The coach is back in the Sunshine State
Bear Bryant famously explained his move from Texas A&M to Alabama, his alma mater, in 1958 by saying: "Mama called, and when Mama calls, you just have to come runnin'."
Technically, Mama didn't call Willie Taggart. But it's clear that she wanted her son to come home.
Gloria James heard the coaching rumors from her home in Palmetto, Fla., about her son, Willie, who was still in his first year as the head coach at Oregon. But she didn't pry. And she definitely didn't ask him to come home during their frequent conversations.
"The entire time leading up to the official offer [from FSU], she was trying to be as nice about it as possible. Diplomatic," Taggart says.
"While all the speculation was going crazy, I'd call her every few days when she'd hear a rumor or see something in the news and she'd say, 'Well, you've got to do what's best for you and your family. It's your decision. I just want you to be happy.'"
When Taggart officially became the new head coach of Florida State, achieving his dream job at just 41, he called Mama first.
"She changed it up then. As soon as I told her, she said 'Boy, I am SO glad. I am SO happy.' Of course I knew the whole time she wanted me home."
James understood the intense pressure Taggart was under. Florida State was inarguably his dream job, after he grew up as a passionate FSU fan in a house full of Seminoles. The issue was that Taggart was only one year into his run at Oregon, another elite, top-level position in college football that he'd fought hard to get to after seven years of overseeing Group of 5 programs.
"It was hard. Absolutely one of the toughest decisions I've ever made in my life, because that team at Oregon did everything we asked," Taggart says. "We had that group going in the right direction, and things were really starting to fall into place. And Oregon was a huge opportunity for me. It's not how I wanted the timing to work out, but you can't control that."
Things at Oregon happened fast, both at the beginning and end. Taggart was targeted by the Ducks in 2016 after creating one of the most explosive offenses in college football at the University of South Florida. In Tampa, Taggart overhauled his philosophies of old-school, smash-mouth power formations and married them to shotgun-option concepts with Art Briles-inspired formations. The results were impressive: In 2016, the Bulls were one of only six teams nationally to average more than 7.0 yards per play.
With Taggart, the Ducks believed they'd start a new, robust chapter -- he was a proven national recruiter with deep ties to key areas who could mesh Oregon's reputation for speed and points with a level of discipline.
And in just 11 months, he'd begun to deliver: His abbreviated 2017 signing class finished 19th in the nation thanks to a late surge of top Florida talent. And despite injuries to quarterback Justin Herbert and running back Royce Freeman, the Ducks averaged 36 points per game in 2017. Even the moribund defense had begun to improve under Jim Leavitt, jumping from 119th to 61st in total defensive S&P+.
Everything was great -- which was why Taggart was laughing at rumors that had him in the mix for other jobs when the coaching cycle kicked back up around Thanksgiving 2017.
"You hear that stuff and you're flattered maybe, but then you just worry what your players are hearing," he says. "I was locked in. That's how I felt. Leaving Oregon, with the direction we were headed and the support, it would have to be perfect. It would have to be one thing. Florida State."
Taggart was out recruiting when the FSU job officially opened in early December. Jimbo Fisher had actually done it -- he'd left Tallahassee, where he had guided the Seminoles to a national title, to take the same job at Texas A&M. To that point, Taggart insists that he hadn't paid attention to the soap opera regarding Fisher's strained relationship with Florida State. But once the situation was real, Taggart made the decision to reciprocate contact with Florida State and accept the school's offer.
Oregon, feelings hurt after losing a coach after one season, opted to stay in-house and promoted offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal, himself a Floridian and former FIU head coach with deep ties to Miami. Leavitt and other assistants recruited specifically to Oregon stayed on, allowing for a modicum of continuity. Taggart and a handful of his longtime staffers moved home.
"I just started to think about growing up and what those colors meant, what that mascot meant," Taggart says. "In my part of the state growing up in the late '80s and early '90s, you were Florida State or Miami around Palmetto and Bradenton. It was a battle, there was no other choice. [Steve] Spurrier hadn't yet brought Florida to that level.
"The guys I grew up around who were talented enough to go to the next level went to FSU. It became the team of our community. My high school coach graduated from FSU. That was the school. I didn't know a lot about other teams in college football unless they were playing the Noles."
Taggart wrestled with a thousand childhood memories, as well as a much more serious weight -- the passing of his father, John Taggart, in August. Taggart knew he has been lucky to be able to spend four years of his career at South Florida, allowing him to be around his extended family. While at Oregon, he realized what he was missing by being so far away.
"Losing my dad when I did, wanting him to see where I'd end up, it teaches you how important every second of every day is with your family," Taggart says.
Taggart has returned to Florida to find his beloved Seminoles in a different place. After winning only seven games last season, FSU has lost a bit of its swagger.
And that's not the only thing that has changed.
Sure, Florida State, Florida and Miami are still the top dogs in the state, but the Big 3 can no longer count on keeping all of the top talent home. Virtually every program in the nation sends at least one recruiter to the Sunshine State to find talent. And with the ascension of Clemson in the ACC, the Noles aren't even the perennial favorites in their own conference anymore.
Taggart doesn't seem concerned about the new dynamics.
"The outside doesn't matter. We welcome competition," he says. "What we need to focus on is Florida State and what that represents both now and before, and what it means for tomorrow."
Taggart's first order of business (after recruiting, of course) was to throw open the doors of the FSU program to its long list of former players and NFL alumni, many of whom now live in the state. It's a move with multiple intentions -- unite old Bobby Bowden players with modern FSU NFL talent and also create energized, vocal supporters across Florida and the Southeast as he embarks on what should be some epic recruiting battles against Mark Richt at Miami and Dan Mullen at Florida.
"I'm on Twitter all the time. I'm texting those guys, the old guys, but especially the recent guys like Jameis [Winston] or Jalen Ramsey, 'Hey, this is what I plan on doing with the program. This is who we want to be. You're welcome here, we want you around,'" Taggart says.
Taggart is supremely confident that Florida State will rebound quickly, that the program's national brand combined with his exciting style of play will lead to elite recruiting classes and a return to national prominence.
"What we can do with elite talent at a place like this, this is what you what you work your entire career to do, to get to a place with this potential. You really do dream about it. That's why it's a dream job."