So what’s the secret to going from the hot seat to a contract extension in one season’s time? How do you convince a team -- and yourself -- to forget about a .250 winning percentage under your watch, continue to trust the blueprint, and then run off seven wins in eight games?
Any advice, Willie Taggart?
“You better go in understanding what we’re dealing with,” Taggart said. “That’s the world we live in now -- 1-3, I understood people were disappointed, but I couldn’t get caught up in it, because once you do that, then you’re in trouble; you can’t focus on what you’re trying to do. ... I thought our coaches did a great job of one, believing in our vision and our plan and sticking with it, and then selling it to our players, and that was a big part of the turnaround.”
That turnaround has landed South Florida in Monday’s Miami Beach Bowl, the program’s first bowl game since 2010. And the Bulls’ opponent, Western Kentucky, knows a thing or two about what can happen when Taggart turns the corner and gets everyone moving in the same direction.
Taggart left WKU, his alma mater, after the 2012 season, having posted consecutive 7-5 records -- the program’s first winning campaigns at the FBS level -- after a 2-10 debut in 2010. Jeff Brohm now has the Hilltoppers at 11-2 in his second year, behind an offense that puts up 44.2 points per game, which is fourth in the nation and tops among Group of 5 schools.
During its 7-1 stretch to close out the regular season -- which included routs of Syracuse, American Athletic East Division champion Temple and preseason AAC favorite Cincinnati -- South Florida posted 37.9 points per game, as quarterback Quinton Flowers found his footing and got Taggart’s “Gulf Coast offense” operating the way Taggart envisioned when he took over as play-caller before the season.
“All the guys got tired of losing,” said Flowers, a Miami Jackson High product who will be returning home for the bowl game. “After (a Sept. 19 loss at Maryland) we had a team meeting, only players. Everyone came together as a team and after that we all just played as a unit and we knew what we were capable of doing, and we did it.”
As a runner, Flowers trails only Houston’s Greg Ward Jr. in the AAC -- he is second in rushing yards (883) and tied for second in rushing touchdowns (10). His 21 passing touchdowns are third in the league.
A three-star prospect who seemingly had his choice of destinations, Flowers committed to Taggart two years ago because he was among the few who wanted him at quarterback and not wide receiver. The commitment spawned a memorable tweet from Taggart:
I just gave my my wife some Flowers and she said "you sure know how to pick em". GoBulls!!!! #DoSomething
— Willie Taggart (@CoachTaggart) October 19, 2013
Taggart’s wife, Taneshia, may also have been the first to know about the success to come this season. South Florida was 1-3 after a 24-17 loss to a Memphis team that had shared the league crown last year. It was the Bulls’ 21st defeat in Taggart’s first 28 games, but the coach says it was the first time he saw his players truly stung by a loss. He told Taneshia afterward that he thought his team would turn out OK, and USF did just that.
“I was sticking to it, wasn’t gonna waver,” Taggart said. “I had the blueprint. I knew it worked. For me personally, (I) don’t get caught up in all the outside noise. No one really understood what we were dealing with when we took over the job. There were a lot of issues that needed to be corrected and that was gonna take a while. For me, it was all about improving, and we had improved at everything within our organization -- the wins were the last thing to come.”
“We needed a quarterback,” he added. “That’s something we didn’t have when we took over the program, and I think we all know at every program: If you got a quarterback, you got a chance.”
Taggart shook up his staff in the offseason, bringing aboard defensive coordinator Tom Allen and offensive coordinator Danny Hope. The defense ranks in the top five in every major category in the AAC.
Offensively, the Bulls are within striking distance of school records for total yards (239 yards away) and points (49 away), which looks all the more attainable considering they posted 65 and 44 points on Cincinnati and Central Florida, respectively, in their final two games. They are seeking to match a program-best nine-win season. Their 2,915 rushing yards are already a school record.
The 39-year-old Taggart, a Harbaugh family disciple, interviewed for the South Carolina job before being rewarded with a three-year contract extension through 2020. With 23 first- or second-year players on its two-deep, South Florida's future is starting to resemble the vision Taggart mapped out when he took over before the 2013 campaign.
“It’s pretty cool because when you go back and you look, it’s like: ‘Geez, he’s a freshman, he’s a sophomore. He’s a freshman, he’s a sophomore,’ and you’re like: ‘Wow, I’m gonna have these guys around here for a while,’” Taggart quipped. “You talk about that vision and that plan, you start to see it all come together. We’ve got to continue to work to keep building because we’re not where we wanna be, but we see that we can get there if we can get back there and do some really extraordinary things around here.
“They always say South Florida is a sleeping giant. I think it’s waking up.”