After a dismal 2016 football campaign that culminated in a loss to Oregon State for the first time in almost a decade and missing out on a bowl game for the first time in over a decade, Oregon needed an offseason “win”. Mark Helfrich, the third straight Oregon head coach to be promoted from offensive coordinator, the second coach in that span to win a Rose Bowl, and the only coach in UO history to have a Heisman winner on the roster, was ousted. Now, searching outside the program for the first time in almost 40 years, Oregon was tasked with finding the right skipper for the helm.
Enter Willie Taggart, the charismatic 40-year-old who had just finished leading his South Florida Bulls to a 10-2 season and a share of the AAC East division crown. But what really stood out was that when Taggart had taken over 4 years earlier, USF went 2-10. And it wasn’t the only turnaround he’d orchestrated. His previous and first head coaching gig at Western Kentucky saw him go from 2-10 his first season to back-to-back 7-5 seasons. One thing was clear: Taggart had the wherewithal to turn a losing program into a winning one.
Taggart immediately secured his first “win” when he took the stand for his introductory press conference. Unlike Chip Kelly’s no-nonsense quips or Helfrich’s right words with the wrong tone behind them, this man exuded a charisma and an electricity about him that made you feel like he was the kind of guy you could sit down with in a bar, have a couple beers and engage in a long, animated conversation with before leaving with a hearty clap on the shoulder. He felt real, he felt energetic, and he felt like a good choice. “Everyone in our football program, everyone who touches our football program, will attack each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind”, Taggart bluntly stated. And though this almost sounded like subtly-humorous oversell, when Taggart said it, you believed it. “To be perfectly honest with you all, I cannot wait until this press conference is over with so I can get to work!” Taggart exclaimed enthusiastically. Soon afterward, Taggart could be seen at Mathew Knight Arena during a men’s basketball game, greeting and taking pictures with eager fans, happily telling ESPNU all about what he planned to accomplish come fall, and even running his players and fellow coaches onto the floor at halftime for little 5 on 5. This was a man of the people, and as far as fans, colleagues, and journalists were concerned, he had won the people over.
The next win for Oregon’s new head coach would arrive only a few months later as Spring football got underway across the nation. From the get-go, Ducks players talked of a different vibe emanating from the new coaching staff. There was excitement and anticipation in the air, but more importantly, multiple players talked of a newfound sense of unity. The team began to feel more like a brotherhood, like a family. Taggart then held the first scrimmage of spring ball not in the confines of the Moshofsky Center, but at Jesuit High School in Beaverton. Giving Duck fans in the highly-populated Portland Metro area a chance to catch a first glimpse of this new era turned out to be a great kick start, as over 3,000 showed up on the sunny Saturday to take in the practice and scrimmage, a majority already clad in their fall football gear. Taggart concluded the spring with one of the most entertaining and viewed spring games Oregon had ever hosted. An unprecedented 36,821 fans filled Autzen on another warm and sunny day and teams Free and Brave did not disappoint. Quarterback Justin Herbert threw for 327 yards and 3 touchdowns and wideout Darren Carrington notched 116 receiving yards to compliment two touchdowns. Cornerbacks Arrion Springs and Billy Gibson made acrobatic interceptions, running back Kani Benoit broke away for a 95-yard touchdown run and on the game’s final play Herbert baited the defense into following a receiver into the middle of the field with a directive motion before looking away and finding Carrington down the sideline for a 25-yard score. Spring ball had been an enormous success; hence, Taggart had netted another “win”.
The final win for Taggart occurred shortly thereafter and has since been his most impressive of the three. It was no secret that Taggart had been referred to as a wiz on the recruiting trail, nor that Oregon’s spring game hosted a plethora of highly touted prospects. One of the main issues plaguing Helfrich was his inability to continue bringing in impressive recruiting classes as Chip Kelly had. Most of Helfrich’s success on the football field came using players Kelly had reeled in and when it came time for him to keep the ball rolling, he failed to impress. Taggart was meant to be the counterpunch to that issue, but perhaps nobody saw the wave of star-studded commits he ended up producing.
Almost immediately story after story began breaking of another young stud stating his intent to play football at the University of Oregon. Taggart netted himself a top 20 recruiting class for 2017 with a very limited amount of time to work with given his hire date. But that paled in comparison to what he reeled in for 2018 as Oregon’s class for the latter year soared up the national rankings into the top 5 and even led to proclamations of Oregon being the “hottest football recruiting school in the country”. With linebacker Adrian Jackson, offensive lineman Dawson Jaramillo, defensive back Isaiah Bolden, running back Jamal Currie-Elliot, defensive back Steve Stephens, wide receiver Warren Thompson, and former Notre Dame commit Braden Lenzy all on board it was clear Taggart was not only filling some much needed holes in the here and now, but also building for the next season as well.
All of this coming off a 4-8 season from a relatively small university in a relatively small town also told us all one thing about the pipeline of impressive players Taggart had corralled: they bought in to what he was selling. The man had enough insight and persuasive prowess to make Oregon’s recent struggles a mere footnote and again turn it into a popular and potentially cutting-edge destination for young football stars. In accomplishing all this, Taggart had “won” his initial recruiting expedition by a mile.
So in summary, three endeavors, three resounding wins for Taggart. The thing is, his final win will be the only one that will truly assure the Duck faithful that football in Eugene is back on track. All of his success this past winter and spring will mean a lot less if Taggart can’t produce wins on the football field. He can be as charismatic, innovative, and resourceful as he wants, but if Oregon stumbles through another sub-par season you can bet your bottom dollar there will be a great number of initial supporters who turn into detractors.
After a season in which Oregon could never seem to find itself and thus missed out on postseason play for the first time since before the spread-option was even instituted at Oregon, fans and players alike will have a newfound hunger for success. The thought is that Taggart will be the man to spearhead that success. Oregon is ranked in the preseason Top 25 despite its struggles last year. Many are expecting Oregon to double up on its win total from last year or at the very least secure a bowl berth. Beyond that, competing for conference titles and Rose Bowl appearances are back in the minds of many, and not unreasonably so considering the classes Taggart has assembled coupled with his turnaround numbers at Western Kentucky and South Florida.
But this isn’t South Florida, and it certainly isn’t Western Kentucky. This is a power 5 school in a power 5 conference that experienced unprecedented levels of success over the past decade. Competing with the likes of USC, who ended last season as one of the hottest teams in the country with a comeback Rose Bowl victory, or Washington, who was able to reclaim some of their past glory by storming to a conference title and a College Football Playoff appearance will be new territory for Taggart. Heck, he only gets one game under his belt before facing one of the most heralded programs in the country in Nebraska at what will probably be an overflow crowd at Autzen expecting a victory.
At the end of the day, winning changes everything. Taggart has “won” every challenge he’s faced thus far but the season in itself will be the benchmark by which he is inevitably measured. Get Oregon back into the top 3 or 4 of the Pac 12 standings, institute some redemption wins against opponents who pushed Oregon around last year, get the Ducks into a legitimate bowl game and perhaps win it? Yeah, Taggart will have his most important “win” in his pocket then.
No quotation marks needed.