USF AD Doug Woolard turned to Willie Taggart in December to turn around a demoralized program. PHOTO COURTESY OF USF
BY BILL KOCH Tribune correspondent
Published: July 30, 2013
Updated: July 30, 2013 at 10:36 PM
NEWPORT, R.I. - Those who think it's premature to talk about winning championships and scheduling the best programs college football has to offer after 3-9 seasons haven't met Willie Taggart.
Taggart, the University of South Florida's first-year head coach, will never be accused of lacking confidence. The Bradenton native is intent on turning the Bulls into a power, a process that begins by winning over his returning players.
Consider Luke Sager, USF's fifth-year senior defensive tackle, sold.
"We're not winning a conference championship if we're selling ourselves short," Sager said at Monday's American Athletic Conference media day. "We have the ability. We have the talent. We have the coaches. It's all up to us how we perform on the field."
The AAC's media members disagree - they picked the Bulls fifth in the league's preseason poll. Louisville, last year's Sugar Bowl winner in impressive fashion over Florida, garnered 28 of a possible 30 first-place votes to top the poll. Cincinnati picked up the other two first-place votes and was slotted second.
"We want to get better," Taggart said. "We say we're either getting better or we're getting worse - no one stays the same. That's how we approach each day."
Taggart, who came to USF from Western Kentucky, had a close look at the AAC's preseason favorite over the past three seasons. He and Cardinals coach Charlie Strong were each hired before the 2010 season, and Taggart watched as Strong steadily built Louisville into a dark-horse national championship contender. The Cardinals are led by Heisman Trophy candidate and Miami native Teddy Bridgewater and feature the sort of toughness and determination Taggart will demand from his players at USF.
"They won the Sugar Bowl and didn't get anybody drafted," Taggart said. "That says a lot. You need some smart, competitive, tough football guys."
Taggart will press his local connections when it comes time to hit the road and recruit, He oversaw the Southeast while he was on Jim Harbaugh's staff at Stanford and counted 32 native Floridians on last season's Western Kentucky squad, which finished 7-5.
"A lot of our players leave the state, leave Tampa and go help other programs," Taggart said. "We've got to do a good job of keeping them there and making them stay and want to represent their city."
USF receiver Andre Davis is one such player. The Bulls' leader in catches and receiving yards last year as a sophomore cited strong family connections as his reason for enrolling at USF, but he sees Taggart as a man who would have a chance to recruit just about any prospect.
"It's real nice having a coach from that Tampa area," Davis said. "He brings in a lot of recruits. That's why I came to USF - to build for the city and so family and friends could come see me do what I do every Saturday."
The AAC - known as the Big East from 1979 to 2013 - was gutted by the departure of the Catholic Seven, with the basketball-only members leaving to form their own league. The Cardinals, Cincinnati, Rutgers, USF, Connecticut and Temple are the holdovers from the 22nd season of Big East football. Houston, Central Florida, SMU and Memphis move to the AAC from Conference USA.
Realignment is just a detail to Sager, who is about to take the field for his third college head coach. The Bulls recruited him with Jim Leavitt at the helm, and Sager played in 36 games over the past three seasons for Skip Holtz, who was fired at the conclusion of the 2012 campaign.
Sager is approaching Monday's opening of training camp as another clean slate.
"It's hard, but you also sort of welcome the change - especially when it hasn't been going as it should," Sager said. "It's positives and negatives. I definitely think coach Taggart is the man."
That's music to the ears of USF supporters, who are tired of playing second fiddle to in-state rivals. Taggart is taking dead aim at the likes of Florida State - whom the Bulls will play in a home-and-home series in 2015 and 2016 - and Miami, which comes to Raymond James Stadium on Sept. 28.
"Let's not look at those programs as being bigger than us," Taggart said. "They probably have more tradition than us, but we're a big-time program too, and we're going to play big-time people.
"We intend to go out and beat those big-time programs, too. That's something I'm excited about."