The Mess Jimbo Left: Inside FSU's Fall and Willie Taggart's Plan to Rise Again

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterJune 24, 2019

FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2017, file photo, Willie Taggart gestures as he is introduced as Florida State's new football coach during an NCAA college football news conference in Tallahassee, Fla. Taggart, the conference's only new coach in 2018, is taking over for Jimbo Fisher at Florida State and one of his first moves was to reconnect the Seminoles’ tradition-rich past with their present _ even bringing back Bobby Bowden for the spring game (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser, File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The first losing season in four decades. An NCAA-record 36-year bowl streak snapped. The worst academic performance among Power Five conferences.     

It's no wonder that Florida State fans have been doing everything from signing petitions to creating Facebook pages to starting GoFundMe campaigns to taking to social media to call for coach Willie Taggart's head.

But want to know who's really to blame for this mess in Tallahassee?

Look no further than former coach Jimbo Fisher.

Fisher, of course, is the man who pushed the program to the very top of the college football mountain not so long ago. But, according to FSU officials and former assistant coaches and players, it's also his fingerprints that are all over the decline.

Not Taggart's. While most of the college football world might have had Taggart pegged for the dreaded hot seat after going 5-7 in his first season, those at FSU say he's one of the safest coaches around and will get every opportunity to lift the program from an abyss he didn't create.

"We were 5-6 in Jimbo's last season when [Fisher] pulled the ripcord," FSU athletic director Dave Coburn says, referring to a decision late in the 2017 season to reschedule a game against Louisiana-Monroe that had previously been canceled because of Hurricane Irma.

"If we didn't buy that hurricane makeup game, the bowl streak would've ended then."

That's just three years after Fisher had engineered an impressive 29-game winning streak that included a national championship and a spot in the first College Football Playoff.

"We were Clemson before Clemson," a former assistant to Fisher at FSU says. "We were the team that had caught Alabama and was getting ready to pass them.

"Then it all fell off the cliff."

Right into the lap of Taggart, the fresh-faced, 42-year-old former college quarterback who walked into similar scenarios at Western Kentucky, USF and Oregon before leaving the Ducks after one season for his dream job at FSU.

Phil Sears/Associated Press

The dream quickly dissolved into a nightmare of a first season. There were academic deficiencies and recruiting failures. There was dysfunction on the field and in the locker room, within his coaching staff and in the classroom, soiling everything.

Not that Fisher will acknowledge his part in creating that situation. The now-Texas A&M coach told Bleacher Report in May: "I have no comment on that. I loved my time at FSU. We left the program in good shape, with good players."

Others around the program, however, tell a different story.

Many of the issues Taggart inherited, they say, began with the coddling of Jameis Winston, the player who led the Noles to such remarkable heights under Fisher. Those issues eventually bled into a hands-off attitude with academics and placed the program at risk of not complying with NCAA standards and being ineligible to participate in championship events.

Another former assistant under Fisher tells Bleacher Report that by the end of Fisher's reign, coaches were being given one mandate: "Keep the players eligible."

When asked if that was indeed the overriding academic plan, Coburn admits, "It appears that was the case."

Coburn, who worked as chief of staff for FSU president John Thrasher before Thrasher appointed him interim and then permanent athletic director, stops there. He wants to make one thing unequivocally clear: He and Thrasher, the man who ultimately would make any personnel decisions about the football program, are on the same page when it comes to any blame for the state of the team falling on Taggart—and Taggart's unshakable job security.

"I don't know how people can make an evaluation like that from the outside," Coburn continues. "They don't have a clue. It's almost not worth dignifying.

"What's real is there absolutely were locker room issues, and now, too, you can see the [academic] issues. Willie had a lot to deal with, beyond the field, when he got this job, and he's been busy dealing with it. That's [Taggart's] biggest culture change."

And what will it take to ultimately make that change?

Taggart says without hesitation: "Graduation and recruiting."

In early May, the NCAA released its annual Academic Progress Report (APR), and the FSU football team's score for the 2017-18 year was 922—last among Power Five programs and dangerously close to the line where the NCAA will take punitive action, beginning with a loss of practice hours and moving from there to ineligibility for championship events, loss of scholarships and eventually coaching suspensions.

That line is 930, but it's assessed against a four-year average, which spares FSU for now, if only barely, at 936.

The 2017-18 APR score falls under both Fisher and Taggart; the first half was when the team was coached by Fisher, the second by Taggart, who was hired in December 2017.

When the scores were released, Taggart took to Twitter to defend the program, tweeting and mentioning 24 players who finished "this semester" with academic success—and included their grade-point averages in the tweets.

Of all Taggart walked into at FSU, nothing was more disturbing than the idea of keeping players eligible. He was floored by the attitude toward academics when he arrived.

"Don't tell me [players] are not going to class. Are you s--tting me? They're going to class," Taggart says. "Who is he to tell you he's not going to class? That's accountability. That's discipline. If you're going to allow him to sit there and not go, of course he's not going. If we allow him to do that, shame on us. Then we really don't care. We're just here. We're just collecting the money and cheating the university."

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 27: Head coach Willie Taggart of the Florida State Seminoles looks on during the game against the Clemson Tigers at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 27, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Taggart says FSU had 29 players earn their personal-best GPA this semester, and the program had more than 25 players with a 3.0 GPA or better.

The obvious question: Where would FSU's APR be without the significant jump since Taggart's arrival?

"Don't even want to contemplate that," Coburn says. "The difference now is Willie isn't comfortable with just keeping players eligible. He not only wants them to succeed; he wants them to succeed at a high level academically. He's not just interested in them just graduating; he's interested in getting them graduated and employed—and that's a refreshing perspective."

Says FSU tailback Cam Akers: "I don't think [academics] are a problem now. I've always taken it seriously. So have a lot of other guys. Were other guys not in the past? Probably. But we're going to class, and we're competing as a team to build it back where it should be."

Academics under Fisher, one former FSU assistant coach says, were a direct result of a lack of discipline and direction on the team. Those issues soiled the locker room and fed entitlement—and it played out on the field.

That entitlement grew so significantly over the final three seasons under Fisher, it engulfed everything in its path.

"I've never seen a program go downhill so quickly after reaching the mountaintop," a former FSU assistant says. "Won it all [in 2013], then the worst thing that could've happened is going to the playoff the next year. The hardest job in this business is convincing kids who have been to the mountaintop that there's new, different gold up there—and it's worth the climb.

"Look, entitlement only gets that way if you allow it. You want to know why some kids thought they could do whatever they wanted? It was allowed."

For no one more so than Winston, whom three former assistants all named as the key figure in the program's collapse. (Winston's representation declined to provide him for comment on this story.) A Heisman Trophy winner, the foundation of FSU's 27 wins in 28 games in 2013 and 2014 and the eventual No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, Winston's FSU career was marked by off-field issues.

Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press

Among them was a rape allegation that was never criminally prosecuted but led to the university paying $950,000 to settle a Title IX lawsuit. And then an embarrassing citation for shoplifting crab legs. And then early in the second of Winston's two seasons played at FSU, he was suspended for one game by the university after making "offensive and vulgar" comments while standing on a table.

Winston actually dressed and showed up on the field for warm-ups for the game he was to be out, beginning to work through the team's typical routine. Fisher walked over to Winston and argued with his star quarterback about his presence on the field. Winston eventually left and came back in street clothes and his jersey to join the Seminoles on the sideline. After the game, Fisher explained away the incident with a ham-handed statement about "a miscommunication between us and the locker room."

That moment, one former FSU assistant coach says, was when the doors of entitlement swung wide open.

The cliff suddenly was within sight.

"Jameis walking out on the field, fully dressed, when he was suspended, after such a big deal was made about the suspension and his other problems? Come on," the former assistant says. "[Fisher] should've said one thing to Jameis: 'Get the f--k off the field. Now. Don't show your face in our facility for a week or two weeks.' And if [Winston] gets his feelings hurt and leaves, so be it. You've saved your team—instead of losing it down the road."

FSU beat Clemson with backup quarterback Sean Maguire and then won 10 straight with Winston and a team full of NFL talent. But the cracks were there. Despite the loaded team (FSU set an NFL draft record with 29 players selected from 2013 to '15), the Seminoles won five of those 10 games by a combined 18 points—before losing by 39 points to Oregon in the CFP national semifinal.

In his three seasons that followed, Fisher led FSU to 25 wins in 37 games, including a pedestrian 14-10 record in the ACC—a league he had dominated in his first five seasons, at 34-6.

"We had the better team in that playoff game," one former assistant coach says. "When I say better, I mean better across the board. There's no way we should've lost that game, and then to lose it like we did … that locker room after the game was almost exhaling. Like, this crazy ride is finally over."

Only it wasn't.

FSU began the 2017 season ranked in the Top Five and with a marquee opener against college football king Alabama.

The Noles were two years removed from their last season among the nation's elite and had clearly ceded the ACC to the league's new power, Clemson. In the two years since the loss to Oregon, FSU had won 20 games but lost to Clemson twice, was embarrassed by Group of Five team Houston (Peach Bowl) and lost to Louisville by 43 points.

The game against Alabama to begin 2017 was where FSU was supposed to make a stand with another talented team and a second-year quarterback (Deondre Francois) with NFL talent. Then late in the second half of a 24-7 loss, Francois tore the ACL in his left knee, and another critical issue to the fall of the program was exposed: debilitating misses in recruiting the most important position on the field.

For the remainder of the season, FSU was forced to use freshman James Blackman, a 6'2", 165-pound project who was nowhere near ready to play college football.

TALLAHASSEE, FL - MARCH 23: Head Coach Willie Taggart talks with Quarterback James Blackman #13 of the Florida State Seminoles during Spring Football Practice at the Albert J. Dunlap Athletic Training Facility on March 23, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida. (P
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

"What people don't understand is, I was never really coached to play the position before I got to FSU," Blackman says. "I used to search YouTube and watch other quarterbacks play the game and try to learn from it. It was a big step for me to even be at FSU. Jimbo did a great job helping me, sticking with me throughout the season so I didn't go out there and embarrass myself. I learned a lot from him about playing the position."

Fisher's coaching ability has never been in question. He's one of the game's elite and developed three quarterbacks (Christian Ponder, EJ Manuel, Winston) into first-round NFL draft picks.

But it's the recruiting misses at the position after Winston that still haunt the program. Since signing Winston, Fisher's unremarkable rundown of quarterbacks contributed significantly to the slide of the program:

• 2013, John Franklin III: Never played, transferred after two seasons and eventually switched positions. Now plays defensive back for the Chicago Bears.

• 2014, J.J. Cosentino: Career backup who left the program with one year of eligibility remaining.

• 2015, Deondre Francois: Two-year starter dismissed after the 2018 season because of allegations of domestic violence.

• 2015, DeAndre Johnson: Was dismissed before his freshman season began for striking a woman at a bar. Currently at Texas Southern.

• 2016, Malik Henry: Left the program during his freshman season. Now a walk-on at Nevada.

• 2017, Bailey Hockman: Redshirted as a freshman; transferred to NC State.

• 2017, Blackman: Started as a freshman, redshirted in 2018 and is FSU's projected starter for 2019.

Three quarterbacks Fisher recruited before Winston also never panned out: Clint Trickett (transferred), Jacob Coker (transferred, won a national title with Alabama) and Maguire. Ponder, Manuel and Trickett were recruited with Bobby Bowden as head coach.

FSU's quarterback depth chart this fall includes Blackman, Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook and Louisville transfer Jordan Travis.

"Our problem was recruiting—the quarterback particularly," a former FSU assistant says. "That's where you live and die in this game. You get the right players, you win a lot of games. The problem is, we took too many chances on kids we probably shouldn't have signed.

"You have to dig deep into every player's background, and when you don't, you get problem guys or guys that have no business playing at this level."

After months of locker room issues last season and even, Taggart admits, dysfunction among the coaching staff, rock bottom arrived in the season finale against rival Florida.

FSU needed a win to salvage its bowl streak, and instead it all fell apart in the second half of a 41-14 loss that snapped a five-game winning streak over the Gators and gave the Noles their first losing season in more than four decades.

At one point in the fourth quarter, Florida safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson lined up to defend the FSU offense and noticed the unit was a player short. He turned and motioned to the FSU sideline that the Seminoles were missing a player.

A receiver ran on the field, and then Francois threw incomplete into double coverage. A microcosm of the season.

Since that game, Taggart has overhauled his offensive staff, hiring Kendal Briles to run the Baylor offense and call plays. He says FSU now has staff harmony. Players responded in spring practice, and the buy-in that wasn't there in 2018 is now nearly 100 percent.

"There's a vibe now. It's coming. The walls are coming down. I see a football team that wants to right the ship," Taggart says. "You see it in the way they've responded to everything since the end of last season."

How bad, he is asked, did it get last season?

"Bad, man. Just that b---hing and moaning, about anything—because everything wasn't what it was before," Taggart says. "Why we gotta do this? Why we gotta do that? There's none of that now. And we tried to put them in situations this spring where they could've easily said that. We ran the s--t out of them, and no one said anything."

TALLAHASSEE, FL - MARCH 23: Head Coach Willie Taggart of the Florida State Seminoles during Spring Football Practice at the Albert J. Dunlap Athletic Training Facility on March 23, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

He stares out onto the field that Bobby Bowden built, where Taggart once watched games as a boy and where he dreamed of playing as a Florida high school star at Manatee High School in Bradenton. The field where Jimbo Fisher had a national championship team just five short seasons ago.

Taggart didn't visit FSU before agreeing to a deal in a room at the Atlanta airport. He didn't need to see the campus or the facilities, because he knew what he was walking into and knew how it got there. He's seen it before. It's the same type of nightmare he walked into at Western Kentucky, and the same damn thing at USF.

WKU had won two of 24 games prior to Taggart's arrival in 2010 and won two games in his first season before everything changed. USF had back-to-back losing seasons before Taggart arrived in 2013 and then won six games in his first two seasons before winning 19 in his final two seasons.

Oregon was coming off its worst record in 25 years when Taggart was hired in December 2016 and then won seven games in Taggart's first season—and likely would've won more but for an injury to star quarterback Justin Herbert.

All three situations, Taggart says, were similar to what he saw at FSU—on the field and in the locker room.  

"I saw it when [Francois] went down with an injury and the entire team was crushed," Taggart says. "I look for those red flags, those things that show you it's a problem on and off the field. I see other teams now, and I think, 'I guarantee this is what's going on there.'"

He pauses and thumps his knuckles on the big oak table in the big office that overlooks Doak Campbell Stadium.

"Then you see a team that's winning," he says, his voice rising. "They love each other. They care for each other. They're having fun. They create it.

"We're far from a finished product, but it's coming. And it's going to be a beautiful thing."

So don't blame Willie Taggart for how we got to this point.

He’s just getting started.


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