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.
“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.
“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.