EUGENE, Ore. -- For about five minutes Thursday, new Oregon football coach Willie Taggart went off script (if there was a script to begin with), which in and of itself was a new feeling for a program that has known its head coaches so well during the last four decades.
“I know many of you want to know, ‘Who is this Willie Taggart guy?’” he said. “Well, I’ll tell you about Willie Taggart.”
He became more animated and engaging. He spoke with his hands and inflected his voice. He told stories about his past -- how he was the youngest of five but the first in his family to graduate college; how he lost a state championship as a high school senior (it still eats at him). He joked about how his 17-month-old daughter was the most athletic in the Taggart family and referred to his wife Taneshia as “wifey.”
Taggart -- even during his introductory news conference -- was relatable and incredibly amicable, a few sentiments that weren’t always spoken of former coach Mark Helfrich (or his predecessors) during the last few seasons.
Maybe Helfrich, who came into the program in the shadow of Chip Kelly, never got to be himself. Maybe he was trying too hard be Kelly-like. Or maybe he wasn’t the fit that athletic director Rob Mullens saw as “right.”
Through the entire football season, Mullens turned down interview requests, only speaking once with the university’s radio station. He never fully backed Helfrich and his staff. And when the Ducks’ season ended with a loss to Oregon State on the road, he was nowhere to be seen in the news conference or near the team buses.
When the dust had settled and he appeared before the media after Helfrich’s firing, he made few comments that seemed concrete. But one statement was just that -- the next coach would certainly not come from the current staff. For the first time in 40 years, the Ducks would look outside of their program to find the next person to lead the team. And at no more important time since, Mullens believed the team to be on a “poor trajectory.”
The coaching search led him to conversations with coaches all over the country, but ultimately he found that match -- that trajectory-changing, noncurrent staffer -- at the opposite corner of the United States.
Taggart’s personality and coaching tutelage are divergent from what even lifelong Ducks have known, but even with that, he said he won’t go away from the identity the Ducks have established during the last decade.
“I’m going to learn more about the University of Oregon and make sure that we don’t necessarily get away from tradition but we expand on it and become better,” Taggart said.
The better part is what remains in question, but can be inferred to in terms of where he has been and from whom he has learned.
Taggart invoked Jim Harbaugh, a man he sees as a brother figure and coaching mentor, on Thursday when he said that everyone who’s involved with the program would attack each day with “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
As a man of the Harbaugh school, he can be expected to be a bit off the wall -- both in personality and playbook.
But as a former running backs coach under Harbaugh at Stanford, one who tutored Doak Walker Award winner Toby Gerhart, it’s fair to expect a sustained run game. South Florida fielded the fifth-best run game in FBS last season under Taggart, rushing for 291.8 yards per game. The Bulls’ 44 rushing touchdowns were third-most in FBS (and four more than mentor Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines accounted for in 2016).
He said he expects the offense to continue to be spread out, fast and up-tempo.
“It’ll be exciting, for sure,” Taggart said.
Defensively, Taggart didn’t commit to anything in particular except the fact that he wanted a defense that kept opponents out of the end zone. After university president Michael Schill said that his only advice to Taggart was to hire a good defensive coordinator after the rough defensive season endured by the Ducks, it seems fair to think that he’ll interview several candidates, considering USF gave up 482 yards per game in 2016 (just 36 yards fewer than Oregon).
Mullens described Taggart as the “right man at the right time” for Oregon. And though his personality and ability to disarm in news conference No. 1 might suggest that, it’ll ultimately be decided by the changes he makes and chooses not to make for the Ducks moving forward.
“We’ve got to continue to be creative; we’ve got to be different,” Taggart said. “When I look at the University of Oregon, I look at a program that’s different.”
But the question remains (and the one that is most important for Mullens moving forward): Will the result be any different now that the head man is? Consistency is ultimately what doomed Helfrich’s regime. Can Taggart find a better answer?