Why Willie Taggart is a risky hire for Oregon

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Willie Taggart is a Florida man.

He was born in Florida, he was a high school football star in Florida, and while he went out of state for college, when he entered the coaching ranks, he set up his base in Florida.

No matter where he was — at Western Kentucky, at Stanford, and of course when he was at South Florida — Taggart recruited the state of Florida.

And because recruiting is the first, second, third, and fourth most important thing in college football, and Florida might be college football's best talent base, success followed.

But now, Willie Taggart is an Oregon man, and that makes him a Southern California guy.

Taggart was named the head coach at Oregon Wednesday — a massive move both geographically and in the coaching realm.

The hire will be widely praised, and for good reason: Taggart can pull off the rare trick of being both innovative and rock-solid and he's found success everywhere he's coached — that’s the kind of program CEO every school should want.

But Taggart is taking a massive risk by going to Oregon, and Oregon is taking a massive risk in hiring Taggart.

Oregon is one of the most peculiar programs in college football. It shouldn’t be a premier job for coaches — it’s in a state that doesn’t produce much Division I talent, and it’s in a division that features two of the best coaches in the nation, David Shaw of Stanford and Chris Petersen of Washington, whose programs are humming.

But it has Nike money, name recognition, and for a while, it was one of college football’s most innovative programs.

Taggart is quick to tell people that his goal is to be the first African-American coach to win a National Championship. He couldn't do that at USF — the barriers are too high — but he can do it at Oregon.

Taggart is an excellent X’s and O’s coach, he’ll inherit a solid base from Mark Helfrich, and he won’t lack for resources in Eugene. Sounds like a winning formula, right?

Sounds like a winning formula, right?

If only those things truly built a program.

Remember how recruiting is the first, second, third, and fourth most important thing in building a program? It’s also fifth, sixth, and seventh on that list.

Getting excellent players — whether they be five-star, can’t-miss, ready-to-dominate prospects or diamonds in the rough that will take a few years of hands-on coaching to reach their full potential — is everything in college football.

Taggart has shown the ability to land those players at every stop he’s made in his coaching career, but more often than not, he’d go back to the same mine to find them: Florida.

Even at Stanford, when he was recruiting nationally and was assigned to areas like Riverside County, California and Georgia, Taggart's main recruiting base was the Sunshine State.

And that’s what makes Taggart a risky hire — he can’t use his base at Oregon.

The Ducks can recruit nationally, sure, but Taggart is going to have to plant new flags on the West Coast and particularly in Southern California, the area his predecessors typically used as the Ducks' main recruiting base.

Starting from scratch is a hard thing to do, even for an elite-level recruiter like Oregon's new coach.

Charlie Strong was an elite recruiter of the state of Florida — he mined Florida talent for the Gators and kept the pipeline going when he went to Louisville. But when Strong took the Texas job before the 2014 season, he had to abandon his base.

It took more than a year for Strong to forge the strong recruiting relationships in Texas necessary to get the kind of high-character, high-motor, high-intelligence players he wanted for the Longhorns.

The 2016 season was the first season where Strong had “his guys” on the field. And when that group of mostly underclassmen underperformed, Strong was kicked to the curb.

It’s a cruel business and Strong, whose expectations surpassed his acumen when he first took the job, was set up to fail.

(Ironically, Strong is the top name to land the now vacant South Florida job. It’s hard to see him being anything other than wildly successful with the Bulls, should he land the gig.)

Taggart could thrive — he could hire a staff full of ace SoCal recruiters and sign an incredible class this upcoming February. He could hit the ground running and create a base in the span of a few weeks.

Parlay that with the base he inherited and his coaching skills, the Ducks’ dynasty could start again.

If not, Oregon will have to be patient as Taggart and his staff build up a new base. It's not like he can pull a Tom Herman and recruit his backyard at Houston, or be do what P.J. Fleck did and instantaneously create a recruiting base in one of the most contested areas in the country. (I've seen both of these men recruit up close — Taggart is elite, but Fleck might be the best in the nation.)

For now, it's all a big hypothetical, because recruiting is everything.

That's what makes it so difficult, and that's what makes Taggart a risky hire in Eugene.