EUGENE - Oregon coach Willie Taggart relishes team unity. Watching players who at one time barely knew one another talking, sharing and laughing it up while eating in the team cafeteria brings a smile to his face.
So does venturing into the weight room to see players encouraging and competing with one another while working to improve. And, noticing players who in the past would leave the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex all alone now strolling off in groups.
“To sit back and watch that I get goose bumps,” Taggart said. “This is how it’s supposed to be.”
The Ducks, who began fall camp on Monday, having seemingly erased the issue of team fracturing that impacted last year's 4-8 season. Team chemistry and bonding have returned to the 2014 levels when the Ducks last won the Pac-12 championship and advance to the national title game.
Two years of erosion in those departments certainly contributed to the program's downfall. Taggart, when hired last December, set out to fix the fragile mess with a cocktail of team bonding endeavors he hoped would create an atmosphere that encouraged togetherness away from the field that would translate into better play on game days. Players and coaches hang out together more often, engage in the same leisurely activities and enjoy spirited yet playful ribbing.
“It’s so important that our guys come together, and enjoy being around each other, and love each other,” Taggart said. “I think training camp is a time where we continue to build that so once we get to the fall guys go out and play for one another.”
-- Friends first --
Taggart's energy inspires and influences. He seeks out his players. Welcomes them into his office. He wants to be in their presence. He wants them to seek him out, not fear him. The result is that players feel more comfortable about their place on the team beyond executing the Xs and Os of football.
“He’s always around us,” Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said. “When we’re weightlifting at six in the morning, he’s there. He’s fired up. He’s cheering guys on. When were running outside he’s out there. All of the coaches are around. Everyone is just super excited to be around him.”
The team responds to his inviting personality.
“He radiates energy,” redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Shane Lemieux said. “The whole coaching staff does that.”
The team, including the coaching staff, will spend the first week of fall camp living in dorms in order to further their bond. Team activities away from football are rarely ever limited to players only.
“Coach Taggart says that everywhere we have to be, the coaches have to be as well,” sophomore linebacker Troy Dye said. "“One of the things he has preached is team chemistry and buying in to being a family."
One of Taggart's mottos is to "have a great day if you want to." He implores his players to have fun. He wants football to be enjoyable. Not feel like a job. So he attempts to structure team activities around enjoying life and one another. He sought men with similar personalities while building his coaching staff.
“I think this staff is just so excited to be here and they have done a good job of being around us and taking care of us," Herbert said. "I’m really excited to play for them.”
Players feeling comfortable around the staff allows for greater levity and, consequently, a better opportunity for team bonding. Plus, Taggart's lust for life can be infectious.
“He’s a really enthusiastic person,” senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby said of Taggart. “Young coach. Brings that southern vibe. That Florida vibe. Has a lot of energy.”
-- Like uncles at a barbecue --
The coaching staff is relatively young, especially compared to the previous staff. It's not surprising then that they relate well to the modern athlete. So much so that there plenty of teasing and joking around that flows from coaches to players and players to coaches.
“It’s like having your uncle at a barbecue,” Dye said. “You respect them like hell but at the end of the day you can have fun, joke with them and crack jokes and have fun with them.”
Nobody is safe. Players say that Taggart and the other coaches will crack jokes about players without warning. Shoes. Clothes. Hair. Video game prowess. Not much is off limits. Many players battle back.
“You can’t just let him get on top of you, or take advantage of you," Dye said. "You’ve got to get a couple back here or there.”
Dye said Taggart has few glaring flaws to attack.
“You can’t really talk about his swag,” Dye said. “He has the best swag in the nation. He has a new pair of shoes on every day.”
But Taggart has some weaknesses.
“It’s kind of hard to find things to get on him about but at times we can find something if he’s slacking with his shirt or his shorts, or something,” Dye said. “If he is ashy.”
Taggart's periodic failures to apply lotion on his dry legs aside adds to the banter.
“It’s fun to have coaches like that that you can joke around with,” redshirt junior defensive end Jalen Jelks said.
But there is a line.
“You can’t go too crazy," Dye said. "It is the head man. You’ve got to know your limitations.”
Nelson said the give and take creates a better coach-player bond.
“It's built more of a connection,” Nelson said. “You don’t want a coach who just tells you what you can and can’t do. You want a coach that’s going to laugh with you, joke with you. Just build more of a friendship.”
The team soundtrack that blares in the weight room and during practices has changed, as well.
“He’s just young and he can relate to us,” senior cornerback Arrion Springs said. “He likes rap music. We don’t have to listen to 80s rock music during practice anymore."
-- Players know where lines are drawn --
The player's coach approach only works when discipline has taken hold. Taggart, when hired, spelled out what he expected: Be good students. Good citizens. And, of course, good football players. Failing in two of those areas could lead to dismissal from the football team.
Taggart sent a message to the team by letting go of senior wide receiver Darren Carrington Jr. following his DUII arrest July 1.
“He’s going to tell you the truth,” senior wide receiver Charles Nelson said. “He’s going to tell you straight up, ‘this is what I want. This is how we’re going to do it.' And if you don’t like it then you don’t have to be on this team.”
Said Crosby: “When it’s business time, they are all business. When it’s not business time, they know how to have fun. They really allow us to enjoy our time here."
The sense of accountability, respect and trust - all missing at times last season - have created better team leaders. That has led to a greater team connection, according to Lemieux.
Taggart said he noticed while watching game video from last season that it didn't appear like players were playing for the man next to them. That, the team hopes, will change with greater team bonding.
“He has taught our team to be more accountable and more accountable for each other," Lemieux said. "There’s stronger leadership roles within our football team now. We’ve all taken it upon us to be a better individual to make the team stronger."
-- HDC is the place to be --
Vibrant coaches. Team camaraderie. Renewed energy following a 4-8 season. Each has helped make the team's facility the hot spot for the Ducks.
Taggart encourages the players to spend as much time at the HDC as possible. Working. Bonding.
“People love to come to the facility now,” Dye said. “You can just feel the energy.”
Said Jelks: "He just makes us feel like we’re at home."
At times in the recent past, going to the HDC felt like a job for some players. Now, the $68 million facility feels like the team hub.
“You don’t want to feel like you’re a prisoner in the building,” sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell said. “You don’t want to feel like you’re made to come to the HDC everyday. Taggart and the rest of the coaches make you want to show your face around the building to see them.”
The Ducks appear to have become a closer-knit group and the staff has helped create that. But soon it will be time to perform on the field. Team unity is easier to achieve when winning. How the Ducks react to adversity will be the real test. But for now, the Ducks believe they have at least formed a bond they hope will help them overcome any obstacles on the field.
“If you can trust a guy off the field," Dye said, "and really get to know him as a person, as an individual, you can really trust him and know that he’s going to be there for you on the field."