TAMPA, Fla. — Willie Taggart is taking over as South Florida’s football coach after establishing himself as one of the nation’s top young prospects by turning around a losing program at Western Kentucky.
USF scheduled a news conference for Saturday afternoon to introduce the 36-year-old Taggart, who grew up in the Tampa Bay area before heading off to play and later coach at Western Kentucky. He replaces Skip Holtz, who was fired following the worst season in USF’s 16-year history.
Taggart led Western Kentucky to a 7-5 record this season. The Hilltoppers, who made defensive coordinator Lance Guidry the 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.
A former assistant at Stanford to Jim Harbaugh, Taggart takes over a program that went 16-21 under Holtz, who dropped nine of 10 games following a 2-0 start this season.
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-1990’s 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. Holtz 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.
Taggart inherits 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 they have finished last in the conference the past two seasons.
USF was 5-16 overall in the Big East under Holtz, who took over a program that Leavitt helped start. Taggart becomes the third head coach in the program’s brief history.
The Bulls went 8-5 and appeared in a bowl game for the sixth consecutive year in their first season under Holtz. But there was a pattern of underachieving that began even before he became coach in 2011, when USF won four straight to climb into the Top 25 before dropping seven of eight to finish 5-7.
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.
Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart said during a news conference in Bowling Green, Ky., that the Hilltoppers raised “sufficient private funds” to put together a contract offer in October that would have made Taggart the highest-paid coach in the Sun Belt Conference.
“He felt announcing a new contract during the season would be a distraction to the team and wanted to keep the focus on football. We respected that statement and mutually agreed to wait until the end of the regular season to discuss a new contract,” Stewart said. “This past week we again extended a term sheet that offered him a contract for him to become the highest paid coach in our conference. We were proactive and thorough in our efforts to retain him.”
Hilltoppers defensive tackle Jamarcus Allen said players were preparing to go home from practice when called a team meeting to reveal his plans.
“He came in and told us he got the job at South Florida and that he had to do what was best for him and his family. We completely understand that. He told us to continue to make history and be one of those 35 teams that win a bowl game,” Allen said.
“I was shocked and, I really hurt for the young guys because it’s probably hard for them to transition,” Allen added. “I just know that us group of seniors has been through so much and we know how to handle it. I just know we’re going to put our arms around these younger guys and help them get through it.”