New FAU Football head coach Willie Taggart is committed to continuing the Owls’ hot streak despite pandemic setbacks
*Editor’s note: this interview was conducted in June 2020 for a feature that ran in the September/October 2020 issue of Boca magazine. The FAU Owls football team is scheduled to open its 2020 season this Saturday at Georgia Southern.
One could be forgiven for drawing comparisons between the storylines of college football and those of a soap opera—the triumph, betrayal, abandonment and spectacle that can define just the coaches is enough to make even a casual fan’s head spin. Over the past decade, few head coaches in college football have experienced the dramatic ups and downs of the profession more than Willie Taggart, the new leader of the Florida Atlantic University Owls football team.
Taggart began his career in football as a player, starting at quarterback for all four of his collegiate years at Western Kentucky University. After graduating in 1998, he was an assistant coach at his alma mater and then Stanford, before returning to WKU in 2010 for his first head coaching job. But it wasn’t until he left WKU for the University of South Florida that Taggart gained national recognition as a head coach.
In his four years as head coach of the USF Bulls, Taggart drastically improved the little-known program, eventually reaching the apex of a 10-win season in 2016.
But the story of his career was still just beginning.
The 44-year-old father of three left USF before the bowl game that concluded that successful season to assume the head coach position at Oregon for a brief one-year stint, before quickly defecting to fill the void left by Jimbo Fisher at Florida State. But his tenure lasted only 21 games in Tallahassee before being ousted mid-season last year. After compiling a record of 9-12 and presiding over the team’s first season without reaching a bowl game in nearly 40 years, the notoriously demanding fan base had seen enough.
FAU now has a history of signing coaches with significant name recognition who have fallen from grace. Lane Kiffin used the Owls program as a landing pad after a tumultuous exit from Nick Saban’s Alabama program, eventually defecting back to the SEC after three fruitful seasons that included two conference championships. Two days after Kiffin’s resignation, the school hired Taggart as its fifth head coach.
In June, Boca spoke to Coach Taggart about the struggles of taking over a football program amid the COVID-19 pandemic, what to expect from FAU Football this season (if there is a season), and what makes college football in Boca Raton so different from the rest of Florida.
How do you like living in Boca so far?
I haven’t really gotten a chance to experience Boca the way I wanted to yet, but I’ve seen enough to know that I’m going to enjoy it here once we get back to some kind of normalcy. … I’m just really excited to get our players back and continue to get to know them better.
What is it about the FAU program that attracted you to come down to Boca?
Well, it’s a young program, it’s proven that it can be a winner on a consistent basis, and it’s in the heart of football recruiting down here, in Broward, Dade and Palm Beach County. And after meeting with the administration, you could tell they had big goals, big dreams for our program and where they want to go. You have to consider how many years of football we’ve had here and how far we’ve come as a program. It says a lot about our program and its growth and where we can go with it.
What aspects of the program that were already in place when you arrived are the most exciting for you?
You look at the new facility that we’ve been able to move into, it’s big time. The facility will allow our guys to get better. I really like this football team. When I got the job and I was able to watch them during bowl practices, I saw a football team that enjoyed each other and loved having fun and being around each other, and that stood out to me from a coaching standpoint. And typically, the hardest part of taking over a program has always been changing the culture, getting the guys to care and love for one another, and you don’t need to do that part down here. …And they’ve been winning, and that’s the ultimate goal.
Now that you’re at FAU, you’ve been a head coach in three different major regions of Florida. How does being in Boca compare to Tallahassee and Tampa?
I think that accessibility to get to your school, from a recruiting standpoint, is great here. You talk about Dade and Broward and Palm Beach County, probably 60 percent of the top talented football players in the State of Florida come from this area. It’s almost like you can get on your bicycle and ride down the street and you’ll pass by five or six great players. It’s also easier for kids to get here, and that’s so important.
Were you able to do any recruiting before the shutdown?
We had one Junior Day where we had some guys come in, and after that we were planning on having guys come in for spring ball, but then everything shut down. … But it really didn’t stop. We continued to recruit with Zoom calls and FaceTime, we’ve been able to do some campus tours just with our phones, and we’ve been able to show guys our new facility and parts of campus through FaceTime. It isn’t necessarily ideal, but we try to give them what we can, despite the pandemic. And it seems like it’s worked so far.
What does the day-to-day routine look like for a college football head coach during the pandemic?
Well, I think the only difference right now is that we can’t meet with recruits. And before we really couldn’t do anything with our players other than meetings. So we’ve been doing Zoom meetings now, instead of having them in meeting rooms … and we’re meeting as a staff…We didn’t have spring ball, so from that standpoint we’re still far behind, especially with a new staff and new schemes and trying to get them implemented. It’s a little tougher when you can’t get out on the practice field and actually do those things. So we’re trying to get creative with how we’re teaching and making sure we’re not overloading our guys, and we’re trying to give them a foundation so that when they do come in to training camp they understand some things, so we can execute and be efficient enough to build off of some of those things.
What are your thoughts on potentially playing games without fans in attendance?
Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it. Things are changing daily, and for a while there was a question about whether we would even be having a season, but now we’ve got our players back. A lot of guys are keeping a positive attitude and banking on us having fans in the stadium.
Are you excited to coach your son, Willie Taggart Jr., who recently committed to FAU as a freshman?
I’m excited, because it’ll be the first time I get to coach him…I’m excited to have him around, and to know that he’s going to be taken care of still, and I’m sure his mom is excited knowing that she doesn’t have to go to two different places every other weekend, trying to watch my games or his games. You know, I think he would have won that battle—she probably wouldn’t have come to my games…
He asked me whether he’s supposed to call me ‘dad’ or ‘coach,’ and I told him I’m always his dad. He can call me either one. I’m always his dad, I’m always his coach. I’m always trying to help him.
Do you think down the line it will be difficult to be impartial if he’s competing for a starting role?
I think if you bring a kid here and tell him he’s not gonna play or compete for anything, you’re not going to get the best out of him. We’re going to treat them all fairly. He understands that, too. There won’t be any favoritism or anything like that. It’s never been that way for him. I always push him to compete against the best and to prove himself, and that’s like all of our guys: We’re going to grade them every day. Like I always tell them, they watch the same film we watch, and they’re at the same practices that we’re at, so it shouldn’t be an issue from that standpoint.
What did you take away from your time as head coach at Florida State?
Make sure you hire the right staff, and try to win as fast as they want you to win. There was never a timetable, or at least it wasn’t told to me, when we had to win. I guess for me that’s a kind of tough question, because we didn’t get the chance to finish what we started. I thought we were on our way, I thought there were some things we could have done better and some games we let get past us, but I thought from an overall standpoint our football team was headed in the right direction. We had a young team. Just from experience in the past, changing culture takes time, and we just didn’t have the time to continue to change that culture.
But all of it’s a blessing, all of it’s a learning lesson, all of it. I feel like I’ve been blessed to get another opportunity, and I’m looking forward to taking advantage of it.
What kind of long-term aspirations do you have for the program?
Again, just keep winning, keep winning championships. I know for myself, I want to get some hardware… Just keep improving as a program, and I think at the rate we’re going there’s no telling where our program will be in the next three to five years.
Do you think it’s an attainable goal to get the team ranked?
I think that’s a nice goal to have. You think about the team last year finishing 27th, I think that’s another step in the right direction… Some things are out of our control, but winning, that’s something in our control. We’ve gotta win, and then I think those things will take care of themselves, from a ranking standpoint.
As a coach, how significant is your role in ensuring that your players are academically successful?
It’s huge. It’s everything to me. Football ain’t gonna last, and you see it all the time. Guys go off and have great careers and then you don’t hear anything about them, or they’re not getting jobs, and that’s a stigma I want to change. I don’t want our guys just to get degrees. There’s plenty of people getting degrees, but they’re not getting jobs or having a career. I want to try to change that. Rather than saying I have a 90-percent graduation rate, I’d like to say I have a 90-percent job-getting rate here at FAU.
We’ve got to do our part by preparing them to get real jobs, and not just letting them think that football is the only education they need. It’s much deeper than that. These guys have the rest of their lives ahead of them, and we’ve got to help teach them about understanding that. I think that’s part of being a coach and part of being a mentor, showing them the way and helping our guys get to where they’re trying to go in life.