University of South Florida football coach Willie Taggart has a sign in his office:
Climbing is easier than hanging on.
After last season’s first month, it appeared that Taggart was barely hanging on, perhaps about to lose his grip on a suffering Bulls program that was not showing on-field results despite his claims of massive improvement to its infrastructure.
Then everything changed.
The Bulls won seven of their last eight regular-season contests. They reached a bowl game for the first time since 2010. They developed a scary-good, fast-paced “Gulf Coast’’ offense, led by quarterback Quinton Flowers, running back Marlon Mack and wide receiver Rodney Adams.
The return of that three-headed nightmare for opposing defenses is a major reason why USF is expected to challenge Houston’s hold on the American Athletic Conference and contend for a major bowl bid.
Taggart, meanwhile, is one of the nation’s hottest coaching names.
He had a brief flirtation last season with South Carolina before agreeing to a reworked contract — five years at a total of $9 million — that could keep him at USF through the 2020 season. The job has always brought intangibles because Taggart grew up 40 miles from USF’s campus. He relishes building his program with Tampa Bay area players.
“Nobody has it better than us,’’ said Taggart, repeating one of his pet phrases. “Noooooooobody!’’
Taggart, a disciple of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, is a relentlessly positive presence who closes each news conference with, “Have a great day … if you want to.’’
Then there’s his ever-present: “Do something!’’
Want more playing time? Then … do something! Want more respect from the national media? Then … do something!
“You’re either getting better or worse,’’ Taggart said. “As long as we’ve been here, we’ve consistently gotten better. It hasn’t happened as fast as we would’ve liked, but we’ve gotten better.’’
After arriving in December 2012 from his alma mater, Western Kentucky, Taggart endured brutal seasons of 2-10 and 4-8, giving USF four consecutive losing records. When last season began 1-3, it seemed to be slipping away, but the Bulls turned it around.
“This is a production world,’’ Taggart said. “As coaches, that’s what we sign up for. Ultimately, you’re judged on wins and losses. But you’ve got to have the right foundation. And you’ve got to stick to what you believe in.’’
Taggart arrived with swagger 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,’’ Taggart said.
Who knew that things would quickly veer off the road? Of course, who knew that USF’s backdrop would change dramatically?
“When I got here, we were in the Big East and we could go to a BCS game,’’ Taggart said. “You say, ‘We’re on level ground and can recruit against Florida and Florida State.’ A few months later, all of that is gone.’’
When the Big East imploded due to massive defections, USF was shuffled into a revised conference, the AAC, in what looked like a rebranded demotion.
Taggart’s USF tenure could not have begun in worse fashion. The Bulls were shellshocked by an apocalyptic 53-21 home loss against McNeese State, a precursor to a woeful season that included only 13 offensive touchdowns. In Taggart’s second year, the Bulls needed miraculous comeback victories against AAC bottom-feeders Tulsa and SMU.
These days, that’s all they are — memories.
“Willie is just who he is,’’ said USF athletic director Mark Harlan, who arrived from UCLA a few months before the 2014 season. “He had this plan and it’s working. The only difference (from the early years) is the scoreboard looks different.
“From the first day I was here, I felt a presence about him. He’s the same today as the first day I met him. He has made some hard decisions and tuned out the noise. He’s the man for this job.’’
Taggart, who turns 40 on Aug. 27, is considered an excellent recruiter who is extremely well-received in the homes of young people. He speaks their language. He knows the music and lingo.
However, he stops short of being a player’s best buddy. He never takes lightly his role as an authority figure. He’s especially conscious of that responsibility when recruiting a player who grew up without a father, or someone who is the first in his family to attend college:
“They need someone to teach them to be a man. Too many times we see them grow as football players, but not as men. When football is taken away from them, they can’t do anything. They haven’t grown.
“We’ve got to touch those hearts, get to know them personally, let them know you care. When that happens, if you ask them to do something, they’ll go out of their way for you. You want them to leave here better than they came. You want to teach them how to survive.’’
When things were bad, and now that things are good, Taggart has wanted his players to strive. Now there appears to be a bright future ahead.
Climbing, after all, is easier than hanging on.