Taggart’s Departure Has Ducks at Crossroads

“Well, Willie Taggart,” Oregon’s ex-head coach said as he sat down for his initial press conference just less than a year ago. “It’s time to see what you’re about.”

Bringing up those words in this context is perhaps too harsh; much good was accomplished in that year. When athletic director Rob Mullens determined a culture change was in order, a culture change is what he got when Taggart sat down that afternoon. And too his credit Taggart did bring the enthusiasm and energy Mullens felt the program lacked.

It was maybe more of a culture change than Mullens bargained for in light of Taggart’s departure but now with all attention turned toward what’s next it is hard to imagine a return to anything that remotely resembles the landscape of a year ago.

Whoever assumes the job will find an athletic department determined to be a presence on social media and in the living rooms of the nation’s best recruits. The understated, quiet confidence that defined the previous way of doing business has given way to newsfeeds, likes and mentions, metrics that are almost as important as wins and losses. The relative merits of each perspective can be argued but what can’t be is there is no going back.

The process itself is as much a villain as anything else you may care to single out. Overlapping the bowl season with an early signing day for recruits right in the middle of the “silly season” of coaching changes is a prescription for disaster. The process is designed to fail in any number of ways but the impact falls particularly hard on incoming student athletes and there seems to be little that can be done to better shield them from the fallout.

And there is little that can be done to protect the institutions that have invested in the potential student athlete only to see another institution reap the reward. It’s a bad system all around and is more likely to get worse than get better.

During his press conference Mullens made the point several times that Oregon is a “special place” and he won’t get any quarrel from most of us that live here. But a lot of people are convinced that Florida is also a special place and one of those turned out to be Willie Taggart.

In his exit interview with Mullens, Taggart made it clear he was happy at Oregon but it was a “family decision” and that Florida State pulled at his “heart strings”. Maybe less his heartstrings than those of his wife and family but it is only fair to note Eugene is on a completely different planet than is Florida and the first year away from home is the toughest.

If the call of family is central to one’s sense of values, the call of family will be answered. Whether by the husband or by the wife or by both. So if that was “what Willie Taggart was about,” there should be no recrimination or remorse.

With there being no return to what was, the only option is to take what’s left and fashion a future of your own design. Which coaching candidate can best do that will be the multi-million dollar question that’s left for Mullens to answer.

He has much to sell. The new coach will inherit a talented, experienced football team with a schedule that points toward a possible 10 or more win season in 2018. The Ducks won’t be on anybody’s next best list in terms of facilities or administrative support… it wasn’t for Taggart but in most respects Oregon could easily be viewed as a destination job.

Chip Kelly couldn’t resist the siren call of the NFL and that will always be a possible monkey wrench in the works. But identifying a coach who sees Oregon and the community of Eugene/Springfield as a comfortable place to raise a family and an opportunity to compete on the national stage shouldn’t be difficult.

At least in the short term as much continuity as can be salvaged of the playbook would be of benefit and that would indicate elevating someone currently on staff. Such a candidate would also provide continuity and reassurance to both the upcoming and 2019 recruiting classes.

That alone can’t be the determining factor but those are advantages interim head coach Mario Cristobal will have should he be interested in the position. If Cristobal successfully completes a two week audition organizing the bowl practices and taking on the lead role in closing out the early recruiting cycle, Mullens could find the situation has resolved itself.

In the meantime vetting of other applicants can proceed and once the Las Vegas Bowl is history the Ducks will turn the page to a new chapter. No happy endings… no sad goodbyes… just 2018 less than a month away and a team that has enough pieces in place to keep one from looking too often into the rear view mirror. And that applies doubly to the new head coach.

   ~ Rick Morgan