A few weeks after Florida State named him the 10th football coach in school history in December, Willie Taggart was walking through a hallway at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, La., where the Seminoles were playing in a bowl game.
Accompanying Taggart was Deion Sanders, the iconic Florida State all-American cornerback whose uncommon athletic skills and flair for showmanship landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Some of Taggart’s soon-to-be players, however, didn’t recognize Sanders, only acknowledging their future coach, then in the early stages of his mission to restore the program’s national championship pedigree.
That journey continues Monday night when the No. 19 Seminoles host No. 20 Virginia Tech in an ACC matchup at Doak Campbell Stadium.
“They’re like, ‘What’s up, Coach T?’ and didn’t say anything to Deion,” Taggart said, recalling that stroll. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? Deion’s right here beside me.’ To me, that’s Florida State. That’s why all of us want to be there. We as coaches have to do a good job making sure they understand the tradition.”
Taggart referenced tradition frequently during the months following his hiring, even inviting legendary former coach Bobby Bowden to spring practice, and he recognizes the daunting assignment in front of him on the heels of last year’s turbulent 7-6 season.
The Seminoles narrowly avoided finishing with a losing record by beating Louisiana Monroe in the regular season finale — a game that was scheduled as the home opener but was later made up after being postponed because of Hurricane Irma — and then posting a 42-13 rout of Southern Mississippi in the Independence Bowl.
Before the regular season finale, coach Jimbo Fisher announced his resignation to take over at Texas A&M, leaving assistant Odell Haggins to finish out the season as interim head coach.
Florida State had won at least 10 games in each of the previous five seasons, hence, Taggart’s embrace of tradition.
“He emphasizes it every day,” junior defensive end Brian Burns said. “This is Florida State, as we always say, and you’ve got to live up to it. It’s an amazing tradition that’s before us.
“It’s bigger than us right now. It’s all about the tradition, the legacy.”
Taggart joined Florida State after one season at Oregon, where he went 7-5 and directed the Ducks to the Las Vegas Bowl. He also transformed the program at South Florida, leading the Bulls to a 10-2 record in 2016, the school’s first season with double-digit victories.
But Taggart’s dream job, by his admission, was some 260 miles northwest. Born in Bradenton, Fla., Taggart grew up a fan of the Seminoles with aspirations of playing college football in Tallahassee, recounting those dreams in a recent essay he wrote for the Players’ Tribune titled, “The Expectation.”
“I knew from the day he came in that he was going to be a perfect fit for us, just with everything he brings to the table,” sophomore running back Cam Akers said. “He came in and changed the culture back to the way it’s supposed to be, back to Florida State football.
“There’s a lot of accountability. We weren’t held accountable last year.”
Taggart made one of his most significant positional decisions when he tabbed junior Deondre Francois as the starting quarterback early last week. Francois had been in a three-way competition during training camp with sophomore James Blackman and redshirt freshman Bailey Hockman.
Hockman announced Thursday he would transfer, leaving Florida State with two scholarship quarterbacks.
Francois started all of 2016, completing 235 of 400 passes for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He started last season’s opener, but a knee injury in that 24-7 loss to No. 1 Alabama derailed his season. Blackman played the remaining 12 games.
“He’s handled it well,” Taggart said of Francois. “He blew my phone up, wanting to watch some film or [asking] how are we going to attack Virginia Tech, spending time with teammates all the time. This training camp is the most excitement I’ve seen from him, just being with his teammates and laughing and joking, and that’s great to see out there as well.”
Taggart has a history of mentoring quarterbacks, after his own distinguished career under center at Western Kentucky. He became a four-year starter for the Hilltoppers and had his jersey number retired following his senior year.
At South Florida, Taggart developed quarterback Quinton Flowers into the school’s career leader in passing and rushing touchdowns. Among Taggart’s imprints heading into this season: installing a spread formation similar to the one he ran with the Bulls.
“I think he recognized when he got to South Florida, just spread it out, use your athletes,” said Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo, who faced Taggart in the AAC and counts him as a close friend. “Also [he’s] a really good recruiter. He’s all over the place recruiting, so I know he’s going to do a really good job.
“He’s got a good system. If he can stick his pieces in there with athletes, he’s going to do well.”