EAST LANSING, Mich. — For the University of South Florida football team, the opening act could not have been worse. Now the Bulls are nose-to-nose with a likely 0-2 start, which never has occurred during the program’s 17-season history.
These are sobering times for USF first-year coach Willie Taggart, who leads the Bulls into 75,005-seat Spartan Stadium today for a meeting with formidable Michigan State, a 23Ĺ-point favorite.
Is Taggart’s confidence shaken? Is he panicking? Does he doubt USF’s ability?
No, no and no.
“We’ve got to get that first win — and we’ve got to play a heck of a lot better to get that win,’’ Taggart said. “I have a plan and a vision for this football team, and we’ve got to stay the course. We have to play smarter and tougher. We need the confidence to (work through) tough situations. We’re not a football team to handle that yet. But we’ll get there.’’
In quiet moments, though, Taggart’s optimism is undoubtedly tempered with reality. USF’s potential, mostly untapped, has been trumpeted for a decade or more. Taggart still believes in it. But reaching that goal can’t be achieved through marketing campaigns.
Perhaps there’s a price to pay for firing two head coaches in the space of 35 months. Perhaps there’s some acid runoff for failing to attract an elite quarterback in recruiting. Perhaps a losing mentality — USF has won only once in its last 11 games, while dropping 12 of its last 14 conference contests — can’t be overcome so easily. Perhaps there’s still disillusionment in the fan base (actual attendance at the season opener was 22,609).
Junior wide receiver Andre Davis was part of a 15-0 state-championship team at Jefferson High. In two seasons at USF, he already endured more than twice as many losses as his entire prep career.
“You just fight through adversity,’’ Davis said. “I’ve learned that a lot at USF. Everything is not always going to go our way. Like Coach T says, you’ve got to respond to adversity.’’
Taggart said he’s looking for that tough-minded attitude.
“Here’s an opportunity to do something great instead of looking the other way,’’ Taggart said. “One thing our guys know by now, the other way doesn’t work. Complaining, putting your head down … that way doesn’t work.
“The biggest way of getting out of that funk is playing smart football. We’re not going to completely get out of that mindset until we start winning ballgames. And we’re not going to win ballgames until we stop doing bad things and (start) playing smart and tough.’’
Before the season, Taggart said everything had been “peaches and cream’’ around his program, with little to no criticism. He predicted that could soon change — and it has, indeed.
“We’re not there yet,’’ Taggart said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. I understand that. A lot of others don’t, but I do. That’s why I’m here, to be patient, to find a way to work this thing out.
“Pain is temporary. Eventually, it will subside. It might take one week, one day, it might take a year. I hope not a year. But it’s just one game. We’re going to be all right. We can’t get too distraught. You have to look at the big picture.’’
In the short term, though, there is considerable pain in the wake of USF’s 53-21 home loss against McNeese State, a Football Championship Subdivision team.
After receiving national exposure for Taggart’s “get on the bus’’ statement and YouTube video, USF was held up for ridicule as this week’s worst team on ESPN.com’s Bottom 10 rankings.
A comparison was made to the 1994 movie, “Speed,’’ in which Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are trying to escape a Los Angeles commuter bus that was rigged with a bomb.
“Pop quiz: hotshots: Who wanted to get off a bus more than Reeves and Bullock? South Florida Bulls fans.’’
Taggart has heard such talk before. At Western Kentucky University, he inherited a 20-game losing streak, then built a team that registered back-to-back 7-5 seasons, including the program’s first bowl appearance.
He visualizes a similar turnaround at USF.
In the meantime, the Bulls better fuel up the bus.
On the road between losing and consistent winning, there could be a long bridge ahead.