TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Willie Taggart entered the room to applause, shook hands with his father, hugged his mother and waved to family and friends who turned his introductory news conference into a mini-pep rally.
South Florida’s new football coach made a name for himself as player and coach at Western Kentucky, but an opportunity to return home to the Tampa Bay area to try to rescue another struggling program simply was too good to ignore.
“I always said I wouldn’t leave WKU unless I had a chance to go and win a national championship, and I truly believe that can be done here,” Taggart said Saturday after signing a five-year, $5.75 million contract to replace Skip Holtz, who was fired after the worst season in USF’s 16-year history.
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“It wasn’t long ago USF was No. 2 in the country. It’s been proven that we can get there,” Taggart added. “What we have to do now is put everybody on the bus, put `em in the right seat and let coach T drive this bus!”
Taggart, 36, led Western Kentucky to a 7-5 record this season. The Hilltoppers, who appointed defensive coordinator Lance Guidry interim coach on Saturday, will make their first postseason appearance since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision when they face Central Michigan in the Little Caesars Bowl.
A former assistant at Stanford to Jim Harbaugh, Taggart takes over a program that went 16-21 under Holtz, who dropped nine of 10 games following a 2-0 start this season.
“We’ve got a winner in Willie Taggart. He’s young, dynamic, driven, innovative and successful,” said athletic director Doug Woolard, who led the six-day search for a successor with assistance from former NFL coach and Tampa resident Tony Dungy, who sat in on interviews with the finalists — another selling-point with Taggart.
“My vision is to win multiple championships in a first-class manner. That’s what we’re going to have about,” Taggart said. “Another thing we’re going to be about is we’re not going to bow down to no one. We’re going to go out and recruit the best to come here and be the best. … There’s no reason we can’t do that.”
Western Kentucky had lost 20 consecutive games before Taggart returned to his alma mater three seasons ago from Stanford, where he was the running backs coach. He went 2-10 in his first season, then followed with consecutive 7-5 records to expand his resume.
The native of nearby Palmetto played for Harbaugh’s father, Jack, at Western Kentucky in the mid-1990s and was part of the coaching staff there when the Hilltoppers won a national Division I-AA title in 2002.
Taggart arrives at USF with a different challenge than Holtz faced when he was lured from East Carolina to replace Jim Leavitt, who was fired for mistreating a player who had accused Leavitt of grabbing him by the throat and slapping him in the face during halftime of a game.
The Bulls were perceived at that point in their development as one of the fastest rising programs in the country, having been ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation in 2007.
Holtz welcomed the challenge of helping USF get to the next level, but leaves behind a team that has been unable to remain competitive in a conference that has also been in decline because of the departure of several members to other leagues.
The Bulls have lost 14 of their last 16 games against Big East opponents and finished last in the conference the past two seasons.
Taggart, who informed his players of his decision to leave Western Kentucky after practice Friday, played on a state championship team at Bradenton Manatee High School in 1992. His connection to the Harbaugh family began when Jim recruited Taggart to play for his dad in college.
“I tell people today that ever since I met Jim Harbaugh my life has been going nowhere but up,” Taggart said, adding that the San Francisco 49ers coach has been a role model.
“Ever since then, I’ve been trying to be like him, a coach like him, a father like him, a brother like him, everything like him,” Taggart added. “And, it’s gotten me to this point.”
Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart said during a news conference in Bowling Green, Ky., that the Hilltoppers raised “sufficient private funds” to put together a contract offer in October that would have made Taggart the highest-paid coach in the Sun Belt Conference.
“He felt announcing a new contract during the season would be a distraction to the team and wanted to keep the focus on football. We respected that statement and mutually agreed to wait until the end of the regular season to discuss a new contract,” Stewart said. “This past week we again extended a term sheet that offered him a contract for him to become the highest paid coach in our conference. We were proactive and thorough in our efforts to retain him.”
Hilltoppers defensive tackle Jamarcus Allen said players were preparing to go home from practice when called a team meeting to reveal his plans.
“He came in and told us he got the job at South Florida and that he had to do what was best for him and his family. We completely understand that. He told us to continue to make history and be one of those 35 teams that win a bowl game,” Allen said.
“I was shocked and, I really hurt for the young guys because it’s probably hard for them to transition,” Allen added. “I just know that us group of seniors has been through so much and we know how to handle it. I just know we’re going to put our arms around these younger guys and help them get through it.”