Can new blood revive an old college football powerhouse?

Yahoo Sports
Willie Taggart takes over as the first-year head coach at Florida State with the football program in a position that few could have imagined during the dominant days of the 1990s. (AP)
Willie Taggart takes over as the first-year head coach at Florida State with the football program in a position that few could have imagined during the dominant days of the 1990s. (AP)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The haunting sing-song chants that accompanied Florida State’s dominance of college football in the 1990s essentially doubled as a soundtrack to the sport. Growing up in Palmetto, Florida, Willie Taggart became entranced by the seductive allure of the hypnotic harmony of the Tomahawk Chop.

Taggart still feels that pull from his childhood when he peeks out of the head coach’s office at Doak Campbell Stadium, as the site of the goalposts can cause flashbacks.

“I remember how upset I was,” Taggart told Yahoo Sports over lunch on Thursday, reflecting on the Wide Right Trilogy. “And I wasn’t even part of Florida State. I think about how personal I took those, and I wasn’t ever here. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like now.”

Taggart takes over as the first-year head coach at Florida State with the football program in a position that few could have imagined during the dominant days of the 1990s. The Seminoles sputtered through a 7-6 season in 2017, coach Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&M and Florida State finds itself distinctly behind Clemson in the ACC pecking order. In nearly three decades in the ACC, the Seminoles have never been such a distance behind a single conference foe both on and off the field.

Clemson has won three straight ACC titles, the league’s most recent national title in 2016 and its savvy administrators have lapped Florida State’s investments in facilities and staff. Clemson has the culture, the resplendent new football building and a coach, Dabo Swinney, who resonates nationally only behind Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. While the world celebrates the toy slide inside Clemson’s $55 million facility, Taggart’s job is to stop Florida State’s slide from the highest echelon of college football.

“In order to be the man, you got to beat the man,” Taggart told Yahoo Sports. “And they beat Florida State and they’re taking over. And if we want it back, we got to do the same thing.”

To return the familiar sing-song echo to college football’s soundtrack, Taggart knows exactly what the Seminoles will look like. And it’s a vision that’s not familiar to Florida State fans, who’ve haven’t deviated from Bobby Bowden’s coaching tree since 1976.

What will Florida State’s new identity look like? The best place to start is at the clear inflection point of Taggart’s coaching career. He began the second head coaching job of his career at South Florida with a 7-21 record and finished it 17-4. The pivot from hot seat to hot coach came on Oct. 10, 2015, as the Bulls were 1-3 with no FBS wins and hosting Syracuse.

Taggart had switched offenses in the offseason, deviating from a pro-style system he’d learned on the Harbaugh tree – playing for Jack and coaching with Jim. Taggart also took on play-calling duties, but he’d struggled finding a rhythm while adjusting to a spread system.

That week, USF quarterback Quinton Flowers encouraged Taggart to call the game uninhibited by the fear of mistakes. Taggart turned up the tempo, and his career took off at the same pace.

Screen passes that had gone for modest games busted loose. USF hit on a flea-flicker and finished with 540 yards – 7.8 per play – in a 45-24 blowout. “It was one of those eye-opening moments for myself,” Taggart said. “You need to be doing it like this all the time.”

Taggart scoured the country for tweaks, nuances and improvements. He swiped jet sweeps from Auburn, empty packages from Clemson and high-tempo tips from both Oregon and Ole Miss. He even visited Baylor, which is notorious for not sharing information, and took away intricacies of the wide splits that defined Art Briles’ old offense.

“We literally took something from each one of them and kind of made it our own,” Taggart said. “For me, it made me a better coach because from an imagination standpoint. And it just made things simple for our players. That really changed things for us, coming out and playing instead of thinking too much.”

Along the way, a system Taggart tagged the Gulf Coast Offense became awash with potential. And it became prophetic when he returned back toward the Gulf of Mexico after a 7-5 season as the head coach at Oregon in 2017. The term “Lethal Simplicity” has become Taggart’s mantra. As he embarked on changing the identity at Florida State, he’s anxious to see the combination of his scheme with the caliber of talent he has on his roster and should be able to recruit.

Willie Taggart gestures as he is introduced as Florida State’s new football coach during an NCAA college football news conference in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP)
Willie Taggart gestures as he is introduced as Florida State’s new football coach during an NCAA college football news conference in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP)

“I know that first-hand when we played [Florida State],” Taggart said. “We were like, ‘Wow.’”

To get back to wowing opponents will take a revitalization on the recruiting trail, where FSU ranks a respectable No. 13 by Rivals.com for 2019. This dovetails with one of Taggart’s coaching specialties, the ability to connect. He has impressed the players he inherited with how much time he has spent with them, arranging dinners, playing pool and encouraging them to hang out and play the Xbox and PlayStation systems set up in his office.

“You’re not going to get the most out of a kid,” Taggart said, “until you touch his heart.”

Taggart’s philosophy around connecting is derived from playing for Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky, where he learned that the amount he cared for players translated into how hard they played. Taggart wants the players to know his “trials and tribulations,” as he grew up the son of migrant workers who picked oranges and tomatoes. (His dad later worked collecting shells from the ocean).

“Whatever field there was to pick some vegetables and fruits, they were doing it,” he said. “Whatever it took to make ends meet.” And he wants to know the stories of his players, who he says: “Appreciate it more especially when they got a head coach that’s really willing to open up to them and let them know everything isn’t peaches and cream.”

Taggart knows there’s some catching up to do – “facilities wise, we can be better and we will be” – but he has a simple plan that winning games will ultimately build buildings, restore traditional order in the ACC and awake the echoes of that haunting chant that defined college football in his youth. With an identity of Lethal Simplicity on the field and a vision for connecting off it, Taggart’s goals appear as familiar as the feeling he’s hoping to revive.

“What it’s always been,” he said of his vision for Florida State. “Winning multiple championships in a first-class manner. That’s why we all signed up to be here.”

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