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For USF football, losing Willie Taggart ​hits hard

Former USF coach Willie Taggart took the Bulls from some of their darkest days to the best record in program history in four short years.

It was going to happen one day. This much we knew.

That green and gold bus that Willie Taggart drove in as the hopeful savior of USF football in the waning weeks of 2012 was going to drive away. Another school with the money and the power was going to come blazing in and snatch him away as a home-run hire.

But like this? Now? It just hurts. It almost feels as if he was never here. A blur. And that's too bad.

As he packs his bags four years to the day of his hiring at USF, and heads west to become the next head coach at Oregon, one can't help but feel that USF fans never fully got to appreciate what Taggart meant to their university. They never fully grasped what he meant to his community and, most importantly, this football program. He was vastly under-appreciated by many, media — and myself — included.

When he arrived as the fresh-faced custodian just a few miles north of his hometown of Bradenton, ready to take on the task of piecing back together a team in ruins, there was hope. 

For a team that had been soiled with losing, poor management and, let's be honest, a lack of direction, Taggart was exactly what USF needed.

He made you want to believe again. Even if his tenure started so poorly. 

During his first season in 2013, at the start of what would eventually be a 2-10 disaster, the Bulls had just been whipped by Miami at Raymond James Stadium in late September. As a group of reporters went down the elevator from the press box to the ground floor to the interview room, there was a giant crash. A top of a small charter bus carrying then-athletic director Doug Woolard had somehow smashed into a garage door while exiting the stadium.

Taggart's bus had hit a wall — literally and figuratively. The Bulls scored 11 offensive touchdowns that year. He fired his offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at season's end.

Early on in the 2015 season, USF was 1-3. The team had gone through another offensive coordinator, another defensive coordinator and a special team's coach. Taggart's overall record had sank to an abysmal 7-21 following a 4-8 sophomore campaign.

I criticized Taggart. I began to think he wasn't the right fit. His offense wasn't working, and neither was his decision-making in some of USF's key games. After the Bulls produced a stinker at Maryland, I wrote that local Pop Warner coaches would be taking tips from him after he benched his starting quarterback for a backup, only because he had wanted to keep his word. That backup ended up throwing an interception, which led to a Maryland touchdown. USF lost.

Later that week at practice, I had stopped by to gather some quotes for a notebook. When the two other reporters with me departed for the parking lot, Taggart asked me to stay behind. He wanted to talk.

He wasn't happy with what I had written, understandably. He gave me his side — with a colorful adjective or two — and I gave him mine. He wanted me to see what he was trying to build — and how close the team was to seeing it through. He gave me advice. We shook hands. And from that day forward, I garnered much more respect for him as a coach and a person.

Still, at the time, I didn't see what he did. That changed when the Bulls knocked off Syracuse on Homecoming in an October surprise that likely saved Taggart's career.

From there, the Bulls took off, and the rest was history. Taggart saved his job and the Bulls went bowling for the first time in five years. He interviewed for the South Carolina job before returning to Tampa and accepting a five-year extension.

"I'm home," he said at the time. And he was. He had done what he promised: he turned the program around.

Since Taggart's decision to leave was made official on Wednesday, I've talked to a few people around the program. Some players expressed shock. Others were happy for him.

One summed the situation up best.

"I wouldn't say I am mad, I am very happy for him. It is an amazing opportunity and a once in a lifetime one, as well," the player texted. "We have put ourselves in a great position to be able to hire someone really good, and continue what we have."

The spirit is there, but the hurt of losing arguably the best figure to ever lead this program will linger.

A couple weeks back, as Taggart began to finish up his Tuesday press conference, something popped into my head. I remembered during my initial days covering the program in his first year, he had blue mechanics shirts made for his players and staff to symbolize it was a work-in-progress.

He said it was still hanging in his closet. Then, he paused.

"It's been a long time," Taggart said, flashing that classic smile. "Been a long time."

Unfortunately, it just doesn't feel like it was long enough.

Shortly after 1:30 on Wednesday afternoon, Taggart said a final goodbye to his now-former players and staff in a team meeting inside the Lee Roy Selmon Athletic Center. 

He spoke to them, in person, for nearly 30 minutes. He cried from start to finish.

"He poured his heart out the whole time," one player told me . "He let us know how much he loves us."

And his players love him.

Taggart will now move on to bigger and better days ahead. If history is any indication, he should lead the Ducks back to the top of college football. Who knows, maybe even a national championship.

USF will be in good hands, too, with a new face leading the way. You can thank Taggart for that. He returned USF football to prominence, maybe the best shape of its 20-year life.

I'll miss Willie Taggart.

It just won't be the same. This much we know.