Willie Taggart opens up on new job, Florida State firing: 'I just didn’t have enough time'

Pete Thamel

BOCA RATON, Fla. – New Florida Atlantic coach Willie Taggart pulled out his cellphone during the first half of the Boca Raton Bowl on Saturday. He vacillated between bursts of being a proud father and bouts of parental guilt. He wondered whether the promising career of his oldest son, three-star quarterback Willie Jr., would be different if he hadn’t attended three different high schools in the past four years.

Willie Taggart got to watch Willie Jr. play just one series in the Florida North-South All-Star Game on Saturday up in The Villages before flying back to be at the Boca Raton Bowl. (Taggart didn’t coach in FAU’s 52-28 thumping of SMU, but spent the time traversing the stadium suites and pressing the flesh.)

In an expansive interview with Yahoo Sports, Taggart both dwelled on the lessons learned during his failed two-year tenure at Florida State and expressed optimism about what he can build at FAU. And the importance of family wove through the entire conversation, as Taggart said his days of chasing the next big job are on ice.

“Having been through what we’ve gone through, being at the top,” he said. “Had some really nice jobs at the top. It’s like you’re not chasing those things anymore. I’m thinking more about my family than me chasing my goals. I’m thinking about them now.”

There’s a good chance that Willie Jr., who has offers from Appalachian State and Arkansas, will come to FAU. Taggart regrets offering him early on at Florida State, which scared schools away who figured he’d just go and play for his dad.

But Taggart says that he’s been working hard on recruiting him to FAU, joking that he bought him a Camaro. “We moved him all over the place,” Taggart said. “He had three high schools in four years. Senior year [at Florida State University School], he finally got the nod and took his school to state for the first time in school history. He had a heck of a year.”

FAU Owls' newly hired coach Willie Taggart attends the Boca Raton Bowl between the Owls and SMU on Saturday. (Aaron Gilbert/Getty Images)
FAU Owls' newly hired coach Willie Taggart attends the Boca Raton Bowl between the Owls and SMU on Saturday. (Aaron Gilbert/Getty Images)

Taggart and his wife, Taneshia, have a 13-year-old son, Jackson, and a 4-year-old daughter, Morgan. After scurrying up the coaching ladder, trading coasts from USF to Oregon and back to Florida State, Taggart arrives at FAU ready to lock in for a run.

When the topic of Florida State came up, Taggart made clear he had no lingering bitterness. Taggart said that at age 43, his primary emotion is gratitude that he could return to becoming a head coach so quickly. He said he expects Mike Norvell to do a good job at FSU.

“We played a lot a freshmen and sophomores,” Taggart said. “I think they’re going to do a good job. I just didn’t have enough time to do it. But I think they’ll do a good job. I’m not bitter. It is what it is. I do think when changing the culture the way that we wanted to change it, it takes time. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that time. I’m happy now where I’m at. I’m happy and excited, and really excited to get rolling.”

Taggart impressed FAU officials by showing up at his job interview at the Conrad Hotel in Fort Lauderdale with a passion to return to the sport. FAU president John Kelly admired his drive. “It wasn’t lost on us that there was a really nice buyout,” Kelly said, referencing the nearly $18 million that Florida State owed Taggart upon his firing.

Taggart has yet to hire any of his FAU on-field coaches, as he said he’s spent much of the time since his hiring evaluating both the current roster and coaching staff. Taggart said that he’s yet to hire Jim Leavitt as the defensive coordinator, but did say that potential hire is “still in the works.”

Taggart said one of the takeaways from his struggles at Florida State is that he expects to have a heavier hand in running the offense at FAU. Taggart stopped calling the plays during his first season at FSU, and he says that’s something he wasn’t comfortable with.

“I think I got away from it, that’s probably what hurt me,” he said. “Everywhere we’ve been that we’ve had success, I’ve called the plays. I got away from that at Florida State. And so, if there’s anything different, I may get more involved. I got away from it. That wasn’t me. It didn’t work.”

Taggart made clear that what’s going to work best for the rest of his career needs to work best for his family. After the initial interview for this story, he pulled a reporter aside to show him the picture of Willie Jr. posing with the offensive MVP award from the North team at the North-South game. He brags that 13-year-old Jackson is already 6-foot-2, joking that he doesn’t let him stand next to him because he’s already taller than his dad.

Willie Taggart Jr. and Taneshia Taggart pose for a photo after the North-South All Star game on Saturday. Willie Jr. won the North MVP award in the game. (Photo credit: Taggart family)
Willie Taggart Jr. and Taneshia Taggart pose for a photo after the North-South All Star game on Saturday. Willie Jr. won the North MVP award in the game. (Photo credit: Taggart family)

Willie wants Jackson to have a more traditional high school experience. He told this to FAU athletic director Brian White, the son of Duke athletic director Kevin White. (Brian White is the brother of Florida basketball coach Mike White, UCF AD Danny White and SMU assistant AD Mariah Chappell.)

Brian White and Kelly both liked the idea of Taggart locked in for a long run and that he didn’t flinch from FAU’s Top 25 ambition. “We want to be here a long time,” White said. “That’s something that came up. We think that this is a place where we can build something special.”

Former coach Lane Kiffin is excited to see where the program – the “new UCF” – can go and said he’s appreciative of the players and opportunity FAU gave him. “The talent is a goldmine there, as you can see,” Kiffin said in a text message. “I can’t wait to see what they do to go to the next level, especially with the new facility.”

The goal at FAU is to follow the model Brian’s brother, UCF athletic director Danny White, is building at UCF – maximizing all the natural resources to build a Top 25 program. The facility Kiffin mentioned – the Schmidt Family Complex – cost more than $40 million for the athletics component. “We think we can do everything that they’re doing, in time,” Brian White said of UCF.

As redshirt sophomore quarterback Chris Robison, an Oklahoma transfer, was busy eviscerating SMU on Saturday with 305 passing yards, Taggart reveled in the fact that he’s inheriting a star quarterback. The next quarterback after Robison to help FAU could well arrive from the Taggart dinner table. And that would be another sign that both FAU and Willie Taggart have found what they’re looking for.

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