Willie Taggart, 40, is the first coach Oregon has hired from outside the program since 1976. The Ducks’ previous three coaches, Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich, were assistants who were promoted. His goal: Graduate students and be the first black coach to win a national championship.
On July 12, 1991, I saw John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood with a nearly all white audience in northern Marin County. The movie had a lot going for it in my world, a director fresh out of USC film school, a founding member of N.W.A. (Ice Cube) in a starring role and a kid wearing a Michael Jackson Beat It shirt talking about comic books in the first act. All that plus, Laurence Fishburne’s A cappella rendition of O-o-h Child by The Five Stairsteps.
First-time director John Singleton, all 24 years of him, could not have cringed more (or maybe been more surprised) with the effect this movie had on me and my friends growing up 417 miles north of Compton. Our lives could not have been more different or more removed from a community suffering the effects of gang warfare, AIDS, 227 …and lives teetering on the verge of the Rodney King beating/LA Riots.
My friends were mostly white kids, good students, decent athletes and raised in conservative Catholic homes. Sorry, I know that last one is redundant. But we were also reared on a steady diet of Air Jordans, Yo MTV Raps and Starter jackets. There was a time growing up when not one white guy poster hung on my wall. Instead it was Tim Hardaway, LL Cool J, Kevin Mitchell, Jerry Rice, Bo Jackson and Chris Mullin. Chris Mullin is black, btw, ask any brother, he’ll tell you—like down to the fade.
If music was playing out the boom box it was Three Times Dope, Goodie Mob, KRS-1, Geto Boys, EPMD, Digital Underground, Digable Planets, Public Enemy, Van Halen (David Lee Roth had a hair weave so that counts) and Das EFX. My favorite movie was Do the Right Thing, I had this Deion Sanders cover of SI framed and Randall Cunningham was the quarterback I pretended to be in the street.
To me, my white-blackness wasn’t political or intentional, it was much simpler than that: the interesting people, the not boring people who informed my life…the people I wanted to be—the people making meaningful art and doing things on the court or the field that I couldn’t dream of doing—just happened to be black. Or to put it in everyday terms, Griffey Junior had a turtleneck and chain(s) on his Upper Deck rookie card. I wanted a turtleneck and chain for my freshman year high school photo.
College was an extension of this. By the time I was a freshman at Oregon, Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City, Ernest Dickerson’s Juice and the Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society had come to pass. The only movies I quoted over the next six and a half years were Dazed and Confused, which had a token Soul Pole-wielding black guy, and Menace II Society, which had a token porn-stache-having white guy:
As I moved through undergrad at the University of Oregon, I occupied a similar white guy bubble. Eugene during the ‘90s was nothing if not an island of whitey. It was like watching Peter Pan. All those lost boys coughed up from the suburbs doing whatever they felt like. Campus was all canopies of trees and never-ending rains and slick sidewalks. Most everyone was the color of rain slicker, yellow. So that made us all equals, if you ask me. There to learn. There to have fun. There to laugh at the girls who shivered through the first 15 minutes of class.
After I moved on from Eugene, I came to realize everyone wasn’t yellow. A pin prick of the state’s population, 2 percent to be exact, are black (fewer than 80,000 in toto), putting the Beaver State up there with Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire as the whitest in the union. So it is no exaggeration or stereotype to say that almost to a person the black men and women I knew while an undergrad at U of O were imported athletes. Many of them were recruited from out of state and a fair amount from South Central Los Angeles, which I considered Mecca. You seen that episode of A Different World where Sister Souljah goes crazy on Kadeem Hardison? I got that shit on VHS (marked “Do not record” so it doesn’t get recorded over) at home if you want to borrow it. That was basically the opposite of my college experience.
Saying the black athletes who came to Oregon were trying to get away from something that was going on in the hood—get a fresh start and focus on the court or the field and in the classroom—was oversimplification and simply not true. But that’s what I thought. (Real-life stories, I came to learn, aren’t usually like Ricky’s and people actually went to college for other things besides trying to avoid getting shot in an alley.)
But there was something to be said for the cradle of campus that for many who came from out of state, including me, was a total disconnect from home. A majority of the black athletes I became acquainted with at U of O went on to become good businessmen, good dads and good all-around people. Many even stayed in Oregon. That wasn’t by accident. While we write on this site all the time about the slave owner/indentured servant-ness culture of college football and the rip-off culture of the NCAA, there is another element that helps it endure. The guys who play are trying hard to do right by their family and coach and school and classmates. By doing so they are actively doing better for themselves and improving their situations. The Dream doesn’t always come true. But sometimes, it does. Like sometimes, if a man mans up and becomes a man in this system, you end up with a man like Willie Taggart. And that’s something to take into consideration.
Thirty-six hours in and everyone in Oregon is taken with this guy and not just because he threw on the Steve Urkel/Kid Cudi glasses and was off-the-cuff-eloquent-and-endearing during his first presser. Even angry-white Oregon columnist John Canzano is #smittenkitten with him. But that’s probably because for the first time in 47 months he didn’t have to write about a guy sighing and scratching at his dead follicles saying “I just love the kids.”
The fawning wasn’t just because Taggart is especially well-spoken or charismatic or referred to himself in the third person before talking about being the youngest of five, because that’s how you roll when you grow up in No-opportunities-ville, Florida. But…oh snap, like a minute in he drops the ENTIRE Harbaugh clan as brothers and sisters (yes, he even gave little sis Jaoni a shout-out — Taggart runs DEEP) “from another mother” — ugh. First in the family to graduate college? You bet. Got religion as a student-athlete under patriarch Jack Harbaugh? Yep. Running backs coach under Jim? Natch. Turned around a pair of third-tier programs and Phil Knight and Oregon made him a mother-fuckin’ millionaire.
One wife. Three kids. Found shangri-effin-la (2x referred to himself in the third by the press conference’s end) in the heart of Lane County. Thumbs up and hearts abound on Facebook.
Taggart is 40-45 career, that’s sub-.500 holmes. But he did it with Western Kentucky and South Florida which recruit from the local Texacos and Subways. More importantly, his pedigree does come from that time as Stanford’s RB coach in ’07-’08 and, along with his intimate knowledge of the Harbaugh clan’s china patterns, he has the respect and praise of NFL scion Tony Dungy whose own son Eric played three years at Oregon and then transferred for his final season to South Florida.
One guess as to where Eric learned how to play football, and be a man. Cue The Five Stairsteps.
Taggart was actually Oregon’s second choice, maybe third. Temple’s Matt Rhule chose Baylor over the Ducks. And Western Michigan’s so-hot-you-take-a-screenshot-of-his-Tinder-pic-and-send-it-to-your-friends PJ Fleck is still in the decidedly undecided category about his big-time coaching future this week.
But so what? Taggart’s the guy, last-minute TJ Maxx green tie and all.
Oregon is at a crossroads that is similar to, yep, the rest of the nation. They had a dismal 2016, worse than anyone expected, or imagined. And now it’s time to get up, dust off and get to work and figure out how to fight back. The odds are against them and the imagination of the general public has moved on, so it’s not going to be easy.
Taggart’s biggest battle, however, will not be in the win/loss column. It will be fighting the stereotypes, good and bad, that alums like me foist upon him. That’s right, go back and read from the beginning and you’ll find that nearly all my opinions on black people are either informed by pop culture or based on assumptions.
I am a giant part of the problem, and the biggest hurdle to Taggart’s success.
But if someone like Taggart, who is one part self-effacing, two parts assured and one very big part can look into a recruit’s eyes and say “I get it—you may not get to the NFL, but you will get a degree and you will get to learn from me.” Well, that’s going to go a long way to making someone like me see him as the man he’s already proven himself to be: a leader, a mentor, a football coach….
And the right choice for Oregon.