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A Different Kind of Different

Oregon hasn’t hired a head coach outside the program since 1976, but Willie Taggart could help the Ducks reestablish themselves among college football’s elite

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

For the past decade, Oregon’s calling card has been speed: fast players on offense, fast players on defense, and a scheme constructed to run plays faster than opponents could prepare for them. The Ducks outsprinted their Pac-12 opponents time and again, routinely finding themselves prominently mentioned in the national championship conversation.

Who knew this same high-tempo philosophy would dictate the program’s alarmingly fast fall from grace? It seemed like former coach Chip Kelly had set Oregon on a path to consistent national contention, and that successor Mark Helfrich would keep the Ducks’ momentum going after Kelly left for the NFL in January 2013. Between Kelly and Helfrich, Oregon won at least 10 games every season from 2009 to 2014, with four Pac-12 championships, three Rose Bowl trips, and two national title game appearances.

Just two years ago, quarterback Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy by the second-largest margin in the award’s history and the Ducks walloped Florida State, 59–20, in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Last year they won just nine games, dropping out of championship contention quickly, and fans hoped it was a blip on the radar before the team returned to the 10-win plateau. Instead, the Ducks went 4–8 in 2016 — and it wasn’t a good 4–8, either. At least Notre Dame lost seven close games. Oregon got blown out several times.

Hypothetically, Helfrich’s strength is developing quarterbacks, but instead he developed a quarterback problem. He hired college football laughingstock Brady Hoke as his defensive coordinator, and Hoke did what Hoke does best: look slightly confused while an aggressively bad thing happened under his watch. The Ducks rank 126th out of 128 FBS teams in scoring defense, never allowing fewer than 26 points in a game — not even against FCS opponent UC Davis, which also fired its coach after the season. Perhaps worst of all, Oregon lost to rival Oregon State for the first time since 2007.

So the Ducks fired Helfrich and turned to Willie Taggart, who revived Western Kentucky (0–12 the season before he arrived; 7–5 when he left) and then the University of South Florida (3–9 before he arrived; 10–2 this season), to replace him. This isn’t how Oregon does things: The school hadn’t fired a head coach or hired a head coach from outside the program since 1976, a truly preposterous fact compared with the quickly spinning coaching carousel everybody else in this sport is riding.

But none of this is how Oregon does things. The idea of Oregon as a consistent national championship contender is a new one. The program skyrocketed to prominence using a unique formula, and as suddenly as that formula worked, it fizzled out. No, Taggart isn’t even a tad Oregon, but he might be the best option to help Oregon maintain the level its fan base now expects.

If you imagine college football’s upper tier as a country club, you can hear everybody snickering at Oregon. The Ducks are among the newest members, having only recently been granted admission. They have no national championships and half of their conference titles have come since 2000. Their rise to success is heavily linked to the rise of Nike, a multibillion-dollar corporation run by free-spending alumnus Phil Knight. They have bad etiquette out on the course — their greatest successes came under Kelly, an offensive innovator who refused to play the way that everybody else expected him to. And they committed the no. 1 sin of country-club membership — they broke the dress code. While many other powerhouses sport the same jersey designs they’ve had since they wore leather helmets, Nike makes the Ducks fly, giving them new, extremely loud uniform combos every game. Oregon isn’t old money, and doesn’t act like it. And nothing makes country-club members more angry than the nouveau riche.

The Ducks have to think differently, and not just because the state of Oregon considers itself no. 1 in weirdness. To be a national title contender, a college football program pretty much has to recruit more four- and five-star prospects than two- and three-star players. The state of Oregon produces between zero and two four-star recruits in most years, and it manages only a few five-stars per decade. (The state’s last five-star prospect, per 247Sports.com’s composite rankings: running back Thomas Tyner, in 2013, who played two seasons for the Ducks before retiring due to medical reasons.)

Oregon can’t win by simply taking players from its own backyard. To hang in college football’s most sought-after club, the Ducks have to draw recruits from the turf of more historically successful programs. If they can’t, genius-level coaching has to make up the difference.

The school’s unique hiring strategy was a byproduct of that. The powers at Oregon clearly felt that culture superseded everything, regularly placing tremendous faith in internal candidates and refusing to look outside the program for coaches. The guys most capable of achieving success at the school were people who’d already seen how to create that success firsthand. In the 1994 season, head coach Rich Brooks took the school to its first Rose Bowl since the 1957 season, and then jumped at a job with the St. Louis Rams. His replacement was his offensive coordinator, Mike Bellotti, who won two Pac-10 titles before resigning after a 10-win campaign in 2008 to become the school’s athletic director. His replacement was his offensive coordinator, Kelly, who never had a bad season before leaving for the NFL in 2013.

It only made sense that the program would hire Kelly’s offensive coordinator, Helfrich. By all accounts, Helfrich is a very nice guy, but he was not cut out for the recruiting trail, and, well, it doesn’t seem like he’s a genius-level coach either. Oregon’s strengths became weaknesses; its weaknesses became disasters. If it had held on to Helfrich, the program likely would have stagnated.

And so, to remain the most successful iconoclasts in college football, Oregon had to act the way any other program would.

When other powerhouses founder, we expect them to bounce back. Texas has been mired in a down stretch since 2010, but given its cash, historical success, and fertile recruiting ground, we expect the Longhorns to reclaim their position toward the top of the sport under new head coach Tom Herman. Michigan struggled under Rich Rodriguez and then Hoke, but we knew they would eventually return to contention, and they did following the hiring of Jim Harbaugh.

But nothing is promised to Oregon. Knight stepped down as chairman of the Nike board over the summer, and maybe his successor won’t be as invested in the Ducks’ athletic success. Other schools have caught on to the idea that extremely bright clothing can alter recruits’ perception of a program. Oregon needs this hire to work, because if it stagnates and loses momentum, it’s perfectly possible for the Ducks to go back to being the fifth- or sixth-most prominent program in the Pac-12.

Which brings us to Taggart. He has no history in Oregon. His whole career has been spent either in Florida (where he was born and raised, and where he coached at USF) or under the auspices of the Harbaugh family. He was recruited to play quarterback at Western Kentucky under Jack Harbaugh (with a little help from then-NFL QB Jim), worked as an intern for the Philadelphia Eagles when John was an assistant there, took his first official coaching job at WKU under Jack, left for Stanford to work under Jim, and came back to the Hilltoppers for his first head gig. Taggart’s wife jokingly calls him “Jason Harbaugh” because he’s so close to the coaching clan. The only time he’s ever worked on the western side of the map was to be with somebody who’s basically his brother.

But Oregon doesn’t want to be just an Oregon program. That’s why it’s doing something it hasn’t done since Gerald freakin’ Ford was president. They need a guy with the type of personality that can charm top recruits and the X’s-and-O’s acumen to win games. That might be Taggart!

At USF, Taggart’s 2014 recruiting class was the best in the American Athletic Conference, and his 2015 haul was second best in the league. He’s got a history at getting good quarterbacks. At WKU, he recruited Brandon Doughty, who went on to be one of the most prolific quarterbacks in college football. Taggart landed USF quarterback Quinton Flowers when it was predicted that he would pick Nebraska, and this year he threw for 22 touchdowns and ran for 15 more. Can Taggart bring a great QB to Oregon? According to reports, he’s already taken a recruiting trip to Hawaii to try to nab a four-star. (Yeah, I wish I could say trips to Hawaii were for work too.)

Taggart won’t run the scheme that’s made Oregon a national title threat. But at past stops, he’s earned praise for adapting his system to the talent he’s given. In his first year at USF, the Bulls’ offense was truly awful, averaging just 13.8 points per game in part because Taggart tried forcing the personnel to use West Coast tactics he learned with the Harbaughs. This year, a USF team led by Flowers succeeded offensively in all sorts of ways: It averaged 43.6 points per game, even more than Hoke’s defense allowed.

There’s no guarantee that Taggart will work out. He’s never been in charge of a major-conference program, and Oregon doesn’t want to be just a major-conference program: It wants to get back to competing for titles. But he’s got a hell of a lot better chance to make that happen than if Oregon had kept doing the same thing. Taggart’s brand of different isn’t the same brand to which the Ducks are accustomed, but he does fit in ways that could make the program click. If he builds at Oregon the way he did at schools with much less going for them, the other members of the club might just have to get used to it.