Monday, December 10, 2012

Shouldn't South Florida be good?

So South Florida has a coach. It's Willie Taggart, who was expected to be among the frontrunners for the Kentucky job way back when but didn't get serious consideration and then dropped off the face of the coaching-search Earth until Friday night:
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Willie Taggart has been hired 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.

The 36-year-old 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 will make their first bowl appearance against Central Michigan in the Little Caesars Bowl.
Western Kentucky was quite possibly the worst program in the country when Taggart took over. I distinctly remember buying the Athlon preview magazines that had Western Kentucky on the very last page of actual copy, meaning, "It's OK if you don't read this page because this team is totally and completely irrelevant and awful." To be more specific, Western Kentucky had lost 20 straight games (!) as of the start of the 2010 season, at which point Taggart left Stanford (where he'd been running backs coach for Toby Gerhart, et al) to come back to the only other place he'd ever coached. Yes. The guy played at Western Kentucky, moved right into a job as receivers coach, then worked his way up to assistant head coach/offensive coordinator over the next seven years before getting a job on Jim Harbaugh's staff at Stanford (presumably due to a relationship established when Harbaugh was working as a consultant on his dad's staff at WKU after retiring as a player). Some basic addition indicates that he's now 36; dang.

Anyway, Western Kentucky went from 0-12 in 2009 to 2-10 in Taggart's first year to 7-5 last year to 7-5 this year, with one of those losses to Alabama and the other four by a combined 18 points. Granted, the Sun Belt is thoroughly terrible, but it's all relative.

And really, that's been South Florida's problem recently: Even in a terrible conference, USF has gone 2-14 in conference play since the middle of Skip Holtz's first season. I know: 2-14! In the Big East! South Florida went from 8-5 to 5-7 to 3-9 under Holtz, with the latter number being totally inexplicable for a team picked to finish either first or second by pretty much every coach/media-type person.

I will now Ctrl+C/Ctrl+P from my Holtz postmortem since I'm lazy and the stuff I wrote a couple weeks ago is all still relevant:
There was an almost-linear trend of regression under Holtz, who took over after the Jim Leavitt weirdness and inherited a team that had gone to five straight bowls and had finished with at least eight wins in each of the previous four seasons. So he got a good-ish program and went 16-21 in three years, won a total of five conference games and took a seemingly decent team straight to the bottom of the crappy Big East this year, which is to say he pretty much massively underachieved.

The Big East thing was really what mattered. I mean, there are some obvious inherent disadvantages at a not-exactly-tradition-laden school like USF, but those mean little in the Big East, where everybody is comparably mediocre and UConn can go to the Orange Bowl. Losing to Florida State? Whatever. Being not even vaguely competitive against Temple and Pitt? Not whatever.
Actually, USF doesn't even have the "inherent disadvantages" that are extant at the UConns of the world; there's the Tampa metro locale, the new-ish NFL stadium, the above-.600 all-time winning percentage, etc. Winning (at least winning to some reasonable degree) at USF isn't that hard; it can't be any harder than winning at Western Kentucky, anyway.

A related quote from Taggart at his hiring presser:
"I always said I wouldn't leave WKU unless I had a chance to go and win a national championship, and I truly believe that can be done here. It wasn't long ago USF was No. 2 in the country. It's been proven that we can get there."
He's right: South Florida was 6-0 and ranked second in the country just five years ago before losing three straight by a total of 15 points en route to a 9-3 finish. And considering that there were no unbeatens that year and only one viable one-loss team (Ohio State), South Florida unquestionably would have played for the national title by just beating Rutgers, UConn and Cincinnati. Again, that was five years ago. To be clear, winning a national title out of the Big East is gonna be a lot harder going forward since, I mean, the Big East is now Conference USA, but it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility, nor is getting to the Orange Bowl on a semi-regular basis.

FWIW, Taggart is a pro-style guy all the way since he wants to be (philosophically and in every other way) Jim Harbaugh:
"I tell people today that ever since I met Jim Harbaugh, my life has been going nowhere but up. Ever since then, I've been trying to be like him -- a coach like him, a father like him, a brother like him, everything like him. And it's gotten me to this point."
Probably not a bad way to go from a coaching standpoint considering that Harbaugh's gone from an unpaid assistant at Western Kentucky to head coach at San Diego (the FCS one) to head coach at Stanford to head coach of the 49ers.

The stats don't necessarily demonstrate offensive amazing-ness, but keep in mind that (a) Western Kentucky and (b) pro-style offense. And there was notable improvement each year, with the rankings in total yards and points going from 98th and 90th in 2010 to 89th and 89th in 2011 to 71st and 67th this year and the rushing offense finishing in the top 40-ish each year. The defense improved in a similarly linear fashion, BTW.

Given South Florida's general awfulness on offense the last few years, even a respectable running game would be something and would probably yield overall decency, and in the Big East, that's really the only necessary step between crappiness and the Orange Bowl.

Whether USF can make that second step is another matter, but the data and anecdotal support from Tony Dungy and the Harbaughs and the like indicate that Taggart probably knows what he's doing in terms of program development. Is he Jim Harbaugh? Probably not. That "probably" is necessary, though; I don't see any reason USF can't do in the Big East what Stanford's been doing in the Pac-12, in which case USF and Boise State would probably play for eleventy straight conference titles. And in the much-more-likely scenario in which Taggart is just a pretty good coach who isn't Jim Harbaugh, USF will probably still be better (via the aforementioned consistency in the run game and on defense) and thus a contender-type entity in the Big East, as that program should be. Make it so, guy who's barely older than I am.


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