As football season approaches we will see more and more articles identifying coaches on the hot seat, and Willie Taggart's name will be on most, if not all of them. I don't think anyone who follows the Bulls would disagree that Willie doesn't need a space heater to keep warm when he is sitting at his desk. Bulls fans understood Year One, but expected big things in Year Two and they never materialized. Now Year Three is make or break time.
As maligned as Skip Holtz was at USF, he did beat Miami, Clemson and Notre Dame. Skip's problem was his teams got worse; now Taggart needs to show the fans that his teams are getting better.
Taggart can look back in Bulls history and see great examples of what to do and what not to do. Head coaches get paid big money, and they have to remember that the kids they coach are still amateurs who don't exist just for the sake of helping the head coach keep their job and paycheck a year longer. I know of at least two examples where former USF head coaches (across all sports) burned a player's redshirt year late in a season trying to save their job (Ed: we're assuming this was one of them.) Both of my examples failed, the seasons didn't turn around, and the coach was fired. Plus two student-athletes lost a year of competition for just a meaningless late season game or two.
The shining example comes from the 1995-96 men's basketball season. USF was coming off a successful campaign the year before where the Bulls advanced to the Elite 8 of the NIT. Chucky Atkins came back to play his senior year after competing in the World University Games, star freshman Brian Lamb was a year older, and with big men Donzel Rush, James Harper and Pat Lawrence Bulls fans were expecting a trip to the NCAA tournament. It started promising with the Bulls winning five of the first six, including beating UF in the Sun Dome.
But things went south when conference play began. This was the first year of Conference USA, and USF wasn't up to the challenge. The Bulls dropped 12 of their first 13 Conference USA games, but just as bad as the losses was the attrition of the team. Players were failing drug tests, quitting, transferring away, failing classes and finding just about any reason not to be there. Every game the bench seemed to get smaller. As the Bulls headed into their final regular season game hosting UAB the team had 7.5 players.
What does a half a player looks like? Well he was big, his name was Rich Stephens. He was a raw talent who wasn't ready for the speed of big time college basketball. Coach Paschal had decided to redshirt Stephens so he could better adapt. He dressed for every home game but never played.
USF managed to beat Gene Bartow's UAB squad to end the regular season. The story goes that Pat Lawrence quit the team on the way to the airport for the conference tournament because he felt he was disrespected during Senior Night (ed: that story is absolutely true). So USF headed to the first ever Conference USA tournament with only 6.5 eligible bodies. What happened if two players fouled out? Could USF have had their Hoosiers moment & gone Norman Dale with a "my team is on the court" moment?
Many people wanted USF to quietly lose that first game so the year would end. But USF beat UAB for a second time in a row, and legendary Coach Gene Bartow ended his coaching career with back-to-back losses to a USF squad with seven, then six, active players. The Bulls battled Marquette to a respectable nine-point loss in the second round, but year of high expectations ended about as low as possible.
During that season USF Hall of Fame Coach Bobby Paschal decided it was time to step down. He deserved a farewell tour after taking USF to its only two NCAA tournaments to that point. People talked about his legacy being big wins and great players like Dobras and Atkins. To me his legacy of integrity and doing the right thing can be seen in Rich Stephens (who ended up transferring and never playing a game in a USF uniform). Paschal saw his year crumble around him. He could motivate players, and he could have convinced Rich that it was good for him to play those last few games. He didn't. Rich didn't have to give up a year of eligibility to try to save his coach's job.
I hope Taggart wins big in 2015 and we never need to have this discussion. But if things don't go right, then look to Bobby Paschal and the way he won with class and dignity, but also showed that same class and dignity in defeat.