Willie Taggart grew up in a home full of passionate Florida State fans, so naturally he became a passionate Florida State fan, too, immersing himself in the history and tradition, perfecting his tomahawk chop. He desperately wanted to play for legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden, but as his high school coach describes it, Taggart was 6 feet tall and weighed 145 pounds “soaking wet.” Though he never got an offer to become a Seminole, Taggart never forgot about Florida State. Not after he left for Western Kentucky, where he broke 11 school records at quarterback. Certainly not after that, when he jumped right into coaching at his alma mater.
Even as a young assistant working on a lower level, Taggart knew that someday coaching would get him to Florida State. But how?
One decision on a sunny October day three years ago changed everything, and set into motion the process of someday becoming Labor Day, when Florida State opens the Willie Taggart era against Virginia Tech (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“Coach, he believes in speaking things into existence,” says Donte’ Pimpleton, who played with Taggart and for Taggart, and then coached with him at three stops before joining him on the Florida State staff. “He’s always said, ‘I love Florida State.’ It’s always been a job he wanted since we talked about coaching.”
Wanting a job and getting a job are two separate things. And Taggart nearly had no job back in 2015.
The first Taggart homecoming happened in 2013, when he left his first head-coaching job at Western Kentucky for South Florida — less than an hour from his hometown of Palmetto, Florida. Heading into Year 3 under Taggart, USF had won a combined six games, and the people in Tampa had started to get restless.
Taggart brought in his former high school coach, Joe Kinnan, to help revamp the offense. Everything changed: the plays, the terminology and the way the Bulls practiced. Taggart decided he would start calling plays, because he felt disconnected from the offense during his first two seasons as head coach.
“It was like we started with a clean sheet of paper and made it simple: a hurry-up, no-huddle offense with option principles,” Kinnan said. “We had the right personnel that could execute that offense.”
There was only one problem: Nobody could tell they had the right personnel. Not right away.
Taggart went with Quinton Flowers as the starting quarterback, but Flowers looked hesitant and uncomfortable and USF failed to score more than 17 points in its first three games against FBS opponents. Four games in, the Bulls were 1-3, and even the players started to wonder if Taggart had a future at USF.
“There was a time where me and Coach T knew that if we lost another game, he was going to get fired,” Flowers said.
Taggart called the quarterbacks and running backs over to his house the next week to have dinner before a game against Syracuse. Running back Darius Tice spoke up for his quarterback. “He was like, ‘Coach, I played against this kid in high school. Just let him be, let him have fun, and you’ll see how everything just turns around,'” Flowers recalled.
Flowers, quiet and reserved, observed but did not say much. But in his head, he thought the same thing. Before the coin toss that Saturday, Taggart approached Flowers.
“We’re going to let you loose,” Taggart told Flowers.
“I felt like I was waiting for that moment,” Flowers said.
Flowers threw for what was then a career-high 259 yards and accounted for three touchdowns as USF handled Syracuse 45-24. At last, tangible progress. Taggart had not only saved his job; the way he handled Flowers and, in turn, the team moved him closer to Florida State.
Even though he had no way of knowing it at the time.
USF finished that season with wins in seven of its final nine games. Going into 2016, Taggart made a phone call that would only amplify his decision to give Flowers the freedom he needed. Sitting in San Francisco waiting to cover Super Bowl 50, Shaun King listened to the pitch Taggart made him.
King, who worked in the media at the time, grew up in the Tampa Bay area, played for the Bucs and still lived there. But he had no interest in getting back into coaching. Until Taggart started selling.
“He tells me he’s got a young quarterback, Quinton Flowers, who he thinks I could help and would I come and coach him,” King said. “I wanted to get around Willie, learn his system and see how he did things.”
Flowers had a breakout season, winning conference player of the year honors and ranking in the top 10 in seven statistical categories. USF went 11-2 and Taggart was a hot name in coaching circles. He left for Oregon, thanks in large part to the decision he made to shift his offense, and then shift it some more to allow Flowers to thrive.
“Willie and my college coach, Rich Rodriguez, those are the two guys I’ve been around who’ve been able to say, ‘I’m going to adapt what I do to fit my personnel,’ and I think that’s a very unique trait for an offensive-minded head coach, and it’s one a lot of guys don’t possess,” King said. “I think it’s why Willie will ultimately be successful, because he has a system he likes, but he’ll adjust it to fit what his personnel is.”
When Taggart took the job at Oregon in early December 2016, he figured he would be in it for the long haul.
“We thought we’d be out at Oregon at least five, six years. But things change,” Taggart said. As soon as Jimbo Fisher left Florida State last December, Taggart emerged as the top candidate. It all made too much sense.
“He could have been at Bama, and I think he would have left to go to Tallahassee,” King said. “That’s how he grew up — Charlie Ward, Warrick Dunn, Derrick Brooks. For a Florida kid to get a chance to captain one of those ships, you could never turn that down.”
When Taggart arrived at Florida State, he got his second happy homecoming. He hit all the right notes: doing the tomahawk chop as he arrived, talking about the Florida State greats he grew up watching and his family’s lifelong love for the Seminoles.
One of his first orders of business was bringing Bowden back into the fold after an extended absence. Bowden attended a practice in the spring for the first time since he stepped down as head coach in 2009. Bowden will be at the opener, too.
The reception among Florida State fans across the state has been overwhelming, with sold-out crowds greeting Taggart at various booster stops during the spring. Each time, Taggart had the same reaction: They’re all here to see me?
“You couldn’t write a better movie script, actually,” Pimpleton said. “He’s always been a hard worker and a big dreamer. He always saw himself being at a place like this.”
Now that Taggart has his dream job, he has not stopped dreaming. Those closest to him know he wants to become the first African-American head coach to win a national championship at the FBS level. Everything is in place for Florida State to get there. Taggart already has 11 ESPN 300 commitments in a 2019 class currently ranked eighth by ESPN.
But before Taggart, 42, can lead Florida State to any titles, there is one order of business he needs to get right Monday night.
“I just want to make sure when I run out of the tunnel, I don’t trip and fall,” Taggart said. “Got to look like an athlete.”
It’s a moment he has been waiting on for most of his life.
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