There’s no emotional pregame speech before South Florida wins its 10th game of 2016, the most in school history. No speech at the Thanksgiving banquet on Thursday. No speech at the team hotel Friday.
But Willie Taggart, he smiles a lot. He makes jokes during press conferences. This is a device USF’s head coach developed by watching colleagues like his mentor, Jim Harbaugh, and Nick Saban, coaches who use their weaponized public personas to send messages to their own players through the media.
The Team, The Team, The Team. Like Harbaugh says, because Bo said it. And now it’s in big, green letters across the hallway walls in USF’s facility.
Remember when Jim Harbaugh showed up on Saved By The Bell?
He was quarterback of the Colts, and Screech, his “cousin,” had him come to Bayside High to help a student.
That actually happened to 17-year-old Taggart, future record-setting option quarterback at Western Kentucky, in the lunch room at Bradenton Manatee High School.
“I didn’t even believe it when he called. I said, ‘This isn’t the Jim Harbaugh who plays quarterback for the Chicago Bears,’ and basically hung up on him. Then my coach looked it up and found out his dad was the coach at Western. I’d never been to Kentucky. I’d never left the state of Florida.
“He was helping his dad out at the time, as a limited-earner status assistant. I think he was paid a $1 salary, and he would work in the offseason as a recruiter.
“We’re sitting at lunch on a Tuesday, and he walks right into the lunchroom to see me. And this is really cool for me, because that season we had Florida Mr. Football on our team, Shevin Wiggins [of the famous “Flea Kicker” play involving UCF head coach Scott Frost]. Shevin was the man, but that day I was it,” Taggart says, laughing.
“No matter how crazy you think he looks in public,” Taggart points at Harbaugh footage on ESPN on Thanksgiving morning, “no matter how crazy it looks, there’s a purpose. I promise you.”
While Harbaugh’s known for becoming unhinged, Taggart smiles through frustration, in mixed company. He increases levity. It’s a natural function of his personality, but as the second-youngest of only 12 African-American head coaches in the FBS, it’s probably smart not to explode publicly as a habit.
“Everyone thinks because they see the smile …” Taggart trails off.
“I don’t want to act in a way that I wouldn’t want the players to act. And they’re always watching me. If I act like an ass, they’re gonna act like an ass. When things get tough, you want them patient and confident and in control of the situation.”
He smiles when he’s asked why his team hasn’t been ranked to this point, or why his amazing quarterback is a stranger to the nation, or why — even on a winning streak — the crowds are so fickle in Raymond James Stadium, an NFL barn across town from campus that dwarfs whatever crowd does turn out in support of a program that’s only 20 years old in one of America’s most transient communities.
In Taggart’s 2013 debut in Tampa, USF finished 2-10 and 122nd nationally in scoring at 13.8 points per game. Four years later, the Bulls are 10-2, averaging 43.6 points a game and rank second nationally in Offensive S&P+.
The recruiting has risen to the point that if Taggart returns in 2017 with quarterback Quinton Flowers (2016: 22 TDs passing, 15 rushing, 331 all-purpose yards per game), it might be with the most talented roster in school history, and the most stable. Last semester’s team GPA of 2.92 is also a program record.
But Taggart, raised just south in Bradenton, again smiles when you ask if anyone outside of Pinellas or Hillsborough Counties even knows USF is playing.
“People want to be a part of something. We just have to find them. We can’t work in the same space as everyone; we need to be at the edge of that fence looking over, trying to push it over. We have to be different here.”
Then Taggart stopped smiling, and a rival took it personally.
Trailing 41-31 with under three minutes left, UCF faced fourth-and-16 from its own 10-yard line. UCF head coach Frost elected to go for it, as one would. USF sacked Justin Holman and took possession with 1:44 remaining. The game was effectively done.
Instead, Taggart called a run play. Then two more. And on fourth-and-goal with 11 seconds left and up by 10, another one.
And so running back D’Ernest Johnson punched a 17-point lead at almost the same time South Florida’s players discovered the replica Interstate sign from the War On I-4 trophy could be unsheathed from its wooden base. They thus began taking turns playing the pewter road marker like a guitar.
“Scott told me after the game he respected our team, but he’d remember that last touchdown,” Taggart said. “I told him, ‘Me too. I’ll remember it.’”
After 12 weeks outside of national polls, USF finished 10-2 for the first time in program history, and while opposing players from hometowns statewide tangled and hollered in big hugs, Taggart was held back by assistants while arguing with a Knights assistant upset about Johnson’s touchdown.
“They’re a good team, probably going to be a great team, but we’re fighting right now. We’re fighting to be recognized. We’re fighting to be ranked. We’re fighting for the attention these players deserve,” Taggart said after the game.
“Our motto is, if you try to score on us, we’ll score on you. If you punt, we’ll take a knee.”
South Florida can score on you, quickly, frequently, and in an infuriating manner. They’re fourth nationally in IsoPPP, Bill Connelly’s metric for explosive plays. In simpler terms, USF is 30th in FBS in plays of 10 or more yards from scrimmage, tied for seventh in plays of 20 or more, and tied for fifth in plays of 30 or more.
And USF leads the nation in plays of 40 or more yards from scrimmage.
In their iteration of the spread, USF wants to move at tempo, but with exactly enough time to shift and motion at the line, just like it’s noon on Saturday in Ann Arbor. Then the receivers, using Baylor’s famously wide alignments, can take their DBs — and themselves — out of the play completely, if needed.
The result challenges your best defender to tackle someone out of a motioning backfield in open space. That’s where 40-yard plays are born, not from a big pile on the line.
And with a roster from the talented Sunshine State, USF likes those odds. If you can’t stop them, or if you bring in help on QB run reads, Flowers has at least one deep option on every play in one-on-one coverage, where the Bulls will again gladly challenge best on best.
Each play call is everything your grumpy, Big Ten dad loves and hates about college football, at the exact same time.
On a bye three years ago, Taggart set aside his strict observance of smash-mouth, West Coast, power football.
He embraced what he saw in his Floridian roster: raw athleticism, as fast as possible.
“That’s so important to us. That’s why we have the respect. Because you don’t normally see coaches do that,” senior running back Marlon Mack said after the win vs. UCF. “I don’t know of coaches at this level that would listen to players asking to change things. We said, ‘Please, let’s go fast, let us go and we’ll show you,’ and he did.”
“At first it was, well, let’s just run West Coast, but see how it looks in the ’gun,” Taggart said. “And then it got intriguing, because we started seeing all the options available that we didn’t have under center. And then we started running all the practice reps, Quinton in the ’gun, spread out, but with the shifts and motions. And it was like … wow.”
It didn’t pay out overnight, but there was faith enough in the experiment to keep going. USF started 2015 1-3, but lost to surging Memphis by only seven. Taggart was hot-seat fodder.
“When we made the change, we were beating ourselves up over, ‘What is it? What are we doing wrong?’ It wasn’t the schemes. We just needed to get more and more reps,” associate head coach David Reaves said.
“We’d see USF when I was coaching against them. You’d watch their tape and say ‘Man, they’ve got athletes, they just need to get them the ball more,’” new co-offensive coordinator T.J. Weist said. “It jumps out at you. But unless you’re a true power team, with a big offensive line like Michigan, it’s hard to make it work.”
“I remember Coach Taggart coming back at the first meeting after Memphis and saying, ‘We’re close. We’re close. We just need the win.’ We went out the next week and beat Syracuse, and it took off,” Reaves said.
USF scored 45 in a win over the Orange and closed on a 7-1 run. Then their offensive staff hit the road, a West Coast power congregation auditing spread theology at places like Baylor, Clemson, and Ole Miss to create the unitarian points revival and the state of Florida’s best offense.
“That’s probably the biggest thing to take away. What I’ve seen is a coach who’s been adaptable, who’s been willing to change. Because we did change. A whole lot,” Reaves said. “We were 12 personnel [one running back and two tight ends], running the ball, motion and shift, two and three tight ends and fullbacks, and then we’re taking meetings all over the country with spread teams who do the exact opposite so we could better understand them.”
Willie Taggart smiles a lot, but he can still rip your ass.
“I think he’s about to rip their asses,” one USF staffer mumbles to another before halftime.
USF is up, 24-14, in a lackluster manner. Only 17 points on offense. Drives are stalling. Flowers is under too much pressure to hit those deep passes.
The players are silent. Most have neutral expressions. Except for Mack. He’s dancing by himself, mouthing the words to G Herbo tracks, playing off his phone through speakers.
All you can hear is G Herbo. Every other player is sitting still and awaiting further instruction. No one is mad. No one is pounding shoulder pads or trying to conjure up a moment. In the context of a college football halftime scene, this amount of emotional balance is weird.
Then Taggart comes in and, after play-call adjustments, rips their asses, cussing and screaming for two minutes and 36 seconds. That’s only a quarter of the time it takes for him to speak after the game, when he enters the room dancing ...
... and ends with a plea for his roster to stay mindful of trouble in Tampa during the long break before bowl season.
“I don’t bullshit them, whether things are good or bad,” Taggart says. “It’s a business vibe, a business vibe with a little bit of swagger. But I know these guys don’t want to let me down. They want to impress me and do right.”
This is not the world where Taggart has to laugh and smile.
This is where he is as transparent as any FBS head coach, likely more so. Taggart’s equity, having been a black college football player in Florida, seems to create a faster path to communicating both positives and negatives to the locker room. He doesn’t preach. He sets inarguable terms in a friendly manner before moving on.
That Thanksgiving lunch was moved up two hours to allow for the maximum amount of time off. Taggart doesn’t say anything about it. It’s just understood. USF is 9-2, and 9-2 is reason enough for players, almost all of whom are under a half-day’s drive from their families, to get home for one night.
But every Friday night and every Saturday night in the offseason, a text appears on every player’s phone. “Be smart.” “Don’t do anything to jeopardize your future or this team.” “No means no, every time.”
“‘Walk away.’ That’s the biggest one, and that’s about all you can do now,” Taggart says.
“What helps is being real with them and being honest with them. You have to constantly educate them. I grew up just like most of them. I can understand exactly some of the things they’re going through that they think people don’t see. It’s become more about teaching them how to do things that are expected of them, because often times, it’s not that they don’t want to do something, it’s that they don’t know how. They can’t. They do ignorant stuff because they were never taught how to do things the way we expect. It’s just assumed they do.”
USF football was a collection of assumptions when Taggart arrived.
It’s Florida, so talent should just be on the team, and that talent should just be good and effective. Shouldn’t this be a turnkey operation?
Taggart realized he was leaving his alma mater for a rebuilding job after Skip Holtz’s win total dwindled over three seasons, but it was still a job in the Big East, one that could get him to a national championship in the BCS system.
Two months after he took the job, USF was folded into the American Athletic and out of the newly redistricted Power 5.
“That was tough. Everyone asked why it was taking so long to get the program back, that was a big part of it,” he said. “The expectation didn’t match anymore, and now we had to change the culture. You had been playing for the same thing Florida and Florida State and Miami and those teams were playing for, and you could go sell that to get recruits.
“All I can say is, some people assume things will happen just because they’re there. I knew things were going to be tough, at my first press conference, when someone said, ‘Coach, we can’t wait to get back to No. 2 again!’” Taggart said.
“I’m like, you were No. 2 for a week. The program had a lot of success, but when they got there, they didn’t know what to do with it or where to go. They had no plan.”
On Monday, South Florida broke into both the AP and Coaches polls for the first time this season.
Just in time for assistants out recruiting to pair that with gaudy stats and strengthen Taggart’s proof of concept: Stay home and play for the Bulls.
To Taggart, that’s validation enough for running a scoring play up by 10 with 11 seconds. Someone noticed.
“I looked at it originally and thought, well, if we win, they’ll come. It’ll take care of itself. But we’ve won, and they haven’t come. We haven’t received the excitement we thought that our team should have received. So that means we’ve got more work to do in areas than just winning games.
“We have to change the approach. I don’t think we’ve been different enough. We’re going to have to be creative. There’s a lot of newness to a lot of what’s happening here now. We have to do something.”