TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Before Monday night, the benchmark for inauspicious coaching debuts was set by former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who in his first game as the Ducks’ coach in 2009 oversaw a loss to Boise State capped by an Oregon running back punching a gloating opponent after the final whistle.
Willie Taggart’s debut at Florida State was on another level, sending sportswriters scrambling for the thesaurus to describe a first impression that flew in the face of the optimism that has pervaded this program since his arrival last winter:
Disaster. Fiasco. Catastrophe. Debacle. Tragedy. Farce. Embarrassment. All of the above.
In prime time, Taggart oversaw a Florida State loss to Virginia Tech that will almost undoubtedly make the Seminoles one of college football’s dominant storylines over the coming weeks – for all the wrong reasons.
“We didn’t handle the adversity well,” Taggart said. “We had a lot of adversity tonight. We didn’t handle it the way I thought our team will.”
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For the first time in a decade, Florida State was held without a touchdown on its home field. Taggart’s offensive scheme, a tempo-based philosophy described in his words by its “lethal simplicity,” netted just one big play – a long run in the fourth quarter by sophomore running back Cam Akers – and countless errors, with the performance summed up best by the cartoonish play of the Seminoles’ offensive line against Virginia Tech’s almost completely rebuilt defense.
“I knew coming into this there might be some hiccups with this offense,” said senior offensive lineman Alec Eberle.
The coaching staff made a series of confusing choices, several stemming from the desire to push a foreign tempo onto a team and program schooled for years in Jimbo Fisher’s pro-style system.
The costliest mental error came on a goal-line play in the second quarter, when Taggart’s desire to race back to the line of scrimmage resulted in a pre-snap penalty that ruined the Seminoles’ best chance at a touchdown.
There’s more. Down 17-3 late in the second quarter, facing a fourth down at the Hokies’ 21-yard line, Taggart opted to attempt the conversion rather than a field goal. It failed. The Seminoles wasted Akers’ 85-yard scamper with one perplexing play call after another, ending with Akers receiving a shotgun snap, running backwards and eventually fumbling, with the Hokies recovering the loose ball.
“Hadn’t seen this the entire training camp,” said Taggart. “Again, we had a really good training camp. Had a really good week of practice, and I was expecting for us to have a really good ballgame.
“We played a sloppy game and that’s on all of us, starting with me.”
For those keeping track at home: The inaugural chorus of boos to echo through Doak Campbell Stadium during the Taggart era came with six minutes left in the third quarter of the season’s opening game. It was a different story before kickoff.
Boosters, recruits and former players crowded the sidelines, more than a few wearing shirts bearing the phrase “Taggart Time.” Separated from the program during Fisher’s tenure, former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden praised Taggart to a crowd of a reporters, saying that Taggart had “done everything that you need to do to get a program going.”
Asked whether he had any advice for Taggart heading into his debut, Bowden replied, “I don’t give advice to guys like him. They give me advice.”
Said Bowden, “I’m convinced, the more I’m seeing, he is going to win.”
One game doesn’t change that long-term outlook for a program undergoing its starkest change in four decades. A single loss shouldn’t cloud the fact that Taggart resembles a clean fit for a Florida State program looking to escape the cloud that hung over Fisher’s final season. Yes, the nature of the loss – how thoroughly the Seminoles were outplayed by Virginia Tech – extinguishes much of the goodwill accumulated during Taggart’s first nine months in the position. But is it surprising?
Maybe it shouldn’t be. After all, this is a seven-win team from a year ago, with a new coaching staff installing new schemes, taking on one of the most consistent programs in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In that sense, the result wasn’t unexpected: Florida State, a team in flux, lost to a team and program with a clear identity bolstered by coaching continuity.
As several Florida State players noted postgame, last year’s team hit on a similar speedbump in its opener, a loss to Alabama, and immediately wilted. Within weeks, Fisher was eying the exits.
The stiffest challenge Taggart might face in his debut season won’t stem from schematics but simple emotion – ensuring that a repeat of the defeatist mentality doesn’t seep back into the program.
“We refuse to let that happen to this team,” said Eberle. “We refuse to let our heads get down. We refuse to let the blame game start. We’re going to stay together no matter what.”
But Taggart is an expert at reclamation projects. He turned his alma mater, Western Kentucky, from among the weakest programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision into a Conference USA contender. He performed a similar turnaround at South Florida. Taggart added four wins to Oregon’s win total in his single season with the Ducks. Florida State was supposed to be different; the Seminoles were supposed to be more plug-and-play than a teardown job.
That may still be the case, initial impressions to the contrary. Maybe Florida State is a New Year’s Six bowl contender, though that would require another strain in logic – since if Florida State is a contender, Virginia Tech’s destined for the College Football Playoff. It’s too early to tell. Only one thing is sure: After this sort of debut, the only direction Taggart and the Seminoles can go is up.
“I’m upset, too, and I’m upset that we didn’t get it done for our fan base and we didn’t get it done for each other,” he said. “But we’re not going to sit around and blame anyone. We got to get back to work and make it happen, and we will.”