By Robert Weintraub
Of all the stunning scores so far in this young college football season, one has stood head and shoulders above the rest.
McNeese State 53
South Florida 21
Even casual fans had to do a quadruple take at that one.
Forget the fact that an FCS team beat an FBS team -- several others did the same that very day.
Forget the fact that USF actually paid McNeese State $40,000 for the right to be humiliated by them on their home field.
Forget the fact that the score flattered the Bulls -- indeed, McNeese State appeared to be running up the score on its far larger opponents.
No, the most troubling fact was this was the debut of a much-hyped coach who was supposed to usher in a new and exciting era for South Florida.
Willie Taggart was a hometown hero, a Tampa-area schoolboy legend who starred at quarterback at Western Kentucky before coaching the Hilltoppers and turning around the program. Taggart is young (37), dynamic, engaged with the fans and, back home in the fertile pigskin soil that has produced so much talent, promised to be a recruiting monster who would return the Bulls to prominence. He was lured to the USF job by a five-year, $5.75 million dollar contract.
Before the season, Taggart starred in a kitschy but entertaining video that encouraged fans to "Get aboard and let Coach T drive this bus." Animated versions of local luminaries, such as Dick Vitale, Doug Martin, Jon Gruden, Joe Maddon and others popped up. Even Hulk Hogan was beeping the promotional horn.
Then McNeese State pulled into Tampa on buses of its own.
On the scale of epic flops after a hyped debut, this left "Magic Johnson's talk show" in the dust.
"Yeah, I guess we put the tires on wrong," laughed Taggart about his not-so-magic bus. "The AC got put in wrong, too. It's hot in that bus, for sure."
The Hulkster hasn't checked in to offer support, either.
Taggart was in tears at the post-game press conference. He called the loss his "biggest nightmare" and a "piss-poor effort." With a little distance from it, Taggart is now able to get some perspective on the catastrophe.
"When I was coaching at Western Kentucky we lost a terrible game to Indiana State," he said, "a really bad team, one we should have trounced. I saw the same thing there I saw here -- our heads got down, we wondered why we weren't doing what we were supposed to do. After that, you second-guess yourself, wonder whether you can get it done. But we got better there, and that has helped me get through this."
Alas, matters have only gotten worse. USF actually played pretty well against Michigan State, whose offense is as limp as South Florida's. The Spartans scored a pair of defensive touchdowns in an otherwise uninspiring 21-6 win. But then Taggart's team lost handily to Florida Atlantic, a team that began playing top-flight football even more recently than South Florida.
The 0-3 start has put the once-proud Bulls at the bottom of the pigskin heap. In Paul Myerberg's full-scale ranking of all 125 FBS teams, USF is a shocking 120th, two spots ahead of New Mexico State, who is bribing fans to attend its games. Even godawful Louisiana Tech, coached by Skip Holtz, who was fired by USF and replaced by Taggart, is ranked ahead of the Bulls. USF has won just once in its last 13 games, and attendance at Raymond James Stadium has dropped to just the friends and families of the players.
Matters don't figure to improve on Saturday, with Miami, fresh off a 77-7 humiliation of Savannah State, on the schedule. Hopefully, USF can at least make the 'Canes play all 15 minutes of the fourth quarter.
Once upon a time (2007, which feels like the Bronze Age in college football but was only a minute ago, really), USF was an ascendant program. Under coach Jim Leavitt, the Bulls actually rose to No. 2 in the BCS poll midway through the season. Sure, that was unsustainable, but for the second half of the past decade, USF was a solid nine-win team every year, with talent like Jason Pierre-Paul, Steven Nicolas and Mike Jenkins passing through the program. In the ramshackle Big East Conference, they were in the mix for a BCS bowl bid throughout, though they never quite achieved one.
The program has been eroding since Leavitt left under a cloud, having allegedly slapped a player, then interfered with the school's investigation of the incident. Holtz was hired to be a calm and reassuring antidote, but his recruiting was iffy, his game management ultra-conservative and his post-game excuses reeked of desperation and flopsweat.
Taggart came into the season with his eyes open. He knew the Holtz regime had not just left the talent cupboard bare but ran a different scheme, meaning the holdovers would have to be re-trained. And any team replacing a four-year starter at QB, as USF is doing with the graduation of B.J. Daniels, is likely to struggle at first.
When Taggart showed film of early practices to his old WKU coach, Jack Harbaugh, before the season, the Archie Manning of the sidelines didn't hold back.
"It's gonna be a long year, huh?" Harbaugh said.
Taggart was recruited to Western Kentucky by Jack's son, Jim, then playing quarterback in the NFL. "He didn't need to take the time to come there and get to know me and my family," recalled Taggart, "but he did, and we became the best of friends." In addition to being the best man at Taggart's wedding, Harbaugh hired his former recruit to coach running backs when he took over at Stanford. Taggart's tutelage of plodding fullback Toby Gerhart into a powerhouse Heisman candidate kickstarted his coaching career and informs his football outlook today.
Flying the face of the nationwide trend, Taggart wants to instill a power game in Tampa. "We don't want to light it up," he said. "We want to be efficient, get first downs, control the ball and the clock." Sounds like a fit for a game manager-type at quarterback, but so far, the guys the Bulls have trotted out under center are worse managers than David Brent.
Three players -- Matt Floyd, Bobby Eveld and Steven Bench -- have taken snaps. All three have thrown a pick-six, just a few of the incredible five turnovers returned for touchdowns in three games against USF. "Never in a million years did I dream we would be giving the ball away for scores like that," said Taggart.
Bench is no doubt shocked his new team is in worse shape than the program he transferred from last season: Penn State. He's the starter Saturday. If Bench can't do something about the eight turnovers the Bulls have committed this season, Taggart, an unstoppable dual-threat QB at Western Kentucky from 1995-98, may have to insert himself into the game.
"I probably could give you two outstanding, dynamite plays right now," he said. "Then I would need to find the oxygen."
The Bulls aren't completely bereft of talent. Senior running back Marcus Shaw, a short but powerful runner, ran for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of the season, before it all went pear-shaped against McNeese. He also pounded out 94 yards on Michigan State's snarling defense and is averaging nearly seven yards per carry.
Then there is linebacker Aaron Lynch, a former five-star recruit and freshman All-American at Notre Dame. Lynch transferred to be closer to home, and promised before the season to lead a "Green Plague" defense, a turn of phrase as retroactively unfortunate as Taggart's preseason comparison of Lynch to disgraced 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith.
The real question is whether the horrendous start to the Taggart era is affecting his supposed recruiting acumen, the linchpin of the rebuilding process. With so many local options in the Sunshine State, fickle prep players can have their minds changed by a single game, much less a season-long debacle.
Taggart isn't concerned. "The guys we're recruiting are players who want to turn it around. I'm recruiting them to take someone's job. They see how many freshman are playing now, and it'll be up to those starters to keep their positions, not the other way around."
Western Kentucky lost 20 straight games before Taggart arrived, and by his second season the 'Toppers had a winning record. Stanford struggled before Harbaugh, with Taggart's help, turned it into a monster. "I see so many similarities," the coach said of his new gig. "There's a reason teams get in a rut. You have to train players how to win and how to be mentally tough. We're so mentally fragile we toss it in as soon as something bad happens. Getting that mindset changed is the hardest part."
"I took this job because of the high expectations," Taggart continued. "We've lost support of the fans, but that's our fault. We have to go and earn it back."
Beating somebody -- anybody --would be a good start.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.