EUGENE, Ore. — Willie Taggart doesn’t want to hear anything else about how this is not a rebuilding project.
You’re really going to tell Taggart, who has rebuilt programs at Western Kentucky and then South Florida, and helped build Stanford before that, that you don’t think this is a rebuilding project?
Well, I tried to do that. This is obviously different, I said, so how do you know what to do in this scenario, and what can you bring from your past stops that will work here, in this new and special situation? That’s when Taggart, hired by Oregon on Dec. 7, gently corrected me.
“I hear that a lot, that this is not a rebuild,” he says. “But in each one of those jobs that I’ve taken over, there was a downward spiral, and we have to stop that. If you look now, that’s what’s happening [here]. It’s going downward, and we’ve gotta stop that.”
It was just two years ago that the Ducks, then under head coach Mark Helfrich, played Ohio State for the national title, a month after quarterback Marcus Mariota won the program’s first Heisman Trophy. Then the Pac-12, especially the North Division, got a lot tougher and Oregon started to slip. In 2015 the Ducks went 9–4, a respectable regular season that culminated with a meltdown in the Alamo Bowl against TCU. That turned to be just a preview of the 2016 season, as Oregon limped to a 4–8 overall record, 2–7 conference campaign and ended with a loss to rival Oregon State that snapped an eight-year winning streak over the Beavers. Helfrich (37–16 over four seasons) was fired the following week, putting coaches across the country on notice that good is not good enough.
That Mariota was likely a once-in-a-generation talent, the type of transcendent player who lifts a program to new heights, and that the Ducks were decimated by injuries in 2016, did not matter to the fan base or school administration. Oregon wants to win, and win big, and with its flashy uniforms and swoon-worthy facilities, the Ducks expect it now. Taggart welcomes the pressure.
“Once we started winning [at USF], I said I wasn’t going to leave unless I had a chance to win a national championship,” says Taggart, who went 24–25 over four years with the Bulls and finished 10–2 in 2016. “Here at UO … the passionate fan base, that’s really appealing to me. I haven’t had that since I’ve been coaching. You have all the resources to be successful, no excuses.”
Taggart has no time for excuses, especially if they’re coming from guys who signed up to play under him. Taggart makes a habit of setting high standards early, and often. Every Friday and Saturday night at USF, he’d send a text to players with the same message: “Be smart. Don’t do anything to jeopardize your future or this team. No means no, every time.” Players need “a constant education,” Taggart says, and that applies on and off the field. Sending that text inspired accountability, a word that seems to have been lacking in Eugene lately. Taggart implied that conversations with people around the program revealed a lack of discipline in the last two years under Helfrich, a problem detailed this week by The Oregonian. Asked for an example, a perplexed Taggart said he doesn’t understand how “guys [were] getting in trouble and still able to be around. It don’t work like that,” he says.
“A guy missing a class, missing a workout, being late to a meeting. You don’t do that. This university is doing so much for you … be where you’re supposed to be.” Taggart jokes that he wishes a player would miss a meeting, just so the team can see what happens if you step out of line. He’s anxious to develop leadership within the locker room, another missing ingredient the last two seasons that Taggart was surprised to learn about. Oddly, hearing about the lack of discipline and leadership has been somewhat comforting to Taggart. It’s a problem he’s solved before.
“I was talking with [mentor] Jack Harbaugh and he said the same thing: ‘You’ve gotta be excited, cause you’ve seen it already,’” Taggart says. “To be honest with you, some of it’s worse than what we’ve been through [at other schools] … I think there are guys on the team that can lead, but they don’t know how. That’s our job, to teach them.”
Already, there are subtle changes around the Oregon football offices. After years of keeping the media and fans at bay, Taggart is expected to open some spring practices to fans, and occasional fall practices to the media. By mid-January he will have done more than 20 sit-down one-on-one interviews with local and national reporters. He’s promised a more up-front injury policy, as opposed to the cloak-and-dagger operation former coach Chip Kelly, then Helfrich, ran. He bubbles with charisma, a sharp contrast from the often snarky Kelly and Helfrich, and is praised for being a players’ coach. When word of Taggart’s hiring leaked on social media, USF players flooded Twitter with positive reactions. They encouraged him privately, too. At the end of our conversation, Taggart shared a text from a USF player who messaged his coach after the Bulls’ 46–39 win over South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl. The player told him that he hoped USF had made Taggart proud that day, thanked Taggart for changing his life and said he hoped Taggart would take Oregon to the top.
Taggart is active on Twitter, too, regularly posting inspirational messages and encouraging his followers to #DoSomething. He says that because he’s been willing to do something, been willing to work, every single thing he’s ever visualized has come true (well, except that he hasn’t won the lottery yet). But Taggart admits it might because he hasn’t done something to kickstart that fantasy like, you know, buy a ticket.
He’s eager for his family—wife Taneshia, sons Willie Jr. and Jackson, and daughter Morgan—to get to Eugene. Willie Jr., 15, followed his dad’s lead and has also been busy on social media since Willie Sr. got hired at Oregon, engaging with Eugene-area high schoolers who are trying to recruit Willie Jr., a quarterback, to play for their team. Jackson, like many 10-year-olds across the country, was obsessed with Oregon long before his dad took the job and would like to come join him in Eugene right now. The family will wait until school is finished to move across the country.
Eighteen-month old Morgan, who learned how to say “Dada” the week Willie took the Oregon job, will be involved in the football gig, too. At USF, a Bulls staffer took a video of Morgan babbling in her highchair and added subtitles that made it look like the toddler was making a recruiting pitch for USF. Updating that, and teaching Morgan how to say “Go Ducks!” is on Taggart’s to-do list. It’s sure to be a hit with prospects’ moms.
But first, he needs to finish hiring a staff and hit the recruiting trail to cobble together the last few pieces of the 2017 recruiting class. Taggart already won his most important recruiting battle when he convinced Ducks running back Royce Freeman to return for 2017, giving Oregon, which started four redshirt freshmen on the offensive line, a solid foundation. He needs more though, and says walking into a school with an Oregon “O” on your chest gives you a little more cache. He plans to use that. He’s looking for players who, like the fan base and administration, aren’t patient.
“I’m not thinking three or four years down the road,” Taggart says. “I’m thinking about now. I want to win a championship now. I want our guys to want to win a championship now and I want everyone associated with our program to want that now. But I also want them to want to work and do the things it takes, and be willing to sacrifice now rather than waiting for later. Later isn’t guaranteed to anyone but now, that starts every single day.”
And it starts, even if you didn’t think so initially, with rebuilding from the ground up.