Maybe people now will understand, realize and appreciate what a masterful job Jim Leavitt did in such a short time in building University of South Florida football from the ground up. This program was born in the mid-90s, hired Leavitt in December of '95 and played their very first game two Septembers later.
Leavitt had his quirks and allegedly did something during halftime of a game that cost him his job.
The Bulls had to move on and hired Skip Holtz. What a disasterous decision that was by former Bulls athletic director Doug Woolard. Holtz single handedly wrecked what Leavitt had built. Sure there was a win in South Bend and a Bowl victory along the way, but incompetent recruiting depleted the Bulls and the losses added up quickly.
For USF, they are hoping the third time is the charm.
Enter Willie Taggart. The new head coach has been on the job for roughly 18 months, as he was named head coach at the University of South Florida on December 7, 2012. The rebuilding process is well on its way, as Taggart and his staff try and reconstruct the USF roster. I don't think people quite realize just how poorly the Bulls recruited under the previous regime.
"Considering where the program was when we arrived, we are still a work in progress but have made great strides," Taggart said. "We finished recruiting on a high note and will continue to recruit at a high level. Over time as we develop the players that are here and add top talent to the roster, it is inevitable that we will turn this program in to a championship caliber team. Expectations cannot be realized until the issues are fixed."
Lets be honest here, he has had two recruiting classes but truly only one was really his. You can never really count the first class for two reasons. No. 1, any new coach at any program, always has a short recruiting window to evaluate, recruit and sign that very first class. Taggart had less than two months. This holds true no matter your name. It could be Saban, Miles or Meyer. The first class is always the hardest.
Second, folks need to remember that Taggart inherited a handful of Holtz commitments. If you don't honor those pledges it can become a public relations nightmare. That's not a way to start, especially if you are Taggart, who has a major rebuilding project on his hands.
For Taggart and company the formula is simple, recruit your backyard. He's from the area and played his high school ball at one of the local powers, Bradenton Manatee. While the head coach at Western Kentucky, he had the Hilltoppers recruiting the Sunshine State extraordinarily well. Now in Tampa, it's this area that he wants to dominate his roster.
And it should. For the Bulls, they want to pull most of their recruits from Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Bradenton-Sarasota, Southwest Florida and up the I-4 corridor to Orlando. That's a population of almost nine million and a ton of good football prospects.
"It is critical," Taggart said. "The Tampa Bay area is football. I am a product of this environment. I know if we keep the Tampa Bay talent here at USF, we will compete for national championships on a yearly basis. Imagine if the majority of the top football players in the Tampa Bay area said they wanted to stay home and represent ‘the Bay'? It would change how we see college football in Tampa. That is my plan. That is my vision for USF football."
If that's the case then the Bulls are off to a great start. Their 2014 class followed Taggart's mantra of recruiting locally. USF signed 17 recruits from the "Tampa Bay area" or the areas discussed above. The Bulls also did well in south Florida, where they landed arguably the biggest named blue-chipper in the history of their program in quarterback/athlete Quenton Flowers (Miami Jackson).
Taggart's first season was disappointing one. The Bulls only won two games. It was a rough first fall to say the least. You can say that they hit rock bottom. Now there's only one way to go and that's up. Honestly though, this staff was dealt a bad hand but had to deal with it.
"If you look at where we started, and what we were up against, wins and losses is not the way to judge last season," Taggart said. "We had to exercise the demons, change the culture. We had to install all new schemes and build trust throughout the entire program. We began the ‘Chase for Greatness'. Even though we struggled at times we did taste a little excellence to know we are on the right track."
Like any new regime, Taggart needs the right pieces, offensively, defensively and on special teams. They should be much better this year.
"I expect to see significant improvement out of our offense," Taggart said. "We had a great spring. That was very encouraging. We have some young guys on defense that are very athletic. They now have some experience and I am looking forward to seeing them take it to the next level.
"With six freshman starting at least one game and good handful of other freshman contributing, we feel those experiences will help us this season."
One class will not make a championship. It's takes a series. It takes recruiting consistency. That's what this staff must do to create the winner in Tampa that Taggart envisions. Yeah, the Bulls are blessed to be smack dab in the middle of the Sunshine State. But battles loom on all fronts. First, they have to contend with Florida, Florida State and Miami. FAU and FIU are upstarts down south and their I-4 rival UCF, is coming off an historic season. And lets not forget that every college football program outside of the Sunshine State heads to Florida to try and pull their share of recruits.
Recruiting is not easy. It's brutal. It's hard work and it's working hard each and every day of the year. It's about getting kids on campus. And if you can't get them on campus, you have to get to them.
A hot topic in college football right now are satellite camps. Notre Dame and Penn State are two teams that are taking advantage of getting their coaches to hot spots like Georgia and Florida to get in front of recruits in those states this summer. Well, Paul Gonella, USF's player personnel director, camp up with the idea last year of developing satellite camps throughout the state of Florida. Last summer, the Bulls conducted football camps in Ft. Myers, Jacksonville, Pensacola and Miramar and scored big.
It was a stroke of genius, as they signed a handful of prospects that attended these events like Jimmy Bayes (Immokalee), Deatrick Nichols (Miami Central), Michael Smith (Miami Central), Flowers, Nick Nataro (Estero), Kendall Sawyer (Lehigh Acres East Lee County), Ryeshene Bronson (Ft. Myers Dunbar) and Stanley Clerveaux (North Miami). That's a high hit rate for sure.
Starting next week, the Bulls will have summer camps in Estero (June 12th), Miramar (June 13th), Jacksonville First Coast (June 19h), and Panama City (June 20th).
There's no question that this is still a work in progress. It will take a few more classes for Taggart and his staff to get them where they want to go. And it's all about recruiting. It's all about creating competition at every position across the board. It's all about building their roster, having depth and then winning.
"We have a great university, a beautiful campus and a coaching staff that loves to recruit," Taggart said. "I expect continued success in recruiting but at the same time we must win and keep our facilities updated with the best of the best."