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Willie Taggart: USF’s Homecoming King

Posted Dec 8, 2012 by Joey Johnston

Updated Dec 8, 2012 at 09:34 PM

TAMPA – Willie Taggart, the University of South Florida’s new Homecoming King, entered the Lee Roy Selmon Athletics Center to a swell of applause on Saturday afternoon.

His eyes already filling with tears, he slipped on a USF cap, seamlessly flashing a bulls-horn hand signal and shouting, “Go Bulls!’’

Then he spotted his mother, Gloria James, in the crowd of family and friends. They shared a long, emotional embrace.

It all fit so perfectly.

Taggart, 36, considered one of the brightest young coaching minds during three seasons at his alma mater of Western Kentucky University, is now charged with helping USF’s program reach its potential in the Big East Conference. USF athletic director Doug Woolard presented him with a five-year, $5.75-million contract.

As for the program-building details? Let’s just say Taggart doesn’t need a road map. Known for his recruiting prowess, Taggart already is intimately familiar with the Tampa Bay area – and beyond – to beef up USF’s war chest of football prospects.

And now he gets to work near his hometown of Palmetto, in the same area where he made his early legend as a state championship-winning quarterback for Bradenton Manatee High.

“I’m so excited, I can’t even see straight,’’ James said. “I haven’t been able to sleep. I know the football is going to be great for Willie. All I know now is I’ve got my whole family home from Christmas. It’s a great day.’’

Taggart said he felt like he was “leaving home to get home.’’ He signed with WKU in 1994 and has spent most of his career there as an assistant or head coach. After guiding the Hilltoppers to a 7-5 record this season – and the program’s first bowl-game trip Dec. 26 at the Little Caesars Bowl in Detroit – Taggart said he was instantly intrigued about USF’s opening following last Sunday’s firing of third-year coach Skip Holtz.

Woolard interviewed more than one candidate – he wouldn’t be specific – but said his quickly cultivated relationship with Taggart and the Harbaugh family’s recommendation made it an obvious choice.

Taggart played for Jack Harbaugh at WKU and was on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford University. Their influence shaped him into the coach – and man – he is today.

What are Taggart’s core beliefs? Toughness. A strong running game. A smart quarterback. Physical play on both sides of the ball.

He also said the Bulls won’t back down to any opponent on the field or recruiting trail – even if they are Gators, Seminoles or Hurricanes.

“I know what you (USF fans) want and I want the same thing,’’ said Taggart, who will leave WKU’s bowl-game coaching duties to Lance Guidry, the Hilltoppers’ interim leader. “There’s no reason for us not to get it. We’re not going to make any excuses. Once I get this day over with, I’m getting on the road recruiting.

“Recruiting is like brushing your teeth and combing your hair. You stop (doing that) and you start to look bad. … We want big-time players to come here to play at USF. There’s no reason for any kid in the 813, 941, 863, whatever (area codes), no reason for you not to come here and play football.’’

Some prospects already are listening to Taggart’s pitch.

Saturday afternoon, after leading his team to a Class 3A state title in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale University High quarterback Mike White committed to USF.

Taggart’s high-energy presence brought new life to USF fan base disgusted with this season’s 3-9 mark. The Bulls picked for second in the Big East preseason poll, instead finished last at 1-6 and missed a bowl game for the second straight season.

“The last game (27-3 loss against Pittsburgh on Dec. 1) was really tough,’’ USF president Judy Genshaft said. “It just wasn’t what we needed to be. We were very pleased with the results in the classroom, but it wasn’t (happening) on the field as well. We’re an institution that’s used to achieving in every way.

“It’s all about accountability and making the grade. We’re a young institution that surprises people in how fast we move and how much we achieve. I see that in Coach Taggart. He’s going to surprise you. He’s a great fit for us.’’

Taggart said he and the current USF assistants will spend this week recruiting. Then he will assemble a staff, probably comprised of WKU assistants and USF holdovers. Taggart’s recruiting also includes a sales job for current USF players.

“What we have to do now is put everybody on the bus, put them in the right seats and let coach T drive this bus,’’ Taggart said.

USF’s players, many of whom attended Saturday’s news conference, already have taken notice. They like that their new coach is considered a hometown hero.

“It just lets you know that he’s about this city,’’ USF junior defensive end Ryne Giddins said. “He has our back and we have his back. It’s like he said earlier, let’s get on this bus and let him drive the thing.”

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