EUGENE — Willie Taggart hasn’t left the building.
At least not yet.
Oregon’s coach returned to his plush office inside the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex after spending most of the week on the recruiting trail and ran the team’s first bowl practice on Friday afternoon.
Before stepping back on the field for the first time since the Ducks’ 69-10 victory over Oregon State last Saturday, Taggart did his best to stiff-arm questions about possibly leaving Oregon to become Florida State’s new head coach.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Taggart said when asked directly if he would be Oregon’s coach in 2018. “I’m the football coach. You guys ask me like you’re trying to get me out of here or something. I thought we were better than that. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Four years after winning a national championship at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher is taking his talents from Tallahassee, Florida, to College Station, Texas, after landing a reported 10-year, $75 million contract to become the head coach at Texas A&M.
The Seminoles were already vetting Taggart as a potential candidate to replace Fisher, according to a report by USA Today on Wednesday, and FootballScoop reported that Taggart is expected to be offered the job.
A source familiar with the situation told The Register-Guard that Oregon is preparing for a coaching search in the event Taggart does leave after one season in Eugene.
Taggart has led the Ducks to a 7-5 record in his first season. The 41-year-old Palmetto, Florida, native was hired away from South Florida on Dec. 7, 2016, to replace the fired Mark Helfrich.
“Absolutely,” Taggart said when asked if he understood that his background and resume made him a natural candidate for vacancies in Florida. “I’m from there. I coached there and we had a good season there and I just came here and we had a good season here.
“Our players have done a good job, and whenever you do a good job people talk about you. I’d rather them talk about me like that than the other way.”
The Register-Guard confirmed that Oregon offered Taggart a contract extension last weekend, which Sports Illustrated reported as a five-year deal worth $20 million. Taggart said his agent, Jimmy Sexton, is looking over the revised deal, and that Florida State had not contacted him directly or his agent as of about 3 p.m. Friday.
“There’s nothing to report,” Taggart said.
According to the terms of Taggart’s five-year contract with Oregon, he must provide athletic director Rob Mullens with written or verbal notice before meeting with representatives from another entity to discuss employment opportunities.
If Taggart did decide to terminate his Oregon contract, he must notify Mullens of the decision in writing. This action cannot be taken during the football season, unless both parties mutually agree otherwise.
Taggart or Florida State would have to pay Oregon a $3 million buyout if he were to leave before Jan. 31, 2018, plus repay the bulk of the $1.7 million that was paid to buy out his South Florida deal.
Mullens, a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee, is in Dallas preparing for the release of the four-team field on Sunday.
“I had never met Willie, and after the first meeting I was like, ‘This guy is special,’” Mullens recalled of his first interview with Taggart before the 2016 season kicked off. “He just has a charismatic quality, an incredible passion for what we do that came through loud and clear. He’s not afraid to set big goals, and very early on he said, ‘I want to be the first African-American coach to win a national championship.’”
Taggart said Friday that he believes that goal can be accomplished at Oregon, which has reached a tentative deal with Nike on a new 11-year apparel sponsorship worth $88 million. Last week Taggart watched the PK80 Invitational sitting courtside with super booster Phil Knight.
“Awesome,” Taggart said of his relationship with the Nike co-founder. “Phil’s great, we all know he’s great, and he’ll do what it takes for us to have what it takes to win football games.”
Taggart has a 47-50 career coaching record after rebuilding Western Kentucky and South Florida from the ground up.
The Ducks will return one of the nation’s elite quarterbacks next season in Justin Herbert, and the defense is dramatically improved under coordinator Jim Leavitt. The current coaching staff is also on the cusp of signing a top-five recruiting class.
Oregon’s players, a year removed from a 4-8 finish, are hoping the momentum isn’t interrupted by another coaching change.
“People are talking, but I try not to focus too much on that,” Herbert said of Taggart’s possible departure for Florida State. “I think if coach Taggart has something to say he’ll tell us. He’s an honest guy.
“We’ve got his back, and he’ll let us know if anything’s up.”