Willie Taggart entered the room to applause, shook hands with his father, hugged his mother and waved to family and friends who turned his introductory news conference into a mini-pep rally.
South Florida’s new football coach made a name for himself as player and coach at Western Kentucky, but an opportunity to return home to the Tampa Bay area to try to rescue another struggling program simply was too good to ignore.
“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,” Taggart said Saturday after signing a five-year, $5.75 million contract to replace Skip Holtz, who was fired after the worst season in USF’s 16-year history.
“It wasn’t long ago USF was No. 2 in the country. It’s been proven that we can get there,” Taggart added. “What we have to do now is put everybody on the bus, put ‘em in the right seat and let coach T drive this bus!”
Taggart, 36, led Western Kentucky to a 7-5 record this season. The Hilltoppers, who appointed defensive coordinator Lance Guidry 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.
“We’ve got a winner in Willie Taggart. He’s young, dynamic, driven, innovative and successful,” said athletic director Doug Woolard, who led the six-day search for a successor with assistance from former NFL coach and Tampa resident Tony Dungy, who sat in on interviews with the finalists — another selling-point with Taggart.
“My vision is to win multiple championships in a first-class manner. That’s what we’re going to have about,” Taggart said. “Another thing we’re going to be about is we’re not going to bow down to no one. We’re going to go out and recruit the best to come here and be the best. ... There’s no reason we can’t do that.”