NOV. 29 at Central Florida Time: TBA TV: ABC/ESPN or ESPN2 Radio: 98.7 FM
DEC. 7 at Rutgers Time: TBA TV: TBA Radio: 98.7 FM
TAMPA — He's serious about winning. He's passionate about working hard. But make no mistake, first-year University of South Florida football coach Willie Taggart loves to have fun.
“Life is too short not to enjoy it,” Taggart said. “I don't like boring. Sometimes, I might do things a little differently.”
During Taggart's eight-month honeymoon period — the run-up before Saturday night's opener against McNeese State at Raymond James Stadium — there already have been some memorable snapshots.
The Wake-Up Call: Midway through a one-week training camp in Vero Beach, Taggart's coaches startled the players awake with loud music and horns at 3 a.m. The Bulls hit the field for a surprise scrimmage at 4:30 and practiced until dawn. Taggart, pleased with a spirited response to adversity, rewarded them with a trip to the beach and a cookout.
The Blue-Collar Shirts: On the first day of fall practice, Taggart arrived looking like an auto mechanic, wearing a blue working-man's shirt with a “Willie” name tag. Every coach and player had similar shirts. According to Taggart, the Stanford University-influenced idea emphasized “what we represent as a football program … blue-collar … a team that works all the time.”
The Bus: Taggart's off-the-cuff remarks at his introductory news conference — “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'' — became the centerpiece for a marketing campaign by USF athletics.
A video was unveiled that showed Taggart climbing into the bus-driver's seat as his statement was played. The bus theme took on cartoon form during a tour of Tampa Bay area landmarks. Taggart's pop-up passengers included ESPN's Dick Vitale, former Bucs coach Jon Gruden, Bucs running back Doug Martin, Rays manager Joe Maddon, Lightning players Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa police chief Jane Castor and USF president Judy Genshaft.
A few hours after its debut, the video went viral on YouTube.
“Oh my gosh, have I gotten a kick out of that,” Genshaft said. “I have laughed and laughed. So many people have talked about it. Hey, I'm on the bus. We're on the move. I'm honored to have a spot on Coach T's bus.
“You know what? I love his enthusiasm and energy. But even more, I like what he says. No excuses. No apologies. From everything I see, the team is right behind him. His messages have gotten a lot of attention all over the place, but I've noticed that the players are on board. That's very, very exciting.”
The Bulls, who haven't qualified for a bowl game since 2010, slumped to 3-9 last season. That forced the firing of Skip Holtz, who lost 14 of his last 16 games in Big East Conference play.
And it prompted the hiring of Taggart, the former Bradenton Manatee quarterback who celebrated his 37th birthday Tuesday. Taggart, long considered one of the nation's up-and-coming coaching prospects, was 16-20 in three seasons at his alma mater, Western Kentucky University. He inherited a 20-game losing streak. Upon his hiring at USF, Taggart had taken the Hilltoppers to the first bowl game in program history.
“I'm not saying Coach Skip didn't have it, but I see that desire, that fire in his eyes,” Bulls senior defensive end Julius Forte said. “We have something to prove. It's not going out and just trying to win. It's a must-win, and our backs are against the wall.”
“Coach T's mentality is overwhelming,” Bulls junior linebacker Reshard Cliett said. “He has so much energy. We're all affected by it.”
USF was picked to finish fifth in the American Athletic Conference, a collection of Big East holdovers and Conference USA defectors. Taggart's approach to the new league?
“We'd like to be the first team to win it.”
“Look, we're here to win now,'' said Taggart, who signed a five-year, $5.75-million contract. “We didn't come here to take a while. That's how I've always been. We talk about doing the job now, and we want players to understand that.
“What do you tell your players if you say, 'Let's get better, go through the motions, in two or three years we'll have it where we want to be?' No, we're looking to win right away, right now.”
Taggart intends to win with a run-oriented, efficient offense, a smart quarterback, an emphasis on the tight end and a fast, physical defense. He wants toughness and strength at all positions, so the offseason conditioning program was heightened. He's a protégé of Jim Harbaugh, so USF, ideally, will resemble Stanford or the San Francisco 49ers.
“Winning is not complicated,” Taggart said. “People complicate it. We can't complicate this thing. It's simple. Do it right. Work hard. Get better every day.”
Maybe then USF can tap into the potential that has been talked about, but largely unrealized, throughout the program's 17-season history.
Taggart said he knows the Bulls are overdue to capture a conference title. He realizes the recruiting must be upgraded and sustained. What then? Start up the bus.
“It's not just the players and coaches, it's everyone who's embedded in this program,” Taggart said. “Our fans can take us to a level of performance that we can't do by ourselves.
“Let's pack Ray-Jay. Let's make it hard for anyone coming in. Let's be passionate about this university. And let's do it all together. We need everybody. We've got a big bus now.”