TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — When he was coach at South Florida in 2015, Willie Taggart looked across the field to the Florida State sideline at Doak Campbell Stadium and wondered what it would be like to be the Seminoles’ coach.
Taggart will find out Monday night when he makes his Florida State debut, leading the 19th-ranked Seminoles against No. 20 Virginia Tech.
“When I became a head coach, I always thought that I can do it someday,” Taggart said. “It just happened quicker than I thought it would. It’s very gratifying because you worked so hard to get there. So to finally do that is very exciting.”
Now that he has his dream job, he needs to ensure it doesn’t become a nightmare.
His career record at Western Kentucky, South Florida and Oregon was 47-50 over eight seasons. Though a report ranked him as the most overrated coach in the country, Taggart has gone 25-12 the last three seasons (two at USF, one at Oregon).
Taggart left Oregon after just one season, a surprise to many in the college football world who didn’t know of his affinity for Florida State. The 42-year old Taggart is only the third Florida State coach since 1976, when Bobby Bowden was hired. There wasn’t a search in 2010 when Jimbo Fisher took over the program after being named head coach in waiting in 2007.
Taggart has no prior ties to the program, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know the history or tradition. The Palmetto, Florida, native grew up as a Florida State fan and said his love affair with the program started watching Deion Sanders and Charlie Ward.
But after leading Manatee High School in Bradenton to a state title, Taggart wasn’t recruited by Florida State and instead the prep quarterback landed at Western Kentucky.
Taggart’s mom, Gloria James, said her daughters were Florida fans but that she and her sons grew up supporting the Seminoles.
“I would say that he was always interested in Florida State from when he was a little child,” she said. “He always said that was his dream of being a player there. And if not being a player there being a coach there. It’s where he wants to be now.”
And he wants the past to be part of the future, which is a shift. During his tenure, Fisher hardly mentioned Bowden or former players that helped build the program.
Bowden attended spring practices for the first time since he retired and will be at the opener. More than 200 former players also were at the spring game, including Sanders and Derrick Brooks.
Taggart has said Bowden has an open invitation to practices, even volunteering to give Bowden his own parking space and golf cart.
That all sounds good, but Taggart knows he has to deliver.
Taggart’s Gulf Coast Offense, which he describes as “lethal simplicity” because it is uptempo and doesn’t require a lot of reads, is averaging 37.8 points per game from 2015-17. Only Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State), Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech) and Urban Meyer (Ohio State) have averaged more.
Taggart inherited a divided program that has failed to live up to expectations the last two seasons.
Since winning 33 of 34 games between 2013 and ’15, including a national championship, the Seminoles are 21-12, including 10-10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. After being ranked third in last season’s preseason poll, they lost quarterback Deondre Francois to a season-ending knee injury and were 3-6 at one point before winning their final four games to avoid their first losing season since 1976.
Before he began installing his offense and defense, Taggart tried to rebuild his team mentally. He instituted offseason team dinners, more interaction between players on offense and defense, along with a greater focus on the classroom. The last couple seasons under Fisher, Florida State was last among Power Five programs in the academic progress rate.
During practices, music has replaced the yelling from assistant coaches.
“He’s more personable with the players,” running back Cam Akers said. “He’s a real standup guy. He holds everybody accountable on and off the field.”
The cupboard is never totally bare at Florida State and Taggart does have some pieces in place to make things interesting in the ACC. Cam Akers ran for over 1,000 yards last season and Francois has reclaimed his starting job at quarterback.
The defense returns only four starters but has one of the conference’s top defensive backs in cornerback Levonta Taylor.
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit believes Taggart’s reputation as a top recruiter should help him turn Florida State’s fortunes around.
“If they win (against Virginia Tech) and they look good doing it,” Herbstreit said, “they’ll go in the blink of an eye from a team that’s kind of been overlooked to a team that all of a sudden everybody’s worried about after 60 minutes of football.”
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