Florida State Fires Willie Taggart in Year Two | Possible Candidates and Historical Context

Florida State fired second-year head coach Willie Taggart on Sunday, a day after the Seminoles lost to rival Miami 27-10 and fell to 4-5 on the season, risking a second consecutive season without a bowl appearance for a program that had played in a bowl game in every season since 1982 prior to Taggart’s arrival.

Defensive line coach Odell Haggins will be the interim coach, a role he had after former Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was hired by Texas A&M.

The university raised roughly $20 million in private donations to buy out Taggart’s contract, according to ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, making Taggart’s dismissal historic in both the cost and the brevity of his tenure.

If you examine when the other 13 schools in the ACC last had a head coach whose tenure lasted two years or fewer, the average year that those 13 coaches’ tenures ended was 1974.

The only other ACC schools that have had a coach’s tenure end after two or fewer seasons this century were because of a resignation (Pitt’s Todd Graham in 2011, who discussed a head coaching opportunity at Arizona State without permission after a 6-6 regular season with the Panthers), the coach had an interim tag and wasn’t the full-time head coach (North Carolina’s Everett Withers in 2011) and a coach who was fired only because he interviewed for an NFL head coaching position after his athletic director warned him not to (Boston College’s Jeff Jagodzinski in 2008).

For half of the schools in the conference, you’d have to go back to the ’70s to find a head coach whose tenure didn’t see a third season. Duke holds the distinction of having every head coach maintain his job for at least three seasons since James Herron’s one-year tenure in 1925.

Telling your head coach to go away before the conclusion of Year Two is a rarity in college football. To do so while also ponying up enough money for an eight-figure price tag might be unprecedented.

“Obviously, I am disappointed in the decision today as I believe our future is bright at Florida State,” Taggart said in a statement posted on his personal Twitter account. “Building a program and a culture takes time, and I regret that we will not have the opportunity to continue to coach these incredible young men. I want to thank first and foremost our student-athletes, who never stopped believing and who deserve to find success. I also want to thank our coaches and staff who believed in what we were building and who are among the finest men and women in our profession. Finally, I want to thank the Florida State faithful for their support as we worked towards building a program that they could be proud of. On behalf of my family and I, we wish Florida State nothing but the best and will be cheering on the Seminoles the rest of the way.”

Just six years ago, Florida State won the BCS Championship.

Five years ago, the ‘Noles ran the table through the ACC Championship and punched their ticket to the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Now they’re 16-18 since the start of the 2017 season (9-12 under Taggart) and sitting in fifth place in the ACC Atlantic as a member of a conference that only has one true playoff contender, Clemson. The ACC is one Wake Forest loss away from Clemson being the only top-25 team in the conference so the Seminoles haven’t struggled against a murderer’s row of opponents.

Florida State’s offensive line and quarterback play have been some of the primary causes of the Seminoles’ downfall.

This season they’re averaging just 3.41 yards per carry, per cfbstats.com, despite having running back Cam Akers – the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2017 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

He has 983 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns on 196 attempts this season (an average of five yards per carry), plus he’s third on the team in receptions (24), second in receiving touchdowns (four) and he’s even attempted six passes this year, which makes you wonder how much worse things could have been in Tallahassee in the last two seasons if he wasn’t there.

Quarterback James Blackman, who was thrown into the fire in 2017 after then-starter Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending injury in the season-opener, has the lowest passer rating of his career, having completed 64 percent of his passes this season for an average of 6.9 yards per attempt with an 11 to 6 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook hasn’t been significantly better (68.9%, 8.1 Y/A, seven touchdowns to two interceptions) and the two quarterbacks have been sacked a combined 35 times in nine games.

So the overall talent level in Tallahassee needs improvement, especially at key positions like offensive line and quarterback, but Florida State could be in a position where it’ll need to undergo a multi-year rebuild with two transitional recruiting classes in a three-year span, between Taggart’s first class in 2018 and another one this year.

The college football early signing period is from December 18 to December 20, so Florida State’s leadership and its next head coach have significant work ahead of them. The Seminoles’ 2020 class currently ranks No. 16 nationally, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, with 10 four-star recruits and nine three-star commitments, but it remains to be seen how many of them might re-open their recruitment.

A potential concern for Florida State fans is that none of those four-star commits are offensive linemen.

Four are running backs or wide receivers, so if the ‘Noles are able to retain those verbal commitments, there may not be a significant drop-off in skill position talent in Tallahassee, but if Florida State’s offensive line can’t block anyone, then those blue-chip running backs and receivers might as well be playing with one hand behind their backs.

Now the question is who Florida State will try to target as Taggart’s replacement and who will ultimately be hired because even at a program with the history, recruiting base and resources of Florida State, those are often two different questions.

Former Ohio State Coach and current FOX analyst Urban Meyer is the biggest name available because of his national championship pedigree and his weekly TV appearances this season.

His name will appear on almost every Internet list of coaching candidates but it seems unlikely he’ll be Taggart’s successor. In October, Florida State Athletic Director David Coburn told the Tallahassee Democrat in a somewhat ominous quote, “If Coach were hit by a bus tomorrow, we would not target Coach Meyer, period.”

Meyer cited health reasons when he retired after last season so there are a number of hypotheticals that would be required for him to be the Seminoles’ next coach, starting with if he’s even interested. Is his health under control to the point where he’d be ready to coach again this soon after retiring from Ohio State? After some of the off-field concerns during Meyer’s tenures at Ohio State and Florida, would Florida State’s administration still be interested in Meyer? Will Florida State even be the best opening this year?

It feels like there are too many potential hoops for both sides to jump through for Meyer to be the pick.

If we take Florida State’s AD at his word, then Meyer won’t even be a candidate.

If you look through Florida State’s past coordinators, you’ll see current Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, who was named SEC Coach of the Year last season after leading the Wildcats to a 10-3 season capped off by a Citrus Bowl victory. He may not necessarily be a flashy hire among Florida State fans, in part because of Kentucky’s 4-4 record this season but the Wildcats have started a wide receiver at quarterback due to depleted quarterback depth, but the ‘Cats are just two wins away from going to their fourth straight bowl game.

Once again, this is Kentucky football, which has had five two-win seasons this century.

Stoops probably took the Wildcats to their ceiling last season so who could blame him if he left if Florida State called?

If we stay within the Stoops family, his brother Bob Stoops, the long-time Oklahoma head coach is only 59 – Mack Brown is 68 and Les Miles is 65, and both were hired at Power Five schools last coaching cycle – and Stoops is currently the head coach and general manager of the XFL’s Dallas Renegades.

He was 190-48 in 18 seasons at Oklahoma, where his floor in an occasional down season was eight wins and the ceiling was winning a national championship and competing for several others.

If you look at up-and-coming head coaches or established coaches who might be willing to listen to Florida State’s offer, you come up with a list of potential candidates – in order of their team’s current AP Top 25 ranking – like Penn State’s James Franklin, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Memphis’ Mike Norvell and Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson.

Franklin engineered back-to-back 11-win seasons at Penn State and he currently has the Nittany Lions undefeated and ranked No. 5 in the country. He’s been suggested as a potential replacement for Clay Helton at USC, so why not Florida State?

The Big Ten East is annually one of the toughest two divisions in the sport so while, yes, Florida State shares the ACC Atlantic with Clemson, isn’t that still better than having to play Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State every year?

Minnesota is 8-0 after winning its first four games by three or seven points and if the Gophers can navigate a challenging November – vs. Penn State, at Iowa, at Northwestern, vs. Wisconsin – and play for the Big Ten Championship, Fleck’s profile may never be bigger as long as he’s in the Twin Cities.

The Gophers are currently ranked No. 10 in the SP+ rankings with a No. 8 ranking on offense and No. 22 on defense.

Luke Fickell just lost his athletic director to USC so could we see him also make the jump to one of the biggest brands in college football, especially if Cincinnati earns the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bid?

The Bearcats’ only loss this season was at Ohio State and they’re ranked No. 17 in the country. They control their own destiny in the American.

Staying in the American, Mike Norvell’s Tigers have the No. 9 offense in the country and they’re 8-1 after a big win over SMU on Saturday night. Memphis is 34-15 under Norvell and the school has won at least eight games in every season he’s been there.

It could be unlikely Dave Clawson would take another job within the ACC Atlantic and he might even argue that his Demon Deacons are currently in a better state than the Seminoles’ program currently but he has Wake Forest at 7-1 and on pace to be ranked in the College Football Playoff rankings for the first time ever.

In the previous five seasons at Wake Forest, he hasn’t won more than eight games so there’s a good chance the program will reach it’s ceiling this season with a possible 10-2 regular season record and a high-profile bowl appearance.

It’s also possible the best potential candidates within the ACC Atlantic aren’t even head coaches. We’ve seen Alabama coordinators and assistants get poached by other programs, including some SEC foes, so could Florida State make a run at Clemson Associate Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables or Co-Offensive Coordinators Tony Elliott or Jeff Scott?

Clemson’s dominance during the College Football Playoff era has made Florida State’s drop-off even more profound when you contrast the two programs, so could the Seminoles try to hire one of the key figures in the Tigers’ climb to the top of the sport?

Wherever you want to rank the Florida State job nationally, it’s probably somewhere in the top 10, which means it will certainly have some allure to potential candidates.

But it appears to be in need of a multi-year rebuild given the second transitional recruiting class in a four-year span and an offensive line that needs a major upgrade in talent. Between the steps required for Florida State to return to a perennial 10-plus-win program that can compete for national championships, the money reportedly paid to buy out Taggart and other potential high-profile openings, namely USC, the list of interested candidates could dwindle.

Only time will tell.

MORE: November’s Toughest Scheduling Spots For College Football Bettors