Big expectations, bigger opportunity: Taggart tasked with restoring Oregon

Willie Taggart is expected to reverse Oregon's slide, and in doing so, he can become an important example of success as one of seven black head coaches in the Power 5.
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EUGENE, Ore. — Willie Taggart, the rebuilding wizard who took Western Kentucky and South Florida from the basement to respectable, was introduced Thursday morning as Oregon’s new football coach, taking over for the fired Mark Helfrich. Early impression: I like him. What I like even more is the possibility he brings and what he could do for young men in college football.

If we have learned anything in the last two months, it's that our country is significantly more divided than many of us realized. In the aftermath of a polarizing election, stories of hate crimes and discrimination have poured in from across the country. As a result, it’s important, maybe now more than ever before, to see minorities in positions of power and influence, men and women who can give young people of color someone, and something, to aspire to.

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Taggart, 40, seems up to the challenge. Last month, Taggart told SB Nation that he has had one goal since day one of his coaching career: become the first African-American head coach to win a national championship. With his promotion to Oregon, Taggart is now one of seven African-American head coaches in the Power 5 in a sport largely populated by young men of color. At his introductory press conference Thursday, Taggart was asked about this distinction.

Reporter: Clearly, there’s only a dozen or so African-American head coaches in Division-I football. How much of a problem do you think that is? What can be done to change that? Does that add pressure to you to succeed to help make sure you can open doors for others?

Taggart: Is there any pressure on me? No. I take pride in being an African-American coach. I know there are a lot of folks counting on me to do well.… Changing it? Everybody is different. I think each individual is different. The more we get educated, the more we get opportunities, I think you’ll see more African-American coaches.

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Taggart can help young men reach for those opportunities, partially by continuing to be a successful example to them. He has a reputation as a terrific recruiter, and after seeing him in the press conference it’s easy to imagine his enthusiasm and charisma charming parents and prospects across the country. At one point, he mentioned that he does not “get along with boring people,” which drew laughs from the crowd. For fed-up fans and boosters, Taggart’s warm disposition is a welcome 180-degree turn from the last two coaches. Chip Kelly won a lot but was snarky while doing it. Many have complained that Helfrich followed suit, at least in front of the cameras.

It’s been widely reported that Taggart was not the first, second or third choice for the Ducks, who were required by state law to interview a minority candidate. Taggart was interviewed last Thursday, but news of his hiring didn’t start to leak until late Tuesday night. It was confirmed Wednesday morning. Many believe that the backup to the backup option became the only option early this week when the Ducks went into scramble mode. But college football has a history of being kind to these types.

Bo Schembechler wasn’t Michigan’s first choice when the Wolverines hired him in 1969 (a local paper headlined the story of Schembechler’s hiring with, “Bo Who?”). USC fans were downright irate at the hiring of failed NFL coach Pete Carroll when the Trojans brought him to Los Angeles in 2001. The Ducks even have experience with this themselves: One of the first people to greet Taggart after the press conference Thursday was Oregon men’s basketball coach Dana Altman, who landed in Eugene after the Ducks were (very publicly) turned down by a handful of much bigger names. Now in his seventh season, Altman is hoping to build on the Ducks’ 2016 Elite Eight appearance.

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So, maybe Taggart was the “token” interview. But it got him in the door, and now he has an incredible opportunity.

Taggart said all the right things Thursday morning. He emphasized academics, pointing out that his three children, Willie Jr. (15 years old), Jackson (10) and Morgan (17 months) were not there because his wife, Taneshia, does not believe in skipping school. He said the Ducks would follow three principles: make no excuses; blame no one; do something. He praised Oregon’s facilities, saying, “I've never had the opportunity to have all the resources we have here.”

At glitzy Oregon, where superbooster Phil Knight’s pockets run deep, Taggart will have virtually every advantage, save for a natural recruiting base. That’s where he’s hopeful his Florida roots come in. Can he establish a pipeline from the Sunshine State? We don’t know. What we do know is that he’s eager to dive into recruiting and staff building. “To be perfectly honest with you all,” he said, “I cannot wait ... for this press conference to be over with! So I can get to work!”

The 150 or so people gathered in the team theater—typically reserved this season for breaking down a lot of ugly game film—nodded emphatically as Taggart smiled big and talked excitedly with his hands, as he told the crowd he wanted to bring Oregon football back “to the lofty status it deserves.” To do that, Taggart says he’ll rely on the four pillars of taking over a program: a shared vision; a plan to reach that vision; the desire to “work your tail off”; and “patience to see it through.”

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Ah, patience. That’s not a word in Oregon fans’ vocabulary. Remember, Helfrich was fired just two years after playing for the national title and coaching the first Heisman winner in Ducks’ history. It was an astonishingly short leash for a program that, just a couple decades ago, typically finished in the middle of the conference. But Kelly’s arrival in 2007 revved up the offense and the expectations. Oregon has played for a national championship twice since then, in 2010 and 2014, falling short both times. Fans, boosters and administrators wanted a coaching change because they believe they should be headed back to those heights sooner rather than later.

What Taggart said next was spot on: Progress within that patience is crucial. “Trajectory” is the buzzword of choice when talking about college football programs, and over the next few season, it better be an upward one in Eugene.

So good luck, Willie. Lots of people are counting on you. Maybe more than you think.