Everywhere you look across the college football landscape, there seem to be new coaches at tradition programs. Chris Low is touring the country to find out what's changed and how these new head men are working to meet expectations in their first year. Next up on his five-stop tour, Willie Taggart and the Florida State Seminoles.
Jump to: Stop 1, Florida Gators
Stop 2: Florida State
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - One of the first things Willie Taggart did during his initial preseason camp at Florida State was sit down with his players and coaches to watch the documentary film "The Bowden Dynasty: A Story of Faith, Family & Football."
Somewhere along the way, Taggart believes, this program lost touch with the Bowden legacy, and that's something the Seminoles' first-year coach is going out of his way to change.
"The biggest thing is pride, just bringing the pride back to Florida State University and teaching our guys and helping them understand the guys that came before them and why this place is so special and why it is what it is today," Taggart told ESPN. "I know when I got here, I sensed we didn't have that. I sensed our guys didn't understand. They understood the most recent history and most recent success, but not the success that started all of it. It was important to me that we educate our guys on that."
Taggart wants Bowden back around the program, and he's even hired Bowden's legendary former defensive coordinator, Mickey Andrews, to be his special assistant. Taggart, who grew up in Bradenton, Florida, as a huge FSU fan, has made a concerted effort to bring back former players. He said it really hit him how wide the disconnect had become when he was walking alongside former FSU star Deion Sanders one day soon after taking the job.
"Our players would walk by and be like, 'What's up, Coach T?'" Taggart recounted. "I'm like, 'Do you not see Deion Sanders walking next to me?' For me, that was the defining moment. Our guys didn't understand the path of the guys who came before them. I want our players to feel about Florida State the same way I did. They should. They go to school here. I didn't get a chance to go to school here. Take pride in this university again. The only way to do that is understand it."
Bowden said he plans to accept Taggart's invitation and come around the program more, even though, at 88, it's difficult for him to come to many of the games, especially with so many people wanting to talk with him, take pictures and get autographs.
"Ever since Willie's come here, he's done everything right," Bowden said. "When I say right, I mean it's what I would have done. He's bringing back the old guys. He loves Florida State. He loves being here. Everything fits."
Taggart joked that the real reason he wanted so many of the Bowden-era players to come back was to satisfy his own fandom.
"I had them back, selfishly, because a lot of those guys I wanted to meet," Taggart quipped.
The FSU players say they love Taggart's "swag," love the way he's even-keeled but always direct and also love the way he's instilled more of a family atmosphere in the program. "Our guys have to learn to play for each other," Taggart said. "As I watched the film from last year, I didn't see that. You'd talk to the guys and would notice that that wasn't what was going on. They have tons of talent here, but talent's not going to win us anything if we don't come together and play as a team."
All Cam Akers did a year ago was break Dalvin Cook's FSU freshman rushing record with 1,024 yards. He's already being mentioned in the Heisman Trophy talk for the 2018 season. The Seminoles' coaches also love redshirt freshman running back Khalan Laborn, who was begging to play in the bowl game last season even though he would have lost a year of eligibility. Laborn's ability to cut and change directions has been on full display this preseason.
Junior quarterback Deondre Francois said the most enduring lesson learned from last season's 7-6 finish was the importance of sticking together. "When adversity hits, leaders need to step up," he said. "Last year, I feel like we all shut down -- the leaders, the players, the newcomers, even some of the staff. We shut down as a program. Adversity is always going to hit. You can't run from it."
Taggart doesn't want to play two quarterbacks and thinks one guy will separate himself during camp. The one thing he did say was that Francois looks 100 percent healthy after tearing up his knee in the opener last season. "He put a move on somebody today where you were like, 'OK, he's back,'" Taggart said. Regardless of who wins the job, Taggart thinks the up-tempo offense will help the quarterback and offensive line.
Taggart's biggest concerns are depth on both the offensive line and at linebacker "We've got to do a good job as coaches teaching the game and not making it too confusing," Taggart said. "We've got some really talented players and need to let them play football and not slow them down by confusing them. The game's not that complicated. People complicate the game."
Bowden said he was glad to see Steve Spurrier coaching again in the new Alliance of American Football "because he loves coaching." But Bowden said he wants no part of Spurrier on the golf course. "I've played with him before. He wears me out. It's like two different games when he and I play. He makes you play every dadgum shot. He won't give you a putt like that," joked Bowden, holding his hands out about a foot apart.
Stop 1: Florida
Nothing like the first day in full pads, and Florida coach Dan
Nothing like the first day in full pads, and Florida coach Dan Mullen is right in the middle of it all. Video by Chris Low
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- If Dan Mullen has his way, the Florida Gators will be stretching their vocal cords this season.
One of the traditions he's bringing back to Florida in his first season as head coach is the team singing the school's alma mater and fight song after wins. So it goes without saying that the Gators have been brushing up on the words to both songs in meetings and after practice this preseason. At any time, a random player could be called on by Mullen to stand up and belt out a few lines.
"I might miss a verse every now and then, but I'm getting there," said Florida junior defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who will play the nickel or "Star" position in Todd Grantham's defense. "I feel like we're going to be singing the fight song and alma mater all 12 games during the regular season and then two more, and then after the season, one more during celebration week.
"We're going to be singing like a choir."
Steve Spurrier, who loved the tradition when he was coaching the Gators, is certainly on board.
"Every school ought to do it," said Spurrier, who broke into an impromptu rendition of the alma mater before adding that he sounded a lot better when he was singing with somebody.
Spurrier, who keeps an office in the Florida athletic complex in his role as ambassador, is also on board with Mullen's offense, which he believes will remind Florida fans of the one they grew accustomed to when the Head Ball Coach was piling up six SEC championships and a national championship with his Fun 'n' Gun offense in the 1990s. In Spurrier's office, a veritable treasure trove of memorabilia from his coaching and playing days, he has both of the game balls from his first game as coach at Florida and his last game as the Gators' coach.
They scored 50 or more points in both games.
"I'm not sure we've scored that many points combined in the last couple of years," Spurrier quipped in vintage fashion.
Mullen isn't naïve about how offensively-starved the Florida fans have been over the last few years.
"The Gator fans always associate fun with points, not always even winning," Mullen said. "It's fun winning with points. But Coach Spurrier did that because nobody has had more success than he has through the years at Florida, and he did it by scoring points. That's how Florida fans associate with winning -- scoring points. But I want our guys to enjoy playing and enjoy what it is to be a Florida Gator and have fun and look like they're enjoying life out there on the field. Once we start having fun on the field, I think our fans are going to start having fun and we're going to bring the fun back to Florida football."
Spurrier doubled down on his belief that there should be a zero-tolerance policy for coaches and players when it comes to any kind of domestic abuse or sexual assault. "That was one rule where there was no negotiating with me," Spurrier said. "There were other things where if it was his first offense, maybe we would suspend him a game or something. But that one, you were gone, and I let the guys know early and often that if you ever hit a girl or assaulted a girl in any way that you were finished. I wish it was an NCAA rule and that every college had it."
Mullen, who was a part of national championship teams at Florida in 2006 and 2008, isn't making a lot of promises. But he does promise one thing: Nobody's expectations are higher than his own. "I'm not a patient person," he said. "I expect to compete for a championship this year. That's just me. But I also know the expectations for this year's team and building the program long term, and they are separate entities. I understand it may take a little time to build the program to a championship level when you're competing every year for a championship."
Mullen has been tabbed as somewhat of a quarterback whisperer with his ability to evaluate and develop quarterbacks, and Florida fans are hoping that's the case now that he's back in Gainesville. The last five seasons, they have finished 102nd nationally, 79th nationally, 86th nationally, 106th nationally and 109th nationally in passing offense. "Our quarterbacks have talent, but we've got to mold the talent," Mullen said. "The one thing, to me, that I have learned with the quarterbacks is that it's not a quick fix. You're not going to develop a quarterback in six weeks or even in one season. ... There's not a magic wand or dust I can sprinkle on and they're all of a sudden going to be perfect. It's developed over time, but our guys have talent and the skill set."
Even though Mullen is a head coach with an offensive background, he's looking for defensive players and still thinks you win on defense, Grantham said. And that's refreshing for a defensive coordinator. "He gets it," said Grantham, who was with Mullen at Mississippi State last season. "He's an offensive guy, but he recruits defense. A lot of offensive guys are not like that. It's about the offense. But he really believes that one of the first things you have to do is play great defense if you're going to win a championship. He also calls the game that way, and what I mean by that is if you're playing good on defense and have a two-possession lead, he will shrink the game and you don't have to play a lot of plays, where some guys will just keep going and going."
Mullen said he plans to call the plays again on offense this season, but said it would be a team effort, especially with the familiarity he has with his staff. "We have an offensive staff that has worked together for a long time," Mullen said. "It's not just I call the plays and everybody else listens. Everybody has a lot of input to what we're doing on the field. ... There may be times that I'm clicking over and want to talk to the defense when we're on the field and say, 'Hey, Brian (Johnson) or Billy (Gonzales) or Jon (Hevesy), call the play. I've got to cover this with the defense.' Everybody is really in the same rhythm with what we're trying to do."