Willie Taggart smiles and says he is done talking about 2018, exuding optimism as he looks forward to the season ahead.
But it doesn’t mean that Taggart didn’t learn a lesson, the hard way, about how to manage his time and how to delegate. Taggart knew he had to make changes going into Year 2 at Florida State. Not just because of the 5-7 record – it was how he evaluated the players, the assistants and the head coach.
Yes, how he viewed his role in the program.
Taggart knew he had the chance to make a significant hire with offensive coordinator Walt Bell moving on to become the head coach at UMass. When Taggart chose Kendal Briles as his new offensive coordinator, it was a sign that the head coach realized the complexity and time constraints of his job as FSU’s coach and found a solution.
“I spent more time with the defense this spring, been able to talk through things, talk about what offenses do and why they are doing those things,” Taggart said on his spring booster tour. “But it allows me to get around our entire team, and something that if I had to go back I probably would have done at the beginning, something that our football team needed. They needed me. My entire team needed me, not just the offensive side of the ball. I took that for granted.
“When I came in I took it over like I did any other job that I took over. But this was different. The situation was different.”
Taggart delegated to Briles, giving him the keys to the offense. In practices, Taggart was able to roam from position group to position group and observe while offering advice. He was able to sit in on various position meetings instead of focus so much on the offensive side of the ball.
While Taggart had been a head coach at Western Kentucky, South Florida and Oregon, he had developed plans for how to coach and how to lead. But in many ways, taking over at FSU has taught him how to be a better CEO.
Taggart reinvented his offense at USF, moving toward the up-tempo spread in 2016. The results were nothing short of impressive as the Bulls were No. 4 in scoring offense (43.8 points per game) in 2016 and Oregon was No. 18 in scoring (36 points) in 2017.
But after the promise of Lethal Simplicity, and the delivery of far less as the Seminoles generated just 21 points per game in 2018, Taggart knew that change was necessary. And that he was part of the change, giving up play-calling responsibilities to Briles.
“I think last year my ego was telling me, ‘No, don’t give it up, coach.’ But my instincts were telling me that I should,” Taggart said. “And it was the first time that I was going against my instincts because of my ego. I pushed my ego out of the way for the betterment of the team and I think it’s going to pay off big time for us.”
These are candid comments from a coach who took time to reflect, evaluate and seek solutions. While coaches are busy in the offseason – there are two signing periods, offseason conditioning, spring practice, junior days and camps – part of the time is allocated to self-evaluate.
That evaluation has proven to lead to better results in Taggart’s second year at previous schools. Western Kentucky made a big jump, from 2-10 in 2010 to 7-5 in 2011. South Florida went from 2-10 in 2013 to 4-8 in 2014, which may not look all that impressive on paper. But the results show that the Bulls lost to Maryland by a touchdown and had road losses to No. 13 Wisconsin and No. 25 Memphis.
“Going back to when he first came in, he brings a sense of hard work and accountability to get where you need to go,” said Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle, who developed into an all-Sun Belt player at WKU. “And sometimes it takes a year for the players to develop and understand what he’s wanting. And after a year of working hard and maybe not winning games but you’re getting the culture and understanding the culture.
“It really jumped for us going into that year 2 because the players were more understanding of what he was looking for and we were able to have success.”
Doyle mentioned culture and it’s clear that the Seminoles also needed time to build trust with the coaching staff, something Taggart has emphasized throughout the offseason.
“Everybody’s got to trust each other and what we’re doing and it helps when you have a whole year and you understand each other a lot better,” Taggart said. “It’s easy to trust when you have more time to spend with them, to build those relationships.”
Quarterback James Blackman was among the Seminoles who agreed, saying “you have to build that as we go.”
“I feel like the chemistry is getting a lot better and we are understanding the coaches a lot more,” Blackman said this spring. “Our coaches are understanding us a lot more. I feel like we are coming together as a family, a real big family.”
FSU players felt more confident and comfortable this spring. The spring of 2018 was a whirlwind as the Seminoles made the transition from a pro-style offense to a no-huddle spread. With a year under their belts, they knew what to expect.
From Taggart to the assistants and the players, there is a sense that the struggles of 2018 were a learning lesson and could also be the foundation for the program’s success in 2019 and beyond.
“I’ve been with coach Taggart for nine years,” linebackers coach Raymond Woodie told fans on National Signing Day. “That first year, we’ve been to four universities, and that first year is always that ‘sputter’ year. But I tell you what, that second year, now we got it figured out, we want to see who has bought in and who has bought out.
“Just like an airplane going down the runway, we take off. I want you guys to just relax, we appreciate you supporting us and we’re going to be ready to go.”