TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Willie Taggart insisted on two things when staff members asked what he needed for his new office: Blow Pops and gummy bears. Not just any gummy bears, either. Haribo gummy bears, his preferred brand.
Other than that, there has been no time to make anything feel like home inside the Florida State facility. His office is empty except for the candy and family pictures, a plan to remodel on hold. Just down the hall, boxes sit unpacked inside recruiting coordinator David Kelly’s office.
Taggart had so much work to do after his official introduction as head coach on Dec. 6 that fixing up the offices ranked last among his list of priorities. No. 1 on that list, in big bold letters: save the 2018 recruiting class. Taggart had 14 days to persuade players committed to a team in transition to stay, and then roughly six weeks to build on the class and get it up to the standard expected in Tallahassee.
What he and his staff did ranks among the more remarkable signing day feats. Florida State went from No. 36 in the class rankings at the end of the early signing date in December to No. 11 after signing 14 more players on Wednesday. Among the 21 total players signed, nine are ESPN 300 players and 15 are four-star prospects.
So how did the Seminoles do it? Little sleep, long airplane rides, road trips across Florida and a network of relationships they built with high school coaches and recruits across the country.
“It’s been fun,” Taggart said, smiling. “I think I’ve been … I hate to say re-energized, but fired up even more being here and having to not necessarily turn around a program but just realign some things and get it going.”
On Dec. 6 and the days after, Taggart was essentially a one-man representative for a new Florida State staff that hadn’t been assembled. As soon as his introductory news conference finished, he decided he would visit committed players while trying to see others with whom he had a previous relationship. At that time, only a handful of Florida State commitments remained. His first visit went to linebacker Amari Gainer, a three-star recruit in Tallahassee. Easy enough.
Taggart and Jimbo Fisher’s old staff hit the road. Taggart flew to Georgia one day, then back to Tallahassee. The next morning, it was on to Orlando for the state high school championships, then back to Tallahassee to watch the team he inherited go through bowl practice. The next morning, he again was on a plane.
When the early signing period came on Dec. 20, FSU held on to three key recruits: Asante Samuel Jr., A.J. Lytton and Robert Cooper, all ESPN 300 players. Then Taggart showed a glimpse of what was to come when he flipped Jaiden Woodbey from Bellflower, California, and Isaiah Bolden from Wesley Chapel, Florida, two more ESPN 300 players. Bolden had been committed to him at Oregon.
When early signing period ended Dec. 22, the class was on sturdier ground.
The next day, Taggart flew home to Oregon to see his family for the first time since he took his new job.
Over the 17 days at Florida State, he signed a partial recruiting class, evaluated players on the roster during bowl practices and went about hiring a coaching staff. But that was only the beginning.
He had a plan for January: With his new coaching staff finally in the fold, Taggart felt they could make up some ground. Again, they went after players with whom they had built relationships, or high schools where they had recruited previously. When they were allowed to get back on the road, Taggart went to Seattle to see ESPN 300 receiver Tre’Shaun Harrison, the No. 1 player they targeted for the February signing date.
Harrison had committed to Taggart at Oregon but backed off the pledge when it looked as if Taggart would leave. He received one of Taggart’s first offers at Florida State. Coaches believe Harrison is a perfect fit for their offense, and given the dearth of scholarship receivers on the current Florida State roster, he would fill an immediate need.
Then it was off to Los Angeles, Texas and Alabama before returning for official visits in Tallahassee. That Sunday, in Florida, he hit Tampa, Bradenton, Clearwater, Venice and Polk County. This would be especially crucial for two reasons: Taggart is from Bradenton and coached at USF, so he is intimately familiar with the region. And Florida State had not recruited well in Tampa for decades.
What also helped there was his staff. Taggart hired five assistants who worked with him at USF. Beyond Tampa, Taggart tried to get across Florida, going to Pensacola, South Florida, Orlando and Jacksonville. His staff spent time in Georgia, too, another fertile recruiting area important to the Seminoles.
Tuesday, the day before signing day, he finally had a chance to take a breath.
Taggart said in his office, “I feel really good about tomorrow.”
Kelly arrived at the office at 4 a.m. Wednesday, unable to sleep. Taggart and nearly everybody else arrived at 6 a.m. On his drive in, as is his tradition, Taggart played “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. Dressed in a garnet Florida State sweatshirt and pants, he put on a new pair of Jordans. Taggart wanted to step up his swag game.
Coaches, staff and support personnel crowded inside the war room. The fax machine sat in the far corner, with the board listing all signees to the left. Taggart sat at the head of the long table, with ESPNU up on the projection screen at the front of the room and rap music playing. It was time to see whether the harried and hurried six weeks would pay off.
“Who’s it gonna be?” Taggart said at 7 a.m., when recruits could officially begin sending in their letters of intent.
Phones started ringing shortly after.
“XP!” Taggart said to four-star linebacker Xavier Peters, who had flipped from Kentucky a few weeks earlier. “What’s good with you? Be ready to send it so we can go crazy!” Another phone call.
“JC!” Taggart said to Jamarcus Chatman. “Today is the day. One of the next great Noles!”
At 7:09 a.m., the first fax was spit out. It came from ESPN 300 offensive guard Christian Meadows, who had been committed since July. Peters sent his shortly thereafter. To celebrate each player who signed, the Seminole war chant played, and staff did the Tomahawk Chop.
More letters started rolling in, including four-star receiver Jordan Young, whom the Seminoles flipped from Tennessee. Taggart asked to listen to “In the Air Tonight” again. Defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett chatted with four-star defensive end Dennis Briggs on FaceTime. Four-star receiver D’Marcus Adams called in next, finally signing after being committed to Florida State since June. “Boy, you made us work for it,” Taggart told him. “Welcome to the family.”
The early flurry and excitement lasted a few hours, phones constantly ringing. At one point, Taggart walked into the war room holding a spear they had planted just outside the door. By around 9 a.m., the staff queued up video of 2019 recruits for evaluation. The two biggest players left on the board — Harrison and quarterback James Foster — would make their announcements in the 11 a.m. hour.
Shortly before 10 a.m., athletic director Stan Wilcox peeked his head into the room. “Getting it done, congrats!” he told the staff. “I know it’s not over yet, but congrats!”
The staff soon found the live feed of Harrison’s announcement in Seattle. After an agonizing wait, he appeared on the screen with several hats in front of him. None had the Florida State logo. But coaches soon realized that his mother wasn’t standing with him, and that clued them in that she’d be involved in the big reveal.
After Harrison and several other family members wore shirts and hats for Utah, Oregon and Tennessee, the coaching staff inside the war room jumped out of their seats. They saw his mom enter the screen wearing Florida State gear.
The Seminole war chant played and everyone did the Tomahawk Chop. Taggart picked up the spear and coaches shouted, “Do something!” — a Taggart mantra.
Florida State got its top priority. Only Foster remained in question. After sitting back down in their seats, the staff pulled up the live feed of Foster’s announcement in Alabama. “C’mon, James!” Taggart then picked up the spear. “Just in case,” he said.
Taggart put everything he had into Foster’s recruitment, taking personal responsibility for trying to sign the four-star quarterback. Florida State had zero quarterbacks signed or committed, so with Foster, it was all or nothing. Foster sat in his high school gym with hats in front of him. Then he played a video about his life story and football career. As the video ended, Foster wore a Texas A&M hat.
Taggart put down the spear. Silence filled the room. Not only had Florida State lost its only quarterback recruit, but the Seminoles also lost him to their former coach. Foster’s was the last announcement the staff was waiting on. They slowly filed out of the room.
The disappointment was short-lived, though.
Florida State closed stronger than any other school, including Fisher and Texas A&M. Those Tampa connections got the Seminoles four players from the area. They flipped two players who had been committed to Tennessee; they beat Miami on important players, too.
The class hit needs at receiver, defensive back and defensive line. Quarterback remains a need, but Florida State does return Deondre Francois and James Blackman with playing experience. Given the new early signing date and crunched recruiting window, Florida State did a commendable job.
That said, Taggart and his staff have their sights set higher. Bringing in a top-three class in 2019 is the next goal. They already have four junior commitments, all ranked in the ESPN Junior 300. If the strong finish shows them anything, it’s that they can recruit better than they ever have with the Florida State brand to sell.
“I can only imagine having a year here to be able to recruit and be able to do a great job evaluating the guys we want in here,” Taggart said. “I can only imagine what that’s going to be like.”