On Thanksgiving morning, 2016, then South Florida head coach Willie Taggart sat behind his desk in the dark, staring at cut-ups — video clips of particular plays — of Central Florida’s defense on a big TV, twirling the remote in his hand.
Occasionally one of a number of cell phones on his desk would brighten. South Florida was one game away from a 10-win season that would vault Taggart into the national conversation as A Coach On The Rise. Two weeks later, he’d accept an offer from Oregon.
Taggart’s life was changing one ping at a time on those phones, but he never looked like his attention was away from the UCF tape. This was, and is, behavior typical of a man who’s built a career by looking exceedingly relaxed in highly stressful situations. Taggart created his shell of ineffable cool to subconsciously reassure 19-year-olds who are easily spooked.
“Players see everything,” Taggart said to SB Nation this summer. “They act like they aren’t paying attention, but they see everything.”
I sat across from Taggart in total silence, trying to act like I saw the same thing he did in UCF’s formations. Eventually I gave up and started scrolling through Twitter on my phone. That broke his silence.
“They say anything about Jimbo?” he asked, still clicking through cut-ups.
Jimbo Fisher, then Florida State head coach, was in that moment considered to be neck and neck with Tom Herman, then Houston head coach, for the LSU job. (Ed Orgeron would end up taking the job 24 hours later.)
I asked him why he cared.
“Florida State. Hooooo, man,” he started smiling. “That’s it. That’s the dream job.”
He paused for a beat.
“All I’ve ever wanted.” He said it in such a genuine way, with no apparent ulterior motive. It was (and is) strange to hear a coach talk like that.
“I’m pretty sure LSU is going with Tom Herman,” I told him.
He clicked through another play.
“Florida. State ...,” he said, still staring at the TV.
A dream job — a legitimate dream job, not the frequent Todd Graham-style political appropriation of the term — is probably too naive a concept for most football coaches to hold with much conviction. Sure, there’re destination gigs and big paychecks. But a real dream job? The business is too aggressive, the expectations too ridiculous, for anyone to earnestly admit they really want to coach one particular team because of the same emotional connections we rank-and-file fans hold.
Yet new FSU head coach Willie Taggart has won the hearts of his constituency by putting his on his sleeve since his hiring in December.
On paper, Taggart’s path to the job makes little sense. He’s replacing a national title winner at one of the best jobs in the sport after just one 7-6 season at Oregon, his first as a Power 5 conference head coach.
But he’s a fierce recruiter and current purveyor of the Gulf Coast offense, renamed “Lethal Simplicity” for Tallahassee, and his perks — not to mention his uncanny fit with FSU’s culture — are all absent from his win-loss total.
He’s Floridian, to the bone, and as a black man and former high school football star, he’s also a mirror to the majority of his roster. Demarcus Christmas is a senior defensive tackle who played for Taggart’s alma mater of Manatee in Bradenton, 25 years after Taggart did.
“Now I have a great opportunity, really,” Christmas said. “Him coaching me and us being from the some place, this can show people back home that they can make it and they can do great things. I’m not looking into becoming a coach, but his success shows how much you can achieve, not just in a football perspective.”
Taggart’s also a Florida State fan. A fan, full stop. He’s not “an admirer of their tradition” or “respectful of their success” like another coach might be, but an actual posters-on-the-wall, cheering on Saturdays fan by birth. His family tailgated in the parking lot of spring games, barbecuing alongside regular-season ticket holders. When he was head coach at South Florida and the Bulls played FSU, his own brother refused to change out of FSU gear for the game.
That means the real fans don’t scare him. When you’re a member of the same congregation, no behavior is really that weird if it’s an expression of a shared faith.
“I was driving around Tallahassee one day this summer, and I’ve got tinted windows. You can’t see in. This guy is out in the street and starts going [Taggart waves frantically], just crazy. And I pull over. I think something’s wrong, like he needs help,” Taggart said. “I roll the window down and he starts yelling, ‘COACH! COACH! WELCOME TO TALLAHASSEE! BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE BEHIND NO TINT IN TALLAHASSEE, COACH!’
“That was it. And I was like … ’you gotta be kidding me.’ But I was one of those fans growing up. I knew everything about Florida State football. I get it. How they feel, how he feels, that’s how I feel.”
Taggart’s climb to Florida State head coach started the day he left home to play quarterback at I-AA Western Kentucky for Jack Harbaugh — father to John and Jim, head coaches of the Baltimore Ravens and Michigan, respectively. Manatee High School quarterback Willie Taggart, 26-4 as a starter, loved FSU, but it was unrequited. No one in Florida recruited him to play college ball.
“No offers. I was just a skinny little dude,” he says. “That’s why I’m hard on [our players]. Little bit of envy! I tell em all the time, ‘I envy you guys. This is really special. And I need y’all to treat it that way.’”
Taggart won an I-AA national title as an option quarterback at Western Kentucky, but his playing career became an extension of a coaching apprenticeship in the Harbaugh family. Immediately after his eligibility ended, he joined Jack’s staff, eventually becoming offensive coordinator and assistant head coach before going to work at Stanford for Jim Harbaugh as running backs coach.
By the time he left Palo Alto in 2010 to come back to Bowling Green as head coach, Taggart was already considered another Harbaugh son, both in their family and the greater coaching community.
“I never could get to him in practice, he was so slippery,” former WKU linebacker and FSU director of player development Trae Hackett said. “But I knew you couldn’t really touch him. He had an uncanny ability to avoid getting hit as a quarterback. But you always knew, that was Willie Harbaugh.”
Hackett was a co-captain with Taggart and is one of three FSU staffers to work with Taggart through his entire coaching run.
In far-flung Bowling Green, Kentucky (Taggart never left his home state until college), he stuck out immediately as distinctively Floridian.
“He was just like the Florida guys who would come in the program — laughing and smiling all the time. And then it’s all about the competitiveness. It was always there, no matter what you were doing in practice, even just running. Everything was competitive and yet always fun. Always loose. But then when you look back now, you realize [that attitude] is a wise choice,” Hackett said.
In the wake of Jimbo Fisher’s messy divorce from FSU, Taggart’s lifelong affection for his new employer is more than just charming; it’s tactical messaging. It’s rebranding.
Entering 2017, Fisher, Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and Dabo Swinney were the only four coaches with national championship wins at their current jobs. But unlike healthier push-and-pull relationships between those other championship coaches and their donor bases, Fisher and FSU boosters soured on each other’s vision.
Not long after Fisher won Florida State a national championship in 2013 — all that fans could ask for, and the best bargaining chip the coach could use to rally money to his projects — his name surfaced as the leading candidate for jobs at other Power 5 schools.
Fisher came with constant demands for expensive improvements he wanted commitments to as quickly as possible*. But at Florida State, boosters are organized in a LLC independent of the athletic department, and thus exists a power dynamic unlike that of other major athletic programs.
“What’s interesting is that if you donate to Florida State boosters, it’s not guaranteed that your money is going into football. They really pride themselves on their dedication to Olympic sports,” Florida State booster and alumnus Robin Alston said.
Also, there just wasn’t that much money. Comparatively, at least.
If you’re younger than 40 you probably think of Florida State as a football powerhouse equal to an Ohio State or Alabama or USC. And on the field they are, but the history of the school still puts them in a sort of debt relative to other football powerhouses.
Florida State was a small women’s college until the G.I. Bill forced the state to enroll men after World War 2. Football didn’t begin until 1947. It wasn’t nationally relevant until Bobby Bowden’s arrival in 1976. So while the ‘Noles would become three-time national champions and redefine FSU as a modern force in the sport from the 1980s through now, the massive endowments built by other major universities didn’t exist at a formerly tiny teacher’s college in the panhandle. To pick a not-so-random example, Texas A&M had an $11 billion endowment as of 2018, compared to Florida State’s $700 million.
The friction over money and Fisher’s constant teasing with the job market boiled over when quarterback Deandre Francois was injured against Alabama in last season’s opener. The ‘Noles flopped from national title contention, culminating in a 35-3 loss at Boston College to push them to 3-5. When Fisher’s name surfaced in the job market again weeks later, this time at A&M, a growing number of influencers around FSU shrugged. He left a $5.5 million salary guaranteed through seven more seasons in Tallahassee for Texas A&M’s staggering all-guaranteed $75 million offer.
“Only in America. Only in America you get promoted from going 5-6 to a $75 million job,” former Florida State board of trustees member Leslie Pantin said.
* One night before FSU’s 2018 began, the Noles announced Taggart’s donating $1 million of his own toward facilities.
Shortly after becoming FSU athletic director during the 2013 national title season, Stan Wilcox had prepped to make a coaching hire — only the third in modern program history — each time Fisher’s name was floated for another job.
The former Notre Dame basketball player and legal analyst in New York City had navigated a lengthy enough path between the executive (jobs at the NCAA and Big East Conference) and school levels (Notre Dame, Duke) to build a Rolodex deep enough not only to debunk rumors, but also keep a fresh short list of potential head football coaches.
“There were always rumors,” Wilcox said. “The thing that as an athletic director, as big as collegiate athletics is, it’s a small world. I always knew enough people at places to find out whether or not [a rumor] was true. Because a lot of time it’s just rumors started by outside individuals.”
Though he’d heard that Taggart had a soft spot for Florida State.
“You’ve got to play the ‘What if’ game. You try to always survey the landscape as to who is out there, and who is hot, just knowing what the coaching landscape looks like at the moment.”
Except Willie Taggart wasn’t really out there at that moment. Just as FSU had grown accustomed to Fisher’s name floating around every December, so too had Taggart. He’d moved on from his dream job for the time being and was settled in at Oregon, finishing an injury-plagued 7-6 first season after restocking the Ducks’ recruiting with a heavy dose of Sunshine State prospects.
Taggart knew that bolting on Oregon — and almost as importantly Nike founder Phil Knight — would be a blow to his perception in coaching circles.
“I’ve always believed I’d get to Florida State, but I definitely didn’t believe it would happen so quick, that it would happen the time that it did. We had a great thing going at Oregon. We knew right after we got there it would take a lot to get us out of there. And there was only one job that would do it [after one season],” Taggart said.
As he privately turned down approaches from SEC programs, Taggart made it quietly known in November that if FSU actually opened, he wanted a shot. His fandom for FSU was known in a few circles, but it still caught Wilcox a bit off guard.
Late in the vetting process to replace Fisher, Wilcox called a current assistant athletic director who had worked with Taggart earlier in his career for a character reference.
“She was telling me how he was the best coach she’d ever worked with, then she said this, and it stuck with me: ‘Stan, you know that’s his dream job, don’t you?’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ She said, ‘Yeah, he was always talking when we were here, about how one day he wanted the Florida State job.’ I said, ‘Well thanks, you may have just helped me make a decision.’”
“I didn’t tell her this, but it also helped with negotiations because I also knew it was his dream job,” Wilcox said, laughing.
But long before Taggart was savvy enough to sell a vision of his program’s culture and the Gulf Coast Offense to people as influential and intimidating as Phil Knight, he was just a rank-and-file assistant coach with a dream and no plan, which nearly blew up his head coaching career before it started.
Western Kentucky was Taggart’s first head coaching job in 2010, but his second shot at the gig. When Jack Harbaugh hand picked Taggart to succeed him following his retirement from WKU in 2002, the young assistant imploded during the interview.
“I wouldn’t have hired me. I wasn’t prepared, that was the biggest problem. I didn’t know how to answer questions about what I would do in all these different circumstances you have to prepare for as a head coach,” Taggart said.
Jack Harbaugh had pushed for Taggart to be interviewed. WKU agreed, but by the time it was over Jack’s protege “third son” felt like he’d failed his old coach.
“For one, I was 25. I wasn’t ready to be a head coach. I’d always figured one day I’d be a head coach but I didn’t think anyone would look at me then. That’s when I started doing the academies,” Taggart said.
Taggart signed up for every offseason coaching academy and seminar he could. This circuit is where aspiring head coaches get crash courses on everything from staff management to speaking skills, basically anything that isn’t pure football. During that time he decided how he’d eventually utilize the often double-edged Rooney Rule, an NFL policy adopted in 2003 that mandates teams interview minority candidates for head coaching and particular front office positions.
There is no official version of the Rooney Rule in the decentralized legislation of college football. Certain states, such as Oregon, have laws for minority interview mandates for any public position, including college football coaches. Some major programs have made a good faith effort to bring in minority candidates for head coaching openings. Other programs have made sure to leak the name of minority candidates to the media to satisfy public criticism of the sport’s lily white head coaching landscape (12 of 130 FBS head coaches are African-American; only seven of those hold Power 5 jobs).
As a young assistant coach, Taggart was sitting in the audience of a minority coaches academy when future Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel spoke about the expanding job market.
“He said, ‘I hear excuses about minority coaches not getting chances to become head coaches. That’s not true. Coaches are getting opportunities, they’re just not doing a good job in those interviews. You’re losing these jobs in the interviews.’ That stuck with me. It stuck with me because I had lost that exact way. For Warde to say that three or four years later, for him to say that, he was talking specifically to me.”
Taggart acknowledges an awareness among his peers that schools commonly bring in minority coaches merely as a box to be checked, with no intention of actually considering them for the job.
To this point in his career Taggart has embraced an extreme — arguably naive — optimism about being brought in for job interviews, even if it is just to check a box. He believes an interview is an interview is an interview. Regardless of the subtext or the politics or the numbers. If you’re the token, if you’re the PR move, it doesn’t matter.
Or rather: “Just get in the room,” as he says to other black coaches.
“You can’t buy in to that [feeling that you’re just there to check a box]. It becomes a weakness, and then it’s a crutch for you to explain why you aren’t where you want to be. You can’t buy into people saying ‘It’s just a Rooney Rule interview.’ By the time I heard that when I was headed out to interview with Oregon, I was like ‘Psssh, bring me in for the Rooney Rule. Great. Now I’m gonna change your mind.’ That was my mentality. ‘Sure, Rooney Rule me, great, bring me in.’ That’s what the Rooney Rule is made for, I think. Get me in, then it’s up to me to change your mind.”
Wilcox, an African-American athletic director, served on the board of the Black Coaches Association for 11 years, two as president. On Aug. 20, Wilcox was named the NCAA’s new executive vice president for regulatory affairs, ending a five-year run in Tallahassee. Taggart’s hire will almost certainly persist as his defining legacy at FSU, good or bad. That Florida State has a black head coach is an achievement, that he was hired by a black AD holds a connotation Wilcox says he shut out during the process.
“I don’t know how to put it other than you kind of know that, but if you dwell on that you can put yourself in a position where you might not make the right decisions. I was just lucky, because in the position I’m in right now I’ve got to be successful to help others who are minorities to be in my position,” Wilcox says.
“I’ve got to find a successful coach who’s able to come here and win. I have to make sure what I’m doing is right for Florida State. I was just very fortunate that this person, at this time, that was best for this job, just happened to be African-American.
“In our pool, we had minorities and non-minorities. Willie just out-shined the others. I hope the results can be similar to what happened when John Thompson won a national championship in basketball, that more minority candidates can be considered at the highest level. At the end of the day I will have come full circle with my career.”
Having coached at three schools in two years and with a record of 47-50, Taggart was recently named one of the most overrated head coaches in the FBS by his peers in an anonymous CBS Sports poll.
Curious FSU fans and critics alike have a tough time predicting his success, but the single season in Eugene, both in scheme and culture, is the best case study available. And while it’s not much, it’s been good enough for FSU players.
“What I saw on tape at Oregon convinced me to stay. That, and conversations with Coach Taggart. But I turned on the tape and that convinced me,” senior running back Jacques Patrick says.
Patrick could’ve gone pro after last season, but watching film on Taggart’s Duck offense convinced him a senior campaign could be statistically beneficial. Patrick also spoke with Oregon running back Royce Freeman, who, despite Taggart’s one-and-done exit, endorsed the spirit and attitude the staff had created in a short time.
That spirit and attitude is marked by a willingness to listen and trust his players. And, in one memorable instance, completely revamp his offense to fit what they wanted to do.
In 2015, Taggart was on the brink of losing his job at USF — the Bulls were 7-21 in his third season. Taggart had his team running the plodding, pro-style, two-tight-end smash he’d come to revere while working for Jim Harbaugh. It wasn’t working.
The players on the team wanted to run.
“The way we’d been playing in two-minute drills up until that point … it was like their play was screaming at me to make a change. It was ‘Coach, let us go,’ but also ‘Coach you let go, too.’ During that time I was still play-calling. We were better, but I wasn’t used to calling it fast. We were no huddle but I wasn’t really coaching it that way. I had to get faster calling plays and not looking out and calling the perfect play.”
With his job on the line, Taggart listened to his players: He threw out his offense, substituting in a fast, quick, and simple spread that mashed together a power run with Art Briles-era Baylor pass concepts in spread formations.
“That Syracuse game I did it and it was like ‘Holy … ‘ Plays that didn’t work before were clicking. They were having fun and not thinking and could just go. And when you have talented kids that can just go play football, that’s it. To me kids don’t get bad, they get confused. That’s why I go back to lethal simplicity. This is football, not geometry. Keep it simple.”
USF won the game, 45-24. A year later, Taggart took them to an 11-2 record and a win over South Carolina in a bowl game.
In his first offseason with FSU, Taggart is once again throwing out a meticulous and purposefully slow pro-style offense, this one the one the ‘Noles ran under Fisher. This year, FSU is going to move. The new look offense is going to go as fast as humanly possible, with the hopes that it will not only delight fans and boosters looking for something fresh but, more importantly, reinvigorate the current roster and appeal to Florida high school talent running the same style of offense. Oh, and win.
What Taggart couldn’t have known back in 2015 was that his willingness to listen to his USF roster and ultimately adapt — successfully — to their style would earn him instant credibility with a roster of FSU players he’d once tried to recruit to Tampa.
“We’d already talked to all those other players at USF as soon as we heard he was hired. We saw he showed he could coach but they told us he was real about how he cared about his players,” quarterback James Blackman said.
“I knew right away after talking to Coach I’d be here,” Patrick said. “It wasn’t so much what he said to me as it was how he said it. It was using words like ‘we,’ and the same way you and I are having a conversation right now, that’s how he spoke to me. It’s not like that with other coaches. There’s a lot of ‘I’ and ‘you.’”
Despite his four years in Tallahassee, Patrick met Bobby Bowden this offseason for the first time in his life. Bowden had receded from the program throughout the course of Fisher’s time. Taggart, ever the fan, sought the former coach out. In the summer he turned the documentary “The Bowden Dynasty” into a history class for the roster, supplemented by speeches from former FSU players from the 1980’s and 90’s.
Patrick said he still gets calls from recent Seminoles who are active NFL players.
“This helmet means a lot to a lot of people.”
Willie Taggart turned 42 on Monday. He was an 11-year-old boy in Bradenton, Florida, when Danny McManus under-threw a two-point conversion in the final seconds vs. Miami, ruining the Florida State’s chance at a perfect season. He was 13 when the ‘Noles whooped Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, 15 for Wide Right 1 and a senior quarterback at Manatee High in 1993 when Charlie Ward won the Heisman and 12-1 FSU won an outright national championship.
He knows all of this by heart, of course. Like a dad sharing his vinyl collection, Taggart’s now fixated on making sure that a bunch of players who were born long after learn the same moments and plays.
“We’ve challenged our guys to reach out to some of the great players who played their position. I think the more they understand the more they’ll give us, and the more pride they’ll take from it,” Taggart said.
“I always had to look at it from the outside. I knew then, and I know now you have to be special to play at Florida State.”