Willie Taggart slowly trudged into the media center at Raymond James Stadium with his head tilted toward the floor.
The room fell to a hush as the man bedecked in a white polo shirt, khaki pants and sweat-soaked visor stepped to a podium in front of a cucumber-green backdrop.
His eyes reddened, his voice at a baritone, USF’s first-year football coach apologized on this muggy August evening in 2013.
The Bulls had just been handed a humbling 53-21 loss against Division I-AA McNeese State. It was Taggart’s “biggest nightmare” — a “piss-poor effort,” as he called it, in every facet of the game.
Players quit on their coaches. Most fans threw up their hands and went home at halftime. But there, before the flash bulbs of cameras, the young coach who had been dubbed a home-run hire by many just months earlier, insisted he wasn’t dejected.
“I know exactly where this team is now,” Taggart said. “We’re nowhere near where we need to be. Our team is mentally fragile right now. We’ve got to get ourselves right. … We’ve got to get there, and we will get there.
“We’ll get there with the right guys.”
Two years and 75 days later, Taggart returned to the same spot in the same room in front of many of the same faces to whom he had pledged. Only this time, an ear-to-ear grin enveloped his face.
“Wow,” he said. “That’s big time.”
On Saturday night, USF didn’t just beat No. 21 Temple 44-23. The Bulls stomped, smacked and hit the Owls some more to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time in five years.
The same stands that showered boos and loudly voiced their displeasure just weeks earlier when USF sat at a seemingly-hopeless 1-3 record, emptied onto the field in jubilation as the clock expired.
Amidst the hundreds that turned the 50-yard line into a makeshift mosh pit — with his hands held high flashing the trademark “U” sign — stood the man who always believed. The man who never stopped insisting greatness could one day return to Fowler Avenue.
The man who turned the program around.
“Winning, going bowling and doing all those things — that’s something we wanted from the beginning,” Taggart said. “When I came here, my goal and my vision for this football program was to win championships in a first-class manner.”
That attitude never wavered.
Two weeks ago, as USF prepared for the first leg of its crucial end-of-season stretch at East Carolina, Taggart spoke of how he was able to remain patient for so long to see something like this through. It was a quality that had been passed down to him from legendary Western Kentucky coach Jack Harbaugh, for whom Taggart played and coached.
When he arrived to USF in December 2012, Taggart saw a blank canvas with endless possibilities. The Bulls were in the Big East Conference. With an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game still in their hands, USF had the exposure and the pizzazz to compete with the likes Florida State, Florida and Miami on the field and in the homes of prospects.
“I always said I wouldn’t leave WKU unless I had a chance to go and win a national championship, and I truly believe that can be done here,” Taggart said during his introductory press conference.
But soon, Taggart’s patience took its first shot as widespread conference realignment crippled that outlook. With the Big East blown up, the Bulls had been relegated to the American Athletic Conference and were no longer considered among the nation’s elite.
“It was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” he said.
But Taggart carried on.
His first season was a disaster. Left with no experienced options at quarterback and a depleted roster from the dark days of Skip Holtz’s three-year tenure, the Bulls lost a program-worst 10 games and scored only 11 offensive touchdowns all season.
The sophomore campaign wasn’t much better, as USF started rocky and stumbled down the stretch to finish 4-8.
Going into this season, there were murmurs from within that his job was on the line.
Fans grumbled. Boosters snarled. Those in and around the program rated the temperature of his seat as blistering.
To make matters worse, a resounding opening triumph over Division I-AA bottom-feeder Florida A&M was overshadowed by the tragic murder of former player Elkino Watson. Then, the Bulls slumped into a three-game losing streak with defeats against FSU, Maryland and Memphis due — at least in part — to a failure to finish games.
But Taggart carried on.
He forced his team to learn how to finish by making them run more during practice on Sundays after games.
“It sounds kind of crazy, but after a Powerade break, we were running,” sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers said. “You may be like, ‘Why are we running for? We’re running for no reason.’ But at the end of the day, we were just finishing.
“We know we wanted to finish the fourth quarter and that’s what that running was for.”
After a resounding Homecoming win over Syracuse — Taggart’s first signature win — the Bulls’ roll began. They dispatched Connecticut and Southern Methodist before hiccupping at Navy, then rebounding in come-from-behind fashion at rainy East Carolina.
Then came Saturday night, the game that many wrote off as a defeat long before the season began. After all, it was against a Temple team that came within four points of knocking off a playoff contender in Notre Dame just two weeks earlier.
But Taggart carried on — right into bowl eligibility.
St. Pete? Miami Beach? It doesn’t matter. Turnarounds like this are supposed to be made for Hollywood.
This one was proudly directed by Willie Taggart.
“I always say climbing is easier than hanging on,” he said. “And our guys are climbing in the right direction and this is what we want. This is what we thought it could be here.
“It’s only the beginning.”