The University of South Florida's search for a new head football coach ended Friday night when Western Kentucky University's Willie Taggart, a Palmetto native noted for his recruiting prowess, agreed to join the Bulls.
Taggart, 36, informed WKU players of his USF plans following a practice in Bowling Green, Ky. The Hilltoppers (7-5), making the first bowl game trip in school history, face Central Michigan in the Little Caesars Bowl on Dec. 26 at Detroit's Ford Field. There was no immediate word whether Taggart will coach in that game.
"Just got out of practice and he was talking about playing in the bowl,'' WKU senior defensive back Kareem Peterson said. "For him to give us those words that he's leaving is hard.
"It's shocking. The way things were heard the other day, we kind of figured that was a long shot. That just got slapped on us.''
For Taggart, it's a homecoming. He's a former Bradenton Manatee High quarterback and leader of a state championship team before playing at Western Kentucky.
Taggart, 16-20 in three seasons as WKU's head coach, is expected to be formally introduced this weekend at USF, which hadn't issued any statements about the hiring as of late Friday night. There was no immediate word about the length and terms of his USF contract.
Early news of Taggart's decision seemed to generate positive reviews.
"USF just made the best hire of the offseason,'' wrote Matt Hayes of The Sporting News on Twitter.
"A great choice by USF,'' wrote ESPN's Dick Vitale on Twitter. "Willie Taggart has the complete package - can coach, can recruit, can motivate, can communicate with media.''
Sunday, USF athletic director Doug Woolard fired Skip Holtz, who finished 3-9 and 1-6 (last place) in the Big East Conference. Holtz, attracted from East Carolina in 2010 after the firing of program patriarch Jim Leavitt, was 16-21 in three seasons.
Woolard was focused on Taggart from the start. Reportedly, Taggart interviewed for the USF job on Tuesday in New York, prior to the National Football Foundation's annual awards banquet. It wasn't known whether Woolard interviewed anyone else this week.
Hillsborough County high school coaches reacted positively to Taggart's hiring.
"I honestly think Willie Taggart is a great hire,'' said Plant coach Robert Weiner, whose former wide receiver, Austin Aikens, plays for WKU. "He is young, energetic and smart. He will do an awesome job, recruiting and beyond.
"I'm sad to see my good friends, the Holtz family, go. But Willie Taggart will do an outstanding job leading the Bulls into the next generation.''
Taggart will turn his immediate attention to USF's recruiting class. Winter Park High quarterback Asiantii Woulard, Most Valuable Player of the Elite 11 camp last summer, de-committed from USF on Sunday after Holtz's firing and has been entertaining offers from other schools, including North Carolina State.
The Bulls, who had 25 seniors and 15 returning starters this season, were picked for second place in the Big East's preseason poll, but didn't come close to matching those expectations.
After a season-ending injury to senior quarterback B.J. Daniels on Nov. 3, the Bulls turned to junior Bobby Eveld, then redshirt freshman Matt Floyd, both of whom return in 2013. Junior Marcus Shaw was the only running back with appreciable playing time.
Meanwhile, the Bulls had numerous promising freshmen - including tight end Sean Price, linebacker Tashon Whitehurst, defensive end Eric Lee and guard Thor Jozwiak - who had increased playing time in season's latter stages. USF also returns veterans such as wide receiver Andre Davis, center Austin Reiter, defensive end Tevin Mims, defensive end Ryne Giddins, defensive tackle Luke Sager, linebacker DeDe Lattimore, free safety Mark Joyce and strong safety JaQuez Jenkins.
Taggart has some familiarity with USF's personnel because of his extensive time recruiting in Florida.
And once, he was someone the Bulls faced on the field. In 1998, Taggart rushed for 206 yards and three touchdowns in WKU's 31-24 win against USF at Raymond James Stadium.
After graduation, Taggart joined Jack Harbaugh's WKU staff and was part of the Hilltoppers' Division I-AA national-championship team in 2002.
Taggart was on Jim Harbaugh's Stanford University staff from 2007-09 as running backs coach before being hired as head coach at his alma matter. In three seasons at WKU, Taggart was 16-20, posting a pair of 7-5 finishes after a 2-10 start.
In 2010, Holtz's Bulls defeated Taggart's Hilltoppers 24-12 at Raymond James Stadium.