Recently hired Oregon head coach Willie Taggart is off to a fast start as he looks to inject new life and energy into the Duck program.
Three years ago, Willie Taggart went all Ralph Kramden on the city of Tampa, herding the local community on his metaphorical bus. If Taggart’s first few days in Eugene are any indication of what’s ahead, he’s going to need a swifter mode of transportation to represent his plans for revitalizing the sagging Oregon football program.
The Ducks announced on Dec. 7 that Taggart had been hired to succeed Mark Helfrich. Within 48 hours, the new guy in charge had already set up a meeting with blue-chip Alabama quarterback commit Tua Tagovailoa and targeted Charlie Strong to be his possible defensive coordinator, easily the most important hire he’ll make in his first season.
Granted, Tagovailoa is still unlikely to flip. And Strong will first look to land a head job, like Taggart’s old gig at South Florida. But Taggart’s penchant for going big-game hunting so early in his tenure is indicative of his personality and his aspiration of succeeding without limitations. And it’ll set the tone for the early years of his Oregon career.
Taggart has all of the characteristics of a winner: he’s high-energy, charismatic and so unflappably positive that people want to work and play for him. Of course, he knows football, especially offensive football, but it’s his magnetic personality that’s been the real cornerstone of his success, from a Jim Harbaugh assistant at Stanford to the top jobs at Western Kentucky and South Florida.
In 2010, Taggart took over a Hilltopper team that was winless the prior year. By 2012, Western Kentucky was playing in its first-ever FBS bowl game. When he arrived in Tampa in 2013, Skip Holtz had just finished guiding USF into a ditch. Flash-forward to today, and the Bulls are 10-2, entering the Birmingham Bowl as a 10-point favorite over the SEC’s South Carolina.
Taggart is a proven program builder. When he arrives, good things happen. So, it should have come as no surprise that Oregon AD Rob Mullens tabbed Taggart to eradicate the malaise and mediocrity that had seeped into the Duck program. While patience was necessary at WKU and USF, Oregon could be poised for a sudden uptick in results in 2017.
In his last two gigs, Taggart had to clean house. In Eugene? He and his yet-to-be-assembled staff will do more coaching up. Helfrich used a flock of underclassmen in 2016, many of whom are brimming with potential. In the Civil War season finale against Oregon State, Oregon started more freshmen, eight, than seniors, four.
And one of the youngest ducklings, quarterback Justin Herbert, has the potential to become in Eugene what Quinton Flowers was to South Florida the past two seasons, a dangerous dual-threat that possesses an eclectic set of skills.
But, wait, Taggart has no direct ties to the Pacific Northwest. Sound the warning sirens and become wrought with skepticism, right? No way. Leaders lead. And winners win, regardless of the specific location and personnel variances. Taggart is going to recruit nationally, even leaving the mainland when necessary, to make Oregon relevant again. His goals are clearly defined: compete for titles and get the Ducks back to being a marquee brand for reasons other than creative haberdashery and up-tempo offenses, which just about everyone features these days.
P.J. Fleck rows boats. Willie Taggart drives buses. Different vehicles, similar knacks for invigorating a football community with youthful energy and the ability to connect with others on a very human, personal level. Tighten up your harnesses, Eugene. Your new coach is out of the gate quickly, and he has absolutely no plans on tapping the brakes until Oregon returns to hoisting hardware.