The final chapter of a five-part series on Oregon coach Willie Taggart that coincides with the CSN special "Taggart" that first aired Aug. 29 and is now available on CSNNW.com. CSN went to Taggart's hometown of Palmetto, Fla., to interview family and friends, and traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., to interview his biggest mentors, Jack and Jim Harbaugh, in order to tell his story.
'Taggart,' Part 1: A skinny boy, a tree and football dreams
'Taggart,' Part 2: A leader emerges and thrives at Manatee
'Taggart,' Part 3: The call, a bond and enthusiasm unknown to mankind
'Taggart,' Part 4: Taggart puts WKU "on his back."
'Taggart,"Part 5: The program builder works his way to Oregon
Nine months of hiring, firing, recruiting and coaching has led to the start of an Oregon season that holds as much mystery as any in recent memory.
But tonight will be bittersweet for Taggart. His mother, Gloria, wife Taneisha, sister Cynthia and his children will be in attendance. One prominent person missing will be his father, John Taggart, who passed away in July.
"He will be watching,” Willie Taggart said. “So I don’t think it will be as bad. I wanted him here because he really wanted to be here. That's something that he constantly talked about when he was struggling was making it out here for the first game. But I also know that he will be watching over and be excited.”
John Taggart watched over his son’s coaching career with great pride. But even he never envisioned that it would accelerate as quickly as it did once it began.
-- Evolution of a football coach
Jim Harbaugh landed his first head coaching job in 2004 at San Diego. One of the first calls went to Taggart to offer him a coaching position. However, the job came with a much lower salary than what Taggart pulled in as offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky under new coach David Elson.
In 2007, Harbaugh became the head coach at Stanford and this time he could offer Taggart a huge raise to become the Cardinal's running backs coach.
Taggart took the job. For the first time, he and Harbaugh worked side by side.
During a recruiting trip one day, Harbaugh told Taggart he would help him become a head coach one day.
“I like people that are humble, that are hungry to make the team better,” Harbaugh said. “He’s exceptional when it comes to the Xs and Os of the game of football, also just the energy he brings. He brings this incredible energy. And that transfers to the players…He checks all of the boxes.”
Three years later, Taggart received a second opportunity at landing head coaching position.
WKU, which passed over Taggart for former defensive coordinator David Elson several years prior after their head coach Jack Harbaugh had retired, had fallen on hard times. The program moved to Division I in 2007 and went 2-10 in 2008 and then 0-12 in 2009, their first year as full members of the Sun Belt Conference. Elson was fired after losing 21 consecutive games.
“It was a critical, critical time for them,” Jack Harbaugh said. “And they needed the right man at the right time at Western Kentucky or that program could have flat lined.”
Taggart felt better prepared for the opportunity this time around.
“It was night and day,” Taggart said. “I was so much more confident and prepared and I knocked the interview out.”
WKU offered him the job. On his way back to his hotel room, he immediately called Jim Harbaugh.
“Good part about it,” Jim told him, “you’re the head coach at Western Kentucky University. The bad part about it is, you’re the head coach at Western Kentucky University. So get to work.”
Taneisha received the next call. She didn't believe her husband at first. She had doubted Taggart would get the job because he was just 34. After he convinced her he truly had received an offer, he began feeling strangely.
“Out of nowhere it just hit me,” Taggart said.
He told his wife he had to call her back and pulled off to the side of the road. He didn’t feel right. His heart raced. He struggled breathing. He was having a full-blown anxiety attack.
“I was thinking, ‘what did you get yourself into?’” Taggart said.
Jim and Jack Harbaugh believed he had gotten himself into what they believed would be a successful situation.
“There was no doubt in my mind that he was the person to do the job and he would attack it and he would be successful,” Jim Harbaugh said.
Taggart finally calmed down. Then his head coaching journey began.
WKU's losing streak bled into Taggart’s first year in 2010, and reached 27 games before WKU finally won broke it midway through the 2011 season. Still, the Hilltoppers finished 2-10.
Taggart's offense had evolved while at Stanford from relying on the option, a sytem he ran as quarterback under Jack Harbaugh and later coached at Western Kentucky, to the West Coast offense, more of a passing system. That took time to implement at WKU. Taggart also, like he did as a player, had to fix the team’s culture.
“We started out slowly that first year,” he said. “But we changed the culture and recruited well and things got a lot better for us, quick.”
Taneisha saw the passion in him while he worked to turn WKU around. He never got down. Even that first season when he won just two games.
“He would say, ‘two is better than zero,” she said. “The glass was always half full.”
In 2012, Taggart pulled off one of the great upsets in program history. A week after losing 35-0 at Alabama, the Hilltoppers stunned Kentucky, 32-31 in overtime. Taggart went for two in overtime to get the win.
“Red is the new blue in Kentucky now,” Taggart said during post-game press conference.
That didn’t go over well in Kentucky circles. But it represented a new level of bravado and confidence for WKU, and for Taggart.
The team finished the season slowly, however, losing five if its last six games, including at 24-21 loss to Central Michigan in the Little Caesar’s Bowl, the program’s first bowl game appearance.
But the culture and direction had been set. WKU has gone 39-12 over the past four seasons.
They did so, however, without Willie Taggart.
---- A challenge emerges back home.
Taggart’s program-building performance at Western Kentucky led South Florida to seek him out to fix its mess.
Jim Leavitt started the program in 1997 and built it into an instant winner at the I-AA level. In 2001 the Bulls moved to I-A and continued winning. Leavitt got fired after the 2009 season after being accused of allegedly assaulting a player, charges he has denied.
Under new coach Skip Holtz, the Bulls went 8-5, 5-7 and then 3-9 in 2012.
Just like at WKU, he discovered a team devoid of elite talent and a winning culture. And just like at WKU, he fixed that in a hurry.
Jack Harbaugh visited South Florida one day during spring drills and saw the challenge Taggart faced.
“You have your work cut out for you," he told him. "I don’t see much talent here."
That fact baffled Taggart. This was, after all, the state of Florida.
“You could ride your bike down the street from your school in South Florida and find five players that could play Division I football,” Taggart said.
Yet, there he sat without a viable quarterback or running back. Plus, he faced the challenge of dealing with an administration he didn’t know well. The WKU folks knew all about Willie Taggart. At South Florida, he was an outsider, even though he grew up some 50 miles south.
Yet, Taggart had a plan and he executed his vision.
“He brought a lot of belief and excitement to the program,” USF senior safety Devin Abraham said. “The class I came in on he sold us on believing because we didn’t have anything to see…So he sold us on believing and trying to change the culture in Tampa. And that’s what we did.”
A quick fix didn’t come about, however. Taggart went 2-10 that first year and then 4-8. The 2015 season began 1-3.
The first loss, 34-14 at Florida State, should have been expected. The second loss came 35-17 at Maryland, a team Taggart believed USF could have defeated. But the team was in a funk to start the season following the stabbing death of former defensive end, Elkino Watson on Sept. 6.
His funeral service was held Sept. 19, the day the Bulls played at Maryland.
“Our guys weren’t into it,” Taggart said. “A lot of guys wanted to be there not at Maryland. We didn’t play well at all.”
The following week, the Bulls suffered a more unacceptable loss: 24-17 to Memphis.
Fans began to turn on Taggart and his 7-21 record. The team stayed in its cocoon to avoid the noise. The turning point could be traced back to a dinner party at Taggart’s house.
According to Taggart, Rice said: “Hey coach, tell Q when he’s around you that he can be himself, not to be scared. He’s afraid of you, coach. Whenever he is around you he isn’t the same.”
Taggart told Flowers: “All he is screaming is that they want you to lead this football team.”
Flowers responded: “Let me loose, coach.”
Taggart used the West Coast offense when he first arrived at South Florida but switched to a spread attack in 2015 in order to utilize the mobility of his quarterbacks and the glut of receivers he was able to recruit from throughout the state.
However, Taggart's play-calling remained reserved. Until after talking to Flowers.
The next game against Syracuse, Taggart sped up the pace of the offense and called a more wide-open game that allowed Flowers’ dual-threat talents to thrive. Taggart didn’t hold anything back. The team changed. The offense changed. The Bulls’ attitude changed.
USF defeated Syracuse, 45-24.
“Those guys just felt like they couldn’t be beat,” he said. “Everything just took off.”
Abraham recalled the turnaround.
The team finished 8-5, but closed the season - ironically - with a 45-35 loss to Western Kentucky in the Miami Peach Bowl.
The program took things to another level the following year and reached a record of 10-2 by the end of the regular season and were ranked 25th in the AP Poll.
Then USF defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie, now UO’s special teams and inside linebacker’s coach, said Taggart stuck to his plan and it worked.
“He stuck with his plan to go out and get the best players to fit his scheme,” Woodie said. “I think that’s the key. Not just going out and getting players just because of the [ranking] stars getting the right fit, which he does a really good job of doing.”
Taggart once again had rebuilt a program from scratch.
But he still sought those “bigger and better things” his mother had foreseen for him.
Taggart’s has a singular goal, one he has expressed to many, including long-time close friend and former Manatee High School teammate Shevin Wiggins.
“He said to me, “Shevin I want to be the first African-American to win a national championship on this level. I love South Florida but I can’t do it there because not BCS.”
South Florida competing in The American Conference makes it virtually impossible for the Bulls to be taken seriously enough to ever receive a national playoff berth.
As fate would have it, while South Florida thrives, some 3,000 miles to the Northwest, the Oregon Ducks were struggling.
Two years after reaching the national title game, Oregon finished 4-8 in year four of the Mark Helfrich-era.
Taggart’s sister, Cynthia Butler had been hearing from her son, a Ducks fan, that Oregon might fire Helfrich.
“It would be funny if uncle Willie coached the Ducks,” he told his mom.
Across the country, Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens fired Helfrich days after the team’s final game.
A few days later, Taggart received a call from his agent.
“He asked me if I would be interested in Oregon,” Taggart said. “I said, ‘absolutely I’d be interested in Oregon.’”
Taggart had interviewed for the South Carolina job a year earlier but didn’t get it. His agent thought that eventually an SEC job would open up that he could pounce on.
Oregon presented a quality program in the Pac-12 that had experience recent major national success including appearing in two national title games.
Taggart wasn’t close to being Oregon’s first choice. Tom Herman (who went from Houston to Texas), Florida coach Jim McElwain, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and Matt Rhule (who went from Temple Baylor) received serious interest from Oregon.
None were interested, leaving Oregon to continue searching. The Ducks interviewed Taggart early on in the process then let him sit and wait for more than a week.
“I told them I’d be sitting on ‘O” and waiting on ‘G,’ Taggart said.
Taneisha, pessimistic about her husband getting the WKU job, certainly knew this wouldn’t happen.
Such a big job might be a couple of more jobs down the road.
The state of Oregon requires that a minority be interviewed for coaching positions. It was easy to assume that Taggart was that token minority interview, just like when UO interviewed Pep Hamilton as a formality before hiring Helfirch in 2013 after Chip Kelly moved on to the NFL.
But Taggart had wowed Mullens during the interview process. When other options fell through, he made the move to go with Taggart. And he did so with enthusiasm.
Once again, the Taggart’s were on the move.
Taneisha had been moved from Western Kentucky to San Francisco (49ers), then back to Western Kentucky and then to Tampa, Fla.
“I realized we were on this three-year thing,” she said.
Now it was harder with Willie Jr., in high school, Jackson, 10, and daughter Morgan, 2.
They did four seasons Tampa before it was time to pack up again. Oregon hired Taggart in December. The family moved into their freshly built Tampa home in January.
So, Taggart went out west and left his family behind so the boys could finish out the school year. Taggart kept busy enough but missed the daily interaction with his wife and children.
“It was harder on him because (the kids and I) had each other,” she said.
Said Taggart: “What’s great is leaving the house coming home and Morgan running up to you going, “daddy!” he said. “It’s the best feeling ever.”
Those moments would be few and far between for nearly eight months.
Taggart, living out of a hotel in Eugene, went to work.
What Taggart lacked in experience he made up for in enthusiasm, charisma and energy.
Oregon needed someone who could get high-end recruits with options to turn there back on SEC programs and head to the small town of Eugene to play football. A challenge, indeed.
In Taggart, the Ducks got a proven winner and program builder. He instantly put together a strong staff and landed a No. 18-ranked recruiting class. The current class is ranked in the top 10 by the major recruiting services.
“Willie Taggart is the best recruiter that I have ever been associated with as a head coach,” Jack Harbaugh said. “There’s some magic about the way he recruits. He gets into a home and he is so sincere and upfront and so honest. Parents gravitate and players know that they can trust that he’s going to be there for them.”
Abraham said Taggart connects well to the modern player.
“He’s a younger guy, so he relates to us, whether it’s music, movies, what we like to eat, things we lie to do,” Abraham said.
And Taggart has a strong social media game.
“That definitely came from us,” Abraham joked.
Taggart’s family moved to Oregon in July. His son, Willie Jr., is playing quarterback at Sheldon High School.
Now, the games begin. Taneisha and Taggart’s mom, Gloria Taggart, don’t much care for game days. Too stressful.
“It all falls on him,” she said. “I liked it better when he was just the position coach.”
Taggart thrives on the pressure. He knows the expectations are high at Oregon where winning is expected more than appreciated.
He embraces that challenge. He’s met every challenge so far.
Everyone he knows is watching with pride to see what he will do next.
“It’s awesome for someone to come from such humble beginnings to make it to the ultimate level and still be the same,” childhood friend James Bacon said.
“He’s opening doors for so many people,” she said. “You just want to see him go on and do better and better things. I feel proud that’s he’s able to open those doors for other people.”
For Taggart, the start is traced back to his relationship with the Harbaughs. He’s done the work to get here but they certainly gave him a boost.
Maybe one day, Jack and Jackie Harbaugh, as they did when their two sons met in the Super Bowl, will find themselves at a Rose Bowl featuring Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan team against the Ducks, coached by their third son, Willie Taggart.
John Taggart should have been with his family at Autzen Saturday to witness his son’s debut there.
The work ethic he instilled in his son helped propel him to this point. For that reason, his presence will be felt, especially by his son.
“He will have his heavenly popcorn and be watching the game and rooting his Ducks on,” Taggart said. “He will probably have a couple of plays for me, too. If he has some good ones, I hope I listen. But it will be fun to know that my mom and sisters and family will be out here. They've never been on this side of the country so it will be fun. they get to see the beautiful state of Oregon."
It’s a state with a football program now in the hands of a man who took a very unlikely path from Palmetto, Fla., to become the head coach of the Ducks.