Willie Taggart is enduring a nightmare start to his tenure at Oregon.
A quick rundown: Last week, three Ducks players ended up in the hospital with rhabdomyolysis – a syndrome in which soft muscle tissue breaks down and leaks into the bloodstream – after a series of military-style offseason workouts.
The man responsible for administering those workouts, new strength coach Irene Oderinde, was suspended for one month without pay. Moving forward, Oderinde will report to Oregon’s director of performance and sports science Andrew Murray instead of Taggart.
Then on Sunday, David Reaves, the team’s new co-offensive coordinator, was busted for a DUI in Eugene. Reaves, who was Taggart’s associate head coach at South Florida, was suspended indefinitely. Oregon is in the process of firing him.
It’s been an ugly start for Taggart, a coach who came to Eugene promising to change the culture of a program that had clearly decayed under previous head coach Mark Helfrich.
None of these incidents are fatal for Taggart. National Signing Day is next week Wednesday, and, by all accounts, Taggart and his new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt have been a hit on the recruiting trail.
So long as he can avoid any more major incidents, Taggart will be judged on his ability to win games at Oregon. But both for a coach who arrived as a culture-builder, this has been a deeply troubling month.
Reaves’ DUI is one thing. But the hospitalization of three players after post-holiday break workouts could be the kind of thing has recruits thinking twice about whether they want to be at Oregon.
When Taggart arrived at Oregon, he decided to start from scratch. He opted to bring in an entirely new coaching staff, drawn from several different schools, with the intention of shaking the program up.
That’s not necessarily an easy backdrop to build culture against. When Chip Kelly took over some eight years ago and built Oregon’s culture so successfully, he did so with the support of one of the longest-tenured staffs in college football.
Shortly after Taggart was introduced in Eugene, he was asked if he would retain any of that core group of Oregon assistants who have been at the school for decades.
“I plan on talking to the current staff, first and foremost,” Taggart replied. “I’d really like to sit down and talk with those guys and seeing [sic]if they’re a good fit for what we’re trying to do.”
Evidently, the answer was no. Not a single one of those longtime Ducks assistants – namely Gary Campbell, Don Pellum, Steve Greatwood, and Jim Radcliffe – were kept aboard.
Now, in an interesting twist of fate, Radcliffe is back. Still at the school and working with other Oregon athletic teams, Radcliffe is filling in for the month while the man who took his job, Irene Oderinde, is suspended.
Greatwood was snapped up by new Cal coach Justin Wilcox – himself a Eugene native who played for the Ducks. Pellum, who was at Oregon when Wilcox was a player, has also been rumored as a possible addition to the Bears’ staff.
Campbell, a true gem of a coach and person who was the longest-tenured assistant coach in college football, is said to be considering retirement. He announced his departure from the program in December.
Those are big losses. Taggart, without any previous connections to Oregon football, might not have an appreciation of what that group of coaches meant to the program.
They certainly helped Kelly keep the program together as he weathered an early storm of player misconduct from LaGarrett Blount’s punch at Boise State to Jeremiah Masoli’s burglary a early later.
But the men who Taggart has chosen to surround himself with aren’t making his job any easier.
And while Taggart shouldn’t be directly blamed for the conduct of Reaves and Oderinde, it’s hard to get around the fact that these are his guys – with him at South Florida, and now with him at Oregon.
Taggart likely knows that it’s weeks like these – in conjunction with losses on the field – that sap confidence and sink rebuilding projects.
The Pac-12, thanks in large part to the continued injections of money from the league’s TV deal, and the resurgences of Washington and USC, is far better than it was when Kelly or Helfrich took the reigns.
That, both of Taggart’s predecessors inherited ten-win teams. Taggart decidedly won’t. That’s why he needs the benefit of the doubt from the decision makers at Oregon while he tries to get the program back on the national stage. It likely won’t happen overnight.
Taggart has had success in building programs before. He did an extremely impressive job with Western Kentucky, and a very good job at USF as well. But this is a project on an entirely different level.
The margin for error is thin, and the excitement of that opening press conference is fading fast. Less than two months into his Oregon tenure, Willie Taggart’s back is already against the wall.