started one game last season.
The indecision at signal-caller has killed any mojo Taggart is trying to inject into his offense. The Bulls ranked 94th out of 128 teams in passing yards per game last season (196.8) and 115th overall. If USF has any hope to succeed, Taggart must make his pick and stick with it.
One of Taggart’s first duties as USF’s coach was installing his West Coast-style, power-running offense. It was the formula for success for Taggart when he played quarterback for legendary Western Kentucky coach Jack Harbaugh and when he was an assistant for Jack’s son, Jim, at Stanford and head coach at WKU. But after two lackluster seasons, Taggart has scurried away from his power principle and is implementing an up-tempo, spread-style system that he hopes will suit his players’ abilities more.
The only problem? Taggart has never run this style of offense, yet he’s going to continue calling the plays. How it all will play out remains to be seen. But if it’s anything like 2013, when most players spent the season just trying to learn Taggart’s system, there will be more than a share of growing pains.
Repeated staff turnover
Three offensive coordinators in three seasons, a new defensive coordinator, a new defensive backs coach, a new running backs coach and a new tight ends coach and special team’s coordinator. You get the picture — that’s a lot of transition.
At the end of last season, Taggart dismissed offensive coordinator Paul Wulff after one season and defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan (now at UCF) and defensive backs coach Ron Cooper after two. Then, arguably the team’s best recruiter, running backs coach Telly Lockette, bolted for Oregon State. His replacement, Autry Denson, held the position for just five weeks before taking the same job at his alma mater, Notre Dame. Stu Holt, who came to USF with Taggart from Western Kentucky, took an assistant position at Appalachian State.
Since arriving at USF, nine of Taggart’s key staff members have been fired or departed for other jobs. Following his inaugural season, offensive coordinator Walt Wells — who didn’t call the plays — and quarterbacks coach Nick Sheridan were fired after the Bulls’ feeble offense managed to score only 11 touchdowns. Strength coach Hans Straub resigned in May 2014 after he wrote a disparaging remark on his personal Twitter account about former USF defensive end Aaron Lynch, who is now a standout linebacker with the 49ers.
Whether there’s writing on the wall or something internally, this amount of turnover doesn’t bode well for creating any form of consistency, or for Taggart.
Probably the most famous line of Taggart’s introductory news conference came when he was asked about how he would put fans back in the seats of Raymond James Stadium.
“Now all we have to do is put everybody on the bus, put them in the right seat and let Coach T drive this bus,” he said.
It spawned a viral marketing campaign, including a video with some of Tampa Bay’s most notable faces riding on an animated bus — driven, of course, by Taggart — through town before stopping at Ray Jay.
So far, though, it seems Taggart’s bus has been broken down on Dale Mabry Highway as fan interest has dropped to a historic low.
In Taggart’s first season, a November game against SMU drew only 14,240 to the 67,000-seat stadium, USF’s lowest-attended conference game in program history. Last season, the Bulls averaged just 19,317 in seven home games, among the worst ever.
Taggart, however, isn’t dispirited. He is convinced fans will return if the team starts winning.
“I think you’ve got a bunch of guys ready to settle some scores this year,” Taggart said during the team’s media day. “That’s why you should go buy your tickets and want to be there, so you can say, ‘I was there when they turned it around.’ Don’t be that guy that wasn’t there. You’re gonna be ticked off, you’re gonna be so mad. I want you to be there and be loud and be part of that turnaround.”
That might be easier said than done.
With top-ranked classes in the AAC the past two offseasons, this is a category that Taggart earns a solid A-plus in. Furthermore, his ability to recruit the Tampa Bay area has been arguably the brightest part of his time with USF.
After Holtz failed to make many strides in the area, Taggart has bolstered the program’s standing by convincing talented prospects like running back Marlon Mack (Sarasota Booker), defensive backs Nate Godwin (Freedom) and Devin Abraham (East Lake) and linebacker Nigel Harris (Hillsborough) to stay home.
What the team is saying
“We’ve always been playing for coach, so just because they’re saying he’s on the hot seat or whatever, we don’t feel like that’s a big problem, because we play for him every game.” — Jamie Byrd, defensive back
“I’m playing the 105 other guys out there, and then Coach (Taggart) is with us. So, yeah, we’re playing for him — absolutely.” — Auggie Sanchez, middle linebacker
“I feel like we’ve provided Coach (Taggart) with the necessary support to have a successful season. And that’s really where my expectations lie, a successful season that I believe we can have.” — Mark Harlan, USF athletic director in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times
What critics are saying
“USF combined top-60 recruiting with a bottom-10 performance, and while the Bulls could improve quite a bit, the schedule should prevent the win total from improving.” — Bill Connelly, SB Nation college football writer
“The Bulls must make a big jump to reach the postseason. The offense may be picking up the pace, but Taggart is running out of time.” —Athlon Sports college football preview magazine
“Taggart is under pressure to deliver a winning season, but he may need more time to hit six wins.” — Shannon Green, Orlando Sentinel reporter