Willie Taggart leaving Oregon after a single season is the coaching move the Ducks deserved.

By Andrew J. Pridgen

I’m one of the 14ish Oregon football fans who can say “I was there” when Oregon put a historic beat down on Air Force 41-13 at Sam Boyd Stadium on Dec. 20, 1997.

It was my first time in Vegas, and a lot of Vegas-first-timer type things happened (I was also all of 22, a recent graduate from U of O and mired in a first-full-time-job-having malaise.) I don’t need to go into details, you have your stories, I have mine. But I will say I deplaned at McCarran that Friday in a new pair of khakis, a work shirt and some shoes my mom helped me pick out for my first set of job interviews, plus a duffel bag full of going-out clothes (incl a shiny Night at the Roxbury/Wedding DJ shirt) and I boarded Sunday morning wearing boxers, a Las Vegas-themed gas station T-shirt and no shoes or socks; also no bag. Guess I was ahead of my time on the whole no shoes through security thing.

The trip overall was terrific, if not fraught with uncertainty; even though it had only been six months since I was sprung from Eugene and many of my friends still had a year or two left, something about college already seemed distant. Upon our reunion, I related to the stories only insofar that the names of the places sounded familiar. New alliances had formed in my absence; most of my housemates either graduated with me and were off—most back to their towns of origin to start to make a living—and the ones who remained were absorbed by new cliques. The guys and girls I knew were now hanging out with other guys and girls I didn’t know. I felt like a ghost.

Fortunately, I happened by a tapped keg of beer in a service alley off the Circus Circus main lobby late Saturday night (OK, one story, sorry.) It was unmanned with a stack of catering-looking cups beside it—the plastic that’s supposed to look like fine stemware, which somehow makes it look even cheaper—on one side and on the other, throne-like, was an old shoe shine chair, gold with pink upholstery.

I don’t know how long I sat there in the chair and drank warm, flat beer by myself, maybe ten seconds, maybe three hours, but presently footsteps echoed down the concrete hall and I put my cup down like you do when parents or cops are approaching. Instead of Circus Circus security tasing me into oblivion, grabbing me by the armpits and piling my ropy frame into a cab, the steps belonged to a friend of mine who was from my hometown and also went to Oregon—a guy a couple years older than me whose brother was in my class.

I don’t know if we said anything right away. He just appeared to me and I just appeared to him. I gestured to the stack of cups and he sat down on the co-throne next to me. I didn’t even know he was at the game. Mind you, this is before smartphones or alerts or push notifications or social media. People wonder now, as do I, how we got along without all this technology. The answer is, we all just kind of wandered around. Sometimes you found people, sometimes you didn’t, sometimes you got found. Sometimes you turned into two young adults drinking forgotten beer together suspended in time.

***

Less than two weeks away from the 20th anniversary kickoff of Oregon’s return to the Vegas Bowl, I sat having lunch on my own looking on my phone for flights to book into McCarran. A text thread between most of those same guys from 20 years ago popped up on my screen saying first-year Oregon head coach Willie Taggart had accepted a job to go coach Florida State—his favorite team growing up and one that could also offer him $50 million or whatever.

Taggart, who’s got the rep as a known motivator and a crack recruiter and blah blah blah, was Oregon’s first non-system coach since Len Casanova was brought on in 1951. Through good seasons, a dynastic run buoyed marketing and subpar efforts as the pendulum swung the other way, Mighty Oregon was a place coaches went to stay. The bucolic town bisected by the Willamette is the only school I’ve ever been to that aesthetically outdoes the brochure. Nothing much happens in Eugene, and that includes nothing bad. You raise kids there, you sell the house and downsize when you retire, but you don’t leave.

Taggart said only his dream job could have pulled him out of Lane County. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it doesn’t matter. The reality is he probably didn’t even get a chance to hang his tools in his garage, and that was by design.

Oregon Tuesday named co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal as the interim coach for the Las Vegas Bowl. Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt plans to join Taggart in Tallahassee.

For Taggart, this week has been a whirlwind. He visited quarterback recruit Tyler Shough in Arizona while representing the Ducks Monday and then inked his deal with Florida State late that night/early the next day.

Oregon AD Rob Mullens said, “it got clumsy at the end.” No, stepping through a puddle while carrying three pizzas in a parking lot is clumsy. Taggart, who was offered five-year/$20 million contract extension by Oregon less than two weeks ago (he made $2.9 million this year), made a move as calculated and big-time as the sport has become—or rather, as Oregon helped make the sport.

The reality is, Duck players will endure their third head coach and third system in as many seasons. They’ll continue to fly around and smash the shit out of each other in exchange for a jacket and some cleats that’ll grow mold into the back of their closet. Taggart, who started a pipeline from his home state and the southeast flowing into Eugene, takes that same recruiting edge to FSU, which means many of Oregon’s four- and five-stars of the last two seasons (the 2018 class was ranked No. 7 by 247Sports before Taggart’s departure) will likely slip out of Eugene like the morning chill through the conifers on Skinner Butte.

Oregon took a flier on Taggart, a Jim Harbaugh protege who’d cut his teeth turning around Western Kentucky and South Florida. As a D1 HC, Taggart is 47-50 overall as a head coach and left Pac 12 with a 4-5 conference record as the Ducks’ young-but-talented defense took the first eight games to shore up their roles and potential first-round QB Justin Herbert missed October with a broken collarbone.

An emphatic 69-10 Civil War victory at home, however, seemed to be Taggart’s real coming out party at Autzen. Recruits galore in the offing and Oregon with all the swagger back, that old Eugene magic seemed to be working. “There’s no decision to be made,” Taggart said when asked after the regular season’s final game about potential off-season suitors. “What are we talking about?”

Taggart or Florida State will pay Oregon a $3 million buyout, plus much of the $1.7 million buyout of the coach’s South Florida deal. Oregon will be left with a little extra cash in its stocking this Christmas but no coach and a program completely unmoored for the first time in three quarters of a century.

Taggart’s was a calculated, professional decision in a sport that is only amateurish when it comes to infantilizing players and fans. And to that I say, fucking fine, whatever.

***

…The Ducks may deplane next Friday at McCarran in business casual and perhaps they’ll limp back into the security line barefoot and uncertain about the future on Sunday. Let’s just hope that somewhere along the way they stumble upon a familiar face in the service hallway, enjoy a beer or two… and think of all that was.

That’s what I’ll be doing. I hope.

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