By RALPH D. RUSSO
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Decades of Florida State football dominance is displayed on the walls just outside of Willie Taggart’s office. Trophies and plaques commemorate All-America players and championship teams. Lots of them.
Off to the side, in a poorly lit corner, next to two chairs and a couch that serve as a waiting area for visitors, is the 4-foot tall trophy the Seminoles received for winning the 2017 Independence Bowl. The bronze eagle, clutching an American flag in its talons, is the last piece of hardware from the previous regime at Florida State, though former coach Jimbo Fisher had already begun his new job at Texas A&M when the ’Noles beat Southern Mississippi in Shreveport to cap an otherwise dreary season.
Unlike the trophy, most of what Fisher left behind was impossible to miss in Taggart’s first year as Florida State coach.
Flawed roster. Mentally fragile players. Academic and off-the-field problems.
It all looked very familiar to Taggart. He stepped into similar situations earlier in his career at Western Kentucky, South Florida and Oregon. Florida State needed far more than a little sprucing up. This was a full-on rebuild, and the Seminoles’ first losing season in 42 years only served to drive that home.
Taggart takes responsibility for last year’s 5-7 finish, but he remains confident in his plan to get Florida State back on track because it has worked before and this year’s Seminoles are giving indications it will again.
“The trust is there that wasn’t there before,” Taggart said. “And usually that’s typical: When taking over a program one of the hardest things to get is the trust, and really you don’t know whether it’s there or not until you get into the season and you get to playing. So from that standpoint it’s night and day with our team compared to this time last year. Just the whole culture of what we’re trying to build is totally different.
“Last year they were trying to understand what kind of culture we want, while also trying to get over a culture that they had. So you had to fight through that a lot last year especially when things didn’t go your way.”
Things have rarely gone Florida State’s way since a much-hyped season-opener in 2017 against Alabama. The Seminoles entered No. 3 in the country, but the Crimson Tide manhandled them. Starting quarterback Deondre Francois was lost for the season with a knee injury and the team spiraled. By November it became apparent Fisher was looking to leave — which he did before the regular-season finale, a rescheduled game against Louisiana-Monroe.
Taggart was concerned about how a team that appeared to fold in 2017 would handle adversity. The answer came 30 minutes into the Labor Day night 2018 opener: Not well.
“I talked to our guys in spring about the Virginia Tech game. What if we’re down 21 to zero? How are we going to respond? It’s like I spoke it into existence. I should have shut up,” Taggart said.
Florida State mostly played uninspired and unorganized in 2018. There were familiar red flags even before that.
At his previous stops, Taggart said, problems “socially and academically” portended poor play. Florida State had both.
“Where this was different here was because all the other programs I had taken over the head coach had gotten fired. Where this one the head coach didn’t get fired, he left. And that was different even for me in taking over the program because our kids was hurt,” Taggart said.
Florida State’s football team ranked last in the FBS in the most recent Academic Progress Rating, perilously close to being subject to NCAA sanctions. Part of that was players leaving early to pursue professional careers, but Taggart said some of the players who departed after the 2017 season were in danger of not being eligible had they come back. He also said he was persuaded to stick with some players who were disciplinary problems because dismissing them could further drag down the APR.
Francois, in particular, dealt with several off-field issues in 2017, but still began the season as the starter. He was dismissed from the program in February.
Taggart was setting different expectations for players and the buy-in, especially among upperclassmen, was tenuous.
“You want to graduate from Florida State University. You want to go to the NFL. We’re going to hold you accountable to doing those things and what it takes in order to do those things,” he said. “One is going to class. One is not being involved with the police. You know it’s just putting the program above yourself and I don’t think we did that.”
Taggart has made changes, too. He forced himself to step away from his comfort zone of calling the offense. He brought in Kendal Briles, formerly the offensive coordinator at Baylor and Houston and son of Art Briles, to run things this year. Taggart said he needed to be more involved with the whole team and entire staff.
“He’s everywhere during practice,” defensive tackle Marvin Wilson said. “Coach comes into more of our meetings now.”
Signs heading into Year 2 have been more positive at Florida State. Taggart said 24 players had at least a 3.0 grade-point average in the spring semester. Offseason workouts have been better attended and Taggart said he sees players at the facility more often this year.
“Everybody’s left their selfish attitude at home,” Wilson said.
At a recent meeting with team leaders to discuss how coaches can better support players, quarterback James Blackman — unprompted — asked: “What extra work are we going to put in? How are we going to help things get better? What steps are we going to take to make the team become the team we know we can be?”
“I was just trying to make them understand that we’ve got to push the issue,” the redshirt sophomore explained. “We really shouldn’t lean on the coaches.”
Fixing the culture doesn’t necessarily patch holes in the roster, especially along the offensive line, where time is needed to replenish depth and talent. The hope is Briles’ system can mask some of the deficiencies.
One bad season was enough for some Florida State fans to lose faith in Taggart, who signed a six-year, $30 million contract when he was hired in December 2017.
Athletic director David Coburn said the department ran a $3.6 million deficit in the last fiscal year. The department is looking at breaking even for 2018-19, but Coburn said another “really tough” year is coming. It would cost FSU about $17 million to fire Taggart after two seasons at a time when the booster association is working toward raising $100 million for long-overdue football facility upgrades.
The hiring of Coburn in May appears to give Taggart a powerful ally. The 67-year-old with three degrees from Florida State had previously served as chief staff to the university president before taking over as interim AD after Stan Wilcox left to join the NCAA last year. A recent restructuring of athletics and the booster association creates a clear line of decision-making for Florida State that seems to give the AD more power. Coburn downplayed that aspect. He said his job is to provide stability, support and open lines of communication for Taggart.
A close working relationship between football coach and AD is something Florida State lacked even during the most successful years of Fisher’s tenure as Bobby Bowden’s successor. It didn’t keep the ’Noles from winning three straight ACC championships and the 2013 national title, but when things started to slip, the cracks in the foundation of the program quickly became fault lines.
“I just think that the biggest thing is there is a complete culture change, as well as all the schemes changing, and I think Willie realized the culture thing would be an issue. I’m not sure he realized how serious an issue it was going to be,” Coburn said. “Certainly, I don’t think any of us in administration realized what the impacts would be on the field of those two issues.”
The good news for Taggart is he has far more talent at his disposal at Florida State than at any previous stop. The Seminoles have a long way to go to catch national champion and Atlantic Coast Conference division rival Clemson, but the rest of the ACC should be within reach this season.
“We have talent, but we didn’t play up to that. We didn’t have a team,” Taggart said. “We now understand how important being a team, how important playing for your teammate, is. We always tell our guys: ‘The way you play should be a gift to your teammate.’
“They have to play for one another. They have to like each other in order for this to work.”