LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) – Willie Taggart still is scrambling. More than two decades after he was the quarterback at Western Kentucky University, he’s still bobbing and weaving to keep from getting sacked.
Except now he’s the head coach at Florida State, long one of the nation’s premiere college football programs, and he’s fighting to keep his job amid growing calls for his job in Seminole nation.
The 'Noles are off to a dismal 1-2 start, hardly anything to merit throwing a flaming spear into the ground, and the “Tomahawk Chop” has taken on a sinister new meaning for Taggart and his staff.
In fact, if FSU is upset by the Louisville Cardinals on Saturday in Tallahassee, Taggart might not even survive the season, despite the $17 million it will take to buy him out.
That’s how bad it is for the coach who went 5-7 in his first season at FSU, which meant the 'Noles failed to get in a bowl for the first time in more than three decades.
If Taggart is fired, it will have an impact on the entire community of African-American head coaches. It will make it even harder for them to get serious consideration from the nation’s elite programs.
Of the 128 colleges and universities competing at the highest level of college football, only 13 are being run by black head coaches. The most prominent of these are James Franklin of Penn State, David Shaw of Stanford, and Taggart.
In the next tier are Lovie Smith at Illinois, Kevin Sumlin of Arizona, Dino Babers of Syracuse, Herm Edwards of Arizona State, Derek Mason of Vanderbilt, and Charlie Strong of South Florida.
Strong, of course, had such a nice run at Louisville in his first head coaching job that Texas rolled the dice on him. But after going 16-21 from 2014-2016, Strong was fired, a blow to the African-American coaching community.
That has been the thing about black head coaches. Even when they get a top-notch job, the fan bases seem to have less patience with them than they would white coaches.
It happens even at places like the University of Kentucky. Joker Phillips, a UK graduate and former player, was Rick Brooks’ replacement-in-waiting. He went 13-24 in three years and was fired. He was replaced by Mark Stoops, who went 12-24 in his first three years and was given a contract extension.
Make what you will of it.
In a way, Taggart has been his own worst enemy. He turned a losing program into a winner at both his alma mater and South Florida, but he also had a losing record at each – 16-20 at WKU and 24-25 at South Florida.
He then took the Oregon job and stayed for only one 5-7 season. Florida State came calling, and Taggart couldn’t resist taking over the program that Bobby Bowden had made into a perennial national championship contender.
But it has been nothing but a downhill slide. The locals got restless during last year’s 5-7 season, and they have gone on the warpath his year. Taggart’s team beat Louisiana-Monroe in overtime on a missed extra point, blew an 18-point lead in losing to Boise State, and blew another lead in tanking against Virginia.
Now comes Louisville.
The Cardinals are 2-1 under first-year coach Scott Satterfield, formerly of Appalachian State, and have shown they have the poise, discipline, and organization necessary to beat Florida State, which they almost did last year in what turned out to be such a disastrous season that UofL couldn’t get rid of Bobby Petrino fast enough.
A win over the Cards would give Taggart a momentary reprieve. But a loss would move him from the hot seat to the electric chair. It would be only a question of when FSU would decide to throw the switch.
Interestingly, Kentucky’s Stoops, a former Florida State defensive coordinator, is high on the short list of possible Taggart replacements. When a black coach fails, a university never hires another black coach to replace him. Invariably, the job goes to a white coach.
If Taggart gets canned, Penn State’s Franklin and Stanford’s Shaw would be the leading candidates to become the first African-American coach to win the national championship.
They are at programs that, like Florida State, have the means, facilities, fan base, tradition, and recruiting prowess to compete against the southern powers Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, and LSU.
It would be good for the sport if one of them were to succeed. As for Taggart, well, it depends on what he does beginning with UofL on Saturday. If that turns out to be a loss, it’s difficult to imagine him being at FSU much longer.
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