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  • Willie Taggart expected to be Oregon's head coach for years when he left for Eugene with Jimbo Fisher entrenched at Florida State. After returning to his home state once his dream job suddenly came open, Taggart knows he'll be judged by how sudden the Seminoles' improvement is.
By Andy Staples
February 12, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Willie Taggart could have answered every question on National Signing Day with the same phrase, but he knew that wouldn't satisfy everyone. So he expounded on a late recruiting charge that lifted the Seminoles out of the hole a coaching change had dug. But to Taggart, only three words mattered. So when he got a question about what he told players from the West Coast to make them more comfortable about moving across the country, he couldn't help himself.

"It's Florida State," Taggart said. To him, that answer didn't require elaboration. But he knew his audience needed more explanation, so he praised the staff and the current players for making the recruits from far away feel at home. But then, at the end of the answer, he came full circle. "But, again, it's Florida State," Taggart said.

"It's Florida State" means something different to Taggart than it does to the players he's recruiting, and he knows that. Anyone who grew up in Florida and played high school football in the 1990s, as Taggart did, can only think of Florida State one way. The baddest dudes in the universe went either to Tallahassee or Miami, and every year they played to determine who truly owned college football. Steve Spurrier and Florida changed the math as the decade went on, but when Taggart was playing at Manatee High in Bradenton in the early '90s, the Seminoles and the Hurricanes were the aspirational teams. And Taggart wanted to be a Nole. "Florida State back then," he said, "is what Bama is today."

Taggart's whole family cheered for Florida State. In middle school, he'd draw the No. 2 on a T-shirt so he could pretend to be Deion Sanders. He dreamed that one day Bobby Bowden would show up in his living room and offer him a scholarship. But that never happened. Taggart was a star quarterback at Manatee, but he wasn't big enough or fast enough for a program that had just been led to a national title by Charlie Ward, who was so blessed athletically that he won the 1993 Heisman Trophy and then went on to an 11-year professional career—in the NBA.

Taggart went off to play I-AA ball at Western Kentucky, but he always dreamed of someday getting to Tallahassee. Last week, Taggart sat in his office at Doak Campbell Stadium preparing to leave for a trip to Cancun that would serve as a thank-you to wife Taneshia, who had engineered two cross-country moves in a year. There are times, he admitted, when he still can't believe how it all happened. "I found my way in here," he said. And he smiled.

Taggart knows there are people who never will forgive him for leaving Oregon after less than a year in Eugene. He certainly didn't take the job with any idea that he'd have any reason to leave so soon. When Taggart left South Florida for Oregon in December 2016, the Florida State job had opened exactly once in 40 years. And it hadn't really opened then, either. Jimbo Fisher was the coach-in-waiting, and he succeeded Bowden as contractually decreed. Eight days after Oregon hired Taggart, Florida State announced that Fisher had signed an extension that would run through the 2024 season. "I thought I was going to be out at Oregon for a while," Taggart said. "Jimbo had just signed his new contract. Not in a million years did I think I'd be out there a year and this job would come open."

And then it did.

Taggart knew he had to go for it. If someone else took the job and succeeded, it might never open again in his working lifetime. Taggart liked Oregon, but a chance to come back to his home state to coach the program he grew up cheering for seemed too perfect to pass up. This was not Todd Graham, who left Pittsburgh after a year and called Arizona State his "dream job" even though nothing in his past suggested he'd ever dreamed of coaching the Sun Devils. Taggart had the receipts of his Florida State fandom scattered around his hometown of Palmetto. So he took the leap, knowing he'd also take the arrows. "You know you're going to get criticism," Taggart said, "but when you've been chasing something all your life and something you've worked really hard for, it shouldn't matter what anyone else thinks."

Back in Oregon, administrators and fans seethed because by leaving, Taggart had declared that he didn't consider Oregon a destination job. At the same time, Taggart soothed similar hurt feelings at Florida State. Until midway through the 2017 season, no one in Tallahassee dreamed a Florida State coach would ever leave for another college job. The last time that was a real possibility was 1979, when Bowden decided he'd take the LSU job if his Seminoles couldn't beat the Tigers in Baton Rouge. They did, and he wound up building a program that produced a streak of dominance—the Seminoles finished in the top four of the Associated Press poll every year from 1987 to 2000—that felt untouchable until recently.* The program dipped in Bowden's final decade, but Fisher had returned it to glory. The program seemed to be on that short list alongside Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma and a select few others that a coach would never willingly leave unless he was retiring or chasing an NFL dream. When Fisher did leave for Texas A&M, Florida State's administration and fans incurred significant psychological damage.

*Nick Saban's Alabama is on a similar run, but the Crimson Tide have five national titles since 2009. Bowden won two during that stretch, though it's fun to imagine how many he might have won had the College Football Playoff existed at the time. During that era, his teams tended to get stronger as the season progressed. Some of his teams that finished third or fourth in the final poll would have been a nightmare draw in a semifinal game.

The analytics say factors such as childhood fandom and alumni status mean little when it comes to coaching success, but Taggart's hire quickly reassured the stakeholders that there are coaches who consider Florida State a be-all, end-all job. Of course, none of that sentimental stuff will matter if Taggart's Seminoles aren't competing for the ACC title and a playoff berth by year two. Because Taggart is so aware of the history, he's also acutely aware of the standard. It is absurdly high, and with good reason. Florida State should compete for national titles regularly.

Taggart believes his teams can compete quickly. Dabo Swinney has built a monster at Clemson, but the Seminoles haven't fallen off a cliff. A popular bit of revisionist history has emerged in the past few months that Fisher actually did a mediocre job and only succeeded because Jameis Winston chose to play for him. That line of thinking is popular among Florida State fans who had their feelings hurt and fans of Texas A&M rivals who want to believe the Aggies wasted their money. Either way, it's pure hogwash. While it's true Fisher's final season in Tallahassee was terrible—partially because of the season-opening knee injury to starting quarterback Deondre Francois and partially because Fisher had his eye elsewhere—the Seminoles were managed quite capably for all but the final bit of Fisher's tenure. Taggart doesn't need to blow up the roster. He should be able to compete immediately with the players he has, and he knows it.

"We've got some toys," he said with a chuckle.

Taggart is most intrigued by how the Seminoles will take to his offense, which was born of necessity in 2015 when he was about to get fired at USF. He had come to Tampa running a West Coast offense similar to the one former boss Jim Harbaugh runs at Michigan. Taggart, who played for patriarch Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky and worked with Jim at Stanford, is regarded as the third Harbaugh brother, but he had to split schematically with Jim and John out of necessity. The offense Taggart created was a blend of the West Coast concepts he'd run his entire career married to formations and a communication structure modeled on the offense Baylor ran at the time. Play calls that resembled haikus were reduced to a word or a number. Receivers lined up wide of the numbers on both sides of the field. And it worked beautifully with tailback Marlon Mack and quarterback Quinton Flowers at USF. When quarterback Justin Herbert was healthy, he and tailback Royce Freeman put up huge numbers at Oregon.

But at Florida State, Taggart could conceivably go back to a pure West Coast offense. He now can recruit the NFL-caliber linemen required to block for such a scheme. That won't happen, though. "I don't think I'm ever going back," he said. He loves the simplicity of what he runs now. Players with limited practice and meeting time can still learn it quickly and play instinctively. Taggart remembers looking across the sideline during Florida State's 55–35 win at USF in 2016 and wondering how the offense might work if he had the caliber of athletes Fisher had. "Man," he remembered thinking, "I can only imagine having those horses trying to do some of this stuff."

Now he does. Even though the offense struggled after the injury to Francois, tailbacks Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick combined to average 5.4 yards a carry. If Mack and Freeman can flourish in this offense, Akers—a former five-star recruit with a better natural skill set than both—should blossom. The receivers group Taggart inherited was thin beyond Nyqwan Murray, so don't be shocked if some of the five receivers who signed with the Seminoles contribute as freshmen.

Taggart also has the luxury of a legitimate quarterback competition this spring. Francois was the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2016, but James Blackman got better with each passing week after he was thrust into action as a true freshman following the injury to Francois. Either one seems capable of running the offense, though it likely would look different depending on which quarterback Taggart chooses. Under Francois, it might look more like the Flowers-led USF offense. Under Blackman, it could look more like the Herbert-led Oregon offense.

Taggart said he has players dropping by his office frequently asking for a playbook. He's not handing them out yet. He wants the players to learn the offense from the coaches during spring practice installation. That way, they don't develop any bad habits trying to interpret an offense that they've yet to be coached through.

As Taggart explained all this, someone else dropped by his office.

"Trying to find some more players?" the visitor asked.

"Trying to find some more like you," Taggart replied. Then he gave former Seminole Jalen Ramsey a hug.

Ramsey would have fit right in on those Seminoles teams Taggart grew up idolizing. Now all Taggart has to do is exactly what he said to Ramsey during his visit: Find a bunch of players like Ramsey and convince them to play the way he did.

If he can, the Florida State job might not open for another 20 years.

A Random Ranking

The Winter Olympics are in full swing, and I've tried to set aside my aversion to tape delay to watch. Here are the top five competitions in the winter games.

1. Short track speed skating

Crashes galore.

2. Ski jumping

Hopefully, no one crashes. This looks absolutely terrifying.

3. Biathlon

Also known as training for the opening sequence of a James Bond movie.

4. Skeleton

Like luge, but headfirst!

5. Curling

I can sweep. I can release a giant stone. Perhaps if I'd been born in Canada, I'd also excel at shuffleboard on ice.

Three and Out

1. Last week, I examined how Alabama manages to handle so much coaching churn and keep winning at a historic rate.

2. SI.com's Bruce Feldman reported that former Florida coach Jim McElwain is a strong candidate to join Jim Harbaugh's staff at Michigan. The Wolverines have an opening because Dan Enos, who was hired earlier this offseason to coach receivers, left for Alabama last month.

3. New Arkansas coach Chad Morris certainly knows how to make an entrance on National Signing Day.

What's Eating Andy?

It's been a great month so far for guys who were the backup quarterbacks on AFC East teams in the '90s. Former Dolphins backup Doug Pederson led the Eagles to a Super Bowl win with help from offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who backed up Jim Kelly in Buffalo. Monday, Reich was hired to be the Colts' head coach.

This has to mean former VCU associate athletic director Scott Secules, who was a backup for the Dolphins and Patriots in the '90s, is going to be the hottest candidate in next year's NFL coaching carousel.

What's Andy Eating?

I've tried to like raw oysters. I truly have. Their mythology and their purported powers would seem to make them ideal for me. I love food with a story. I especially love food with a sexy story.

But there is nothing remotely sexy about swallowing a slimy bivalve along with all the other assorted bits that made their way inside the shell during the oyster's life. Do you know what is sexy as hell, though?

This cheeseburger.

Andy Staples

The good news for the people of Tallahassee is that the folks who get a rise out of raw oysters and the folks who get more aroused by cheese melting over stacks of beef can dine together in the same glorious dive. Bird's Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack brings land and sea together and then drowns it in beer for the least pretentious Surf 'N' Turf ever served.

Bird's immediately feels familiar, even for a newcomer. The bartenders know the regulars' orders, but they make first-timers feel as if they've been occupying stools for years. Last year, I recommended Madison Social, which is a gleaming, nearly new bar a few miles away. Madison Social also serves wonderful burgers. Oftentimes, that's the best option. But sometimes you don't want to eat and drink in an HGTV after photo. Sometimes you want a place where the men's room wall features a spirited debate about how to spell the plural form of the word that describes a certain part of the male anatomy. (Besides the word in question, everything else was spelled correctly. This is the level of lavatory discourse I'd expect at a bar just down the street from a large university.) There is room for both places, and a weekend that included a night at Madison Social and a night at Bird's likely would be considered a rousing success once the hangover wore off.

For someone like myself who can't take the texture, the only way to make raw oysters tolerable is to apply healthy doses of horseradish and hot sauce. In other words, the only way for me to enjoy the raw oyster is to make it impossible to taste the oyster. This seems counterproductive. But while I'm anti-raw oyster, I am not anti-oyster. When I visited Bird's, I ordered some baked with bacon and jalapeno on top. The texture issues that squelch my enjoyment of the raw version disappear during the baking process. I could eat dozens prepared this way, and I have on visits to Boss Oyster in Apalachicola. But not every visitor to Tallahassee has time to drive the hour to Apalachicola. Fortunately, those people have Bird's. This is especially important for those who do love raw oysters, because even the most enthusiastic slurpers of oysters don't often like to get too far from the water. At Bird's, those diners can feel safe knowing the oysters only took a short ride before reaching their gullets.

Andy Staples

My baked oysters served as the ideal appetizer for that monster, which was juicy, cheesy and decidedly unfussy. Bird's will stack as many 10-ounce patties as a diner will order, but it probably isn't wise to stack more than two. I nearly had to enter python-unhinging-its-jaw mode to eat this one, but it was worth every stretched ligament. Bird's gets its full name from the alleged qualities of the oysters, but that burger was the real aphrodisiac.

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