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The Willie Taggart Effect

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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With a new, up-tempo coach, Florida State is back to getting after it. Under Willie Taggart, it's garnet-and-go.

Well, Deion said, 'you look good, you play good, you play good, they pay good' so the swag has to be there. With 'Tag', that's mandatory, you have to have swag on the field, you got to just be you."
~Cam Akers

There is a different energy at Florida State, a palpable momentum behind one of college football's most dominant powers ever.

Though the talking points are completely fresh, the stories told are the legends of yesteryear, tales of a time when the Seminoles finished in the national top five an unfathomable 14 seasons in a row and won an unprecedented 12 ACC titles in 14 years. It's unique for a program to have such positive traction after a disappointing season and a high-profile coaching change; here, however, the new name enters with an affinity for Florida State's past, a plan for its future and a magnetic brand all his own.

A Bradenton-Florida native, Willie Taggart grew up a fan of Bobby Bowden's Seminoles, competing, even, against future Florida State great Peter Warrick in grade-school. Taggart, watching and learning, was part of the program long before he led it. Following an All-American career as a quarterback at Western Kentucky, and stints as an assistant at his alma mater and Stanford, Taggart climbed the ladder as the head of the Hilltoppers, South Florida and, most recently, Oregon. Through it all, there was great opportunity; then there was Florida State. 

Representing the Seminoles at the only new head coach at the 2018 ACC Kickoff, Taggart was quick to embrace expectations, a mindset that has resonated with his new team.

"My vision for this program is to win multiple championships in a first-class manner. That's our vision. That's going to always be our vision," Taggart stated. "To me that's what Florida State is all about, and that's what I grew up watching and loving when it came to Florida State football. Every year they were competing for a championship, and every year they were winning. That's our goal. That's our vision, and that's why we all come to Florida State University is to win championships."

That message is rejuvenating a program that was uncharacteristically out of sorts a season ago.

Since being introduced in Tallahassee and taking over after Odell Haggins' excellent interim stint, Taggart has hit the ground running. He assembled an impressive coaching staff, including keeping and promoting the beloved Haggins. Taggart tirelessly took his pitch to the recruiting trails and made a major statement, success which is only continuing. As discussed at the ACC Kickoff, Taggart upped the accountability for the players on the roster and made it a point to improve team chemistry and cohesion. He also restored a sense of urgency.

With a new, up-tempo coach, Florida State is back to getting after it. Under Taggart, it's garnet-and-go.

Taggart is engaging, with an affable, captivating personality. Like many other high-profile head coaches, Taggart has an aura that follows like a shadow; his is welcoming and upbeat. There is also a meticulous focus to Taggart, a passion that drives him forward. Just 41 years old, Taggart is confident and cool, dynamic and determined. Above all else, he looks like a man ready to take Florida State back to where it belongs.

Already, he has stirred the Seminoles.

"It's been great having Coach Taggart around, with the energy he brings and the enthusiasm," nodded star running back Cam Akers. "You can't do anything but go with it and pick up on it, so having him around, that's been a great, great experience."

From Taggart on down, Florida State has a new resolve. Whether offensive coordinator Walt Bell, defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett, position coaches or support staff, the theme as fall camp approaches is a more optimistic one. Such passion was reflected in a spring game celebration that featured over 60,000 fans and over 300 former Seminoles on the sidelines, including legends from Derrick Brooks and Deion Sanders to Bobby Bowden and Warrick. The strength in those names and numbers is very real.

Even as change continues to settle on campus, excitement continues to rise. Quickly, Taggart has recovered and reorganized things so that, despite the six losses from 2017, there is a belief that a bounce-back performance is well on the way. Attitude can play a key role in any transition; there was a notable enthusiasm on display in Charlotte.

"There is a lot of energy, there is nothing but positivity with this new staff," returning sack leader Brian Burns added.

What is remarkable to think about is that Taggart is only Florida State's third full-time head football coach in 42 years. Simply for point of reference, rival Miami has had 13 in that same span. No major program in the country has experienced less turnover over the last four-plus decades. With that stability has come great achievement as the Seminoles have made 36 consecutive bowl games.  

Both of Taggart's predecessors, the legendary Bowden and recently-departed Jimbo Fisher, won national championships. Bowden is one of the greatest figures in the history of college sports and Fisher just signed the richest contract the game has ever seen. There are markers and monuments to what they accomplished all over and around Doak Campbell Stadium. 

Taggart isn't just stepping into big shoes, he's sprinting in them already.   

"Willie Taggart reminds me an awful lot of a young Bobby Bowden and a younger Jimbo Fisher," long-time voice of the Seminoles Gene Deckerhoff pointed out. "If you want one word: E-N-E-R-G-Y."

Before winning any games, Taggart has both laid the infrastructure in place to make sure that he does and endeared himself to the people that have helped make the expectations what they are. Taggart, a Florida State fan himself, has gone the extra mile to intertwine his emotions with those of the Seminole supporters. Even this early on, there is a deeply shared pride between Taggart and the fan base.

The common heartbeat sounds a whole lot like a beating drum.

"In the closing 2-3 minutes of the spring game, Coach Willie Taggart became the first head coach in Florida State history to do a complete circle running around the stadium, giving high fives and handshakes to fans who were leaning over the railing," Dekerhoff continued. "I've never seen that before in my life. Another thing to make Seminole faithful appreciate Willie even more."

One of Taggart's first priorities was to reach out to the individuals that made Florida State what it is today. Taggart made it his mission to include Bowden in team activities and get the iconic leader back involved with the program. In doing so, he only strengthened the relationship between what has been and what could be. Bowden's presence in the facility has been, to many, inspiring.      

"Third week of practice, he invites Coach Bobby Bowden to come back to practice. First time Coach Bowden had been to a Florida State practice since 2009," Deckerhoff recalled. "There was a hush over the indoor practice facility. The team all kneeled down, they stopped practice. Bobby talks to the team. In the back, Odell Haggins and Mario Edwards, two guys that played for Bobby and had great success with Bobby, I thought I saw them tearing up."

Most importantly, Taggart's legend is still growing in the locker room.

Promoting detail and order, Taggart, younger than many of his player's parents, has also been able to make football fun. There is an extra pep in the step of the Florida State players as kickoff approaches. This off-season, these Seminoles have been all smiles. A more affirming mantra is now the status quo. Man-to-man, there is a shared belief that Florida State is moving in the right direction and, literally and figuratively, doing so in a hurry. 

From incorporating potential uniform options to his social media engagement, Taggart is intertwining his personality into his program. The players are following suit.

"Well, Deion said, 'you look good, you play good, you play good, they pay good' so the swag has to be there," Akers smiled. "With 'Tag', that's mandatory, you have to have swag on the field, you got to just be you."  

Fittingly, Taggart's official debut will be as high-profile as it gets; a primetime, stand-alone showcase against Virginia Tech on a Labor Day Monday night. Anticipation has long been building. It's a moment that Taggart has been thinking about for quite some time. In preparation, he and the entire FSU staff continue to put in the work. Fall camp in Tallahassee will be interesting and invigorating, alike.  

Taggart and his team are primed and ready. So, too, is 'Nole nation.  

"Seminole faithful, they are as excited about the 2018 football season as they have been, in my opinion, in 42 years and that is when Bobby Bowden was hired in 1976 to be FSU's head coach. I've never seen this much excitement," Dekerhoff concluded. "Willie Taggart is the real deal, the Seminole family loves him, now let's go win a championship. He grew up a Seminole." 

Though Taggart has yet to win a game in Tallahassee, he has won over the team and the fan base, won all of his press conferences, won key recruiting battles and is winning the off-season as well. More of the same, as the season approaches, appears to be out in front.

Taggart is not new to Florida State, he just has a new role. From every angle, it looks like a perfect fit.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports