When Willie Taggart was introduced as Oregon’s next Head Football Coach in December, he energetically told fans, media and boosters to “Buckle up” and get ready for some fun.
Seven months into his new role, it’s safe to say he wasn’t kidding.
Despite a couple of early bumps in the road, including an almost immediate firing of one of his assistants who received a DUII, Coach Taggart has not only energized the program but he has done what many thought was nearly impossible- making Oregon relevant again in the recruiting world. In just a few short months, Taggart has propelled Oregon’s 2018 recruiting class to the #1 spot in the Pac-12 (6th overall nationally, according to Rivals.com) and created exciting momentum going looking ahead to 2019.
Undoubtedly, Taggart’s connections to the South (and the Harbaugh family), his charisma and energy have helped ignite the program. It is perhaps his behind-the-scenes chemistry work, however, that has played the biggest role in laying a solid foundation- getting current players to buy in and attracting a future generation of Ducks. It seems Taggart and Co. has not only focused on physicality, fundamentals, and discipline but they’ve also spent the off-season creating a “brotherhood” so-to-speak. If you’ve been a fan since at least the Mariota years, that should sound pleasantly familiar. In short, a big piece missing from last year’s puzzle may have been found.
At Oregon’s recent Media Day, I asked several players what single word they would use to describe this current team. “Family” and “Brothers” topped the list.
“Coach T has done a good job at bringing us together as a family,” linebacker, Troy Dye, said.
“Compared to last year, we’re more like family.”
Quarterback, Justin Herbert, agreed. “We’ve done a great job of coming together,” Herbert said.
The concept of creating a family-like environment isn’t new of course, it just seems Taggart and his staff have a successful approach in connecting with and relating to the team while creating a fun environment that emphasizes team bonding. For example, during Fall Camp, the team has spent a lot of time together, sharing rooms in the campus dorms. During the off-season, the coaching staff also planned several activities including, pool parties and community service, all geared toward helping players getting to know each other and the new coaching staff. Also part of the schedule, family nights.
Again though, team-building activities are not a new concept. So what is it about Taggart’s approach that seems to be working so well? It’s hard to say from the outside looking in but in just a few months of following this new staff, I can’t help but think the answer is found in one subtle, yet hugely important thing- everyone is included.
From the moment Taggart arrived in Eugene it was as if the hedges planted during the Chip Kelly-era that seemed to keep the program hidden were figuratively cut down. It was as if everyone, fans and media alike, were invited in to be part of the family again. Sure, there are limits to that inclusiveness but the openness has certainly created a much more cohesive environment and everyone seems happier for it.
It’s the little things.
A couple of months ago, I attended and covered Oregon’s Women’s Football Clinic, just as I have several times before. This time, however, things felt a whole lot different. A panel of coaches’ wives answered questions and players, including QB Justin Herbert, danced and interacted with attendees. It was the second half of the event, though, that stuck with me.
As I waited in a nearly empty Autzen Stadium for participants to flood in, I was greeted by one of the coaches as he talked via FaceTime with his significant other. A couple of minutes later, Defensive Coordinator, Jim Leavitt’s voice echoed throughout the stadium as he made his way down the stairs. He happened to be video chatting with his young daughters. “He does this all the time,” the coach next to me said with a chuckle.
Not five minutes later, several of the coaching staff’s kids and wives entered the stadium and joined in what was a light-hearted and fun-filled afternoon. Ladies laughed, coaches and players encouraged. Some (even QB Justin Herbert), showed off their fun side, dancing on a piece of equipment with fellow teammates.
It was as if this new family-oriented era of Oregon Football was on full display. I also couldn’t help but notice how approachable the coaches were. Not only were they friendly, they were seemingly excited to talk to people, including the media. A little thing that spoke volumes. If I, of all people, felt welcome and comfortable, how much more comfortable must the players feel? Sure, much remains to be seen in terms of X’s and O’s but it’s hard not to think this shift in team dynamic will pay dividends this fall. If nothing else, it is certainly laying a solid foundation for the future of Oregon Football.
Keep those seat belts buckled Ducks fans. It’s almost time for a family reunion.
Follow Nichole Brown on Twitter @UOgridirongirl