It’s hard to imagine Willie Taggart’s stint in Eugene getting off to a more tumultuous start. Since taking the reins on December 7th, two of the four coaches that accompanied him from USF have faced disciplinary action and three players have been hospitalized. At this point, it’s safe to say that the novelty of his arrival has worn off, but can he regain the trust and confidence of the Ducks’ faithful?
Taggart’s difficulties began on January 16th when the Oregonian/OregonLive reported that three players were hospitalized following grueling strength training sessions described as similar to military basic training–including up to an hour of continuous push-ups and up-downs. The players have since been released from the hospital, and Taggart has described them as “tough,” praising their effort and drive in off-season work-outs.
The workouts in question were led by Irele Oderinde, who was announced as the Head Football Strength Coach on January 11th, replacing the legendary Jim Radcliffe after 32 seasons with the Ducks. Oderinde served as the Director of Athletic Performance at the University of South Florida in Taggart’s final two seasons. The announcement to hire Oderinde was made following Taggart stating in his introductory press conference that wanted the Ducks to be “bigger and stronger.” Taggart and his staff wanted to set a new tone, and it appears that Oderinde (who has no formal education or certification in the field of conditioning) overstepped his bounds.
The University has since suspended Oderinde for one month without pay, and he will no longer report directly to Taggart. In his absence, Radcliffe will re-assume his role in overseeing the program’s offseason training. Taggart also released a statement taking responsibility for the hospitalizations and apologizing for the incident.
The second incident occurred on January 22nd when co-offensive coordinator David Reaves was arrested in Eugene on charges of DUII, reckless driving, and reckless endangerment. In a statement, UO athletic director Rob Mullens stated that “Reaves has been placed on administrative leave and the process to terminate his employment with cause has commenced.” The official announcement of Reaves’ hiring was made just five days prior to his arrest. Before joining the Oregon coaching staff, Reaves served as co-offensive coordinator under Taggart at USF. Adding insult to injury, wide receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty was a passenger during Reaves’ arrest. It is unknown if he will face disciplinary action. Facing a DUI can have multiple repercussions, not just in work but in life outside too. Having a previous driving or criminal convictions on the road can mean that Reaves will find it hard to get insurance back on his car, if any. He will have to look to other areas to help him back to driving, only if the judge will allow it.
In both cases, swift and appropriate action was taken. The injured players have been released from the hospital and are expected to make a full recovery. Oderinde made a mistake and is being held accountable. At the conclusion of his suspension, his pockets will be a little lighter and his leash shorter. If he can take his licks, keep his head down, and do his job, I don’t see any reason why he can’t be successful with the Ducks. He undoubtedly has Taggart’s support, and many players have publicly supported him and come to his defense.
The situation with Reaves is much cleaner. His transgressions deemed so grave that they warranted a clean break. We’ll see him again-at a much less prominent program no doubt, but luckily for Taggart he will no longer be a liability in Eugene. His punishment was harsh, but fit the bill for a coach tasked with teaching young men in football and in life. In five short days, he was able to prove that he was unfit to fill that role.
This brings us to the man holding the bag, the ringleader that brought the (unwelcomed) show to town, Head Coach Willie Taggart. He hasn’t played a direct role in either of the two incidents that have landed his program in hot water; his only guilt by association. The men that he has chosen to surrounded himself with have done him no favors. At this point, no one is calling for him to be fired, but if the circus continues it will only be a matter of time. His start has been a nightmare, but his future could still be bright.
On the road to rebuilding relationships, the first thing that Taggart must do is win. His bosses (and fans) will have a much shorter memory if he is able to produce immediate on-field results. He is known as a coach that can build a program, and his track record at Western Kentucky and South Florida are promising. If he is able to return the Ducks to their former glory, this hellacious start could be no more than a single blip on a radar. While winning games will help his case, he will have to do more than that to succeed in Eugene.
I can only imagine the staff meetings following Reaves’ arrest and subsequent suspension/termination. If that didn’t prompt Taggart to light a fire under his staff, I don’t know what will. Taggart needs to lay down the law and get his house in order before moving forward. While he and his staff had a clean track record in Tampa, the spotlight is much larger at a perennial powerhouse like Oregon. If Taggart is not able to get his staff under control and out of the spotlight, people will start to wonder if he was the right man for the job.
The jury is still out on Taggart, but I believe he will thrive at Oregon. I hope these incidents are able to serve as a wake-up call rather than the beginnings of the slippery slope to his demise. Taggart was and still is the best man available for the job in Eugene. His first weeks have been horrendous, but give him time to right the ship. Luckily these recent troubles don’t seem to have had any adverse effect on recruiting, and I think Duck fans will be pleasantly surprised with the type of talent he and his staff are able to bring to town. Barring any future off-field controversies, I think Coach Taggart deserves the opportunity to prove himself on the field before he is written off. Only time will tell, and we’ll just have to see how much time Taggart is afforded to build his legacy in Eugene.