He hasn’t coached any games – or even conducted a practice session — yet, but I’m thinking most of us already have a positive opinion on the hiring of Head Coach Willie Taggart. As he, his staff, and players now prepare for spring practice in April, there seems to be a lot of rational enthusiasm being felt by almost all Duck fans. To paraphrase Taggart’s top mantra line, he has definitely “done something” [a lot of things] to give us reasons for optimism.
Let’s review the reasons for our optimism:
Coach T’s hiring of a “dream team” of assistants. Not in my wildest fantasies could I have imagined the Ducks totally replacing an exceptional group of assistant coaches with an even better staff, especially considering Taggart’s need to “clean house” and have co-workers he’s totally comfortable with, who he thinks can positively improve the entire Oregon football culture.
At the recruiting luncheon, it was neatly inspiring to hear Taggart and, new defensive coordinator, Jim Leavitt, reminisce about their first shared midnight phone call. Leavitt’s enthusiastic response to CWT’s job-offer, his asking CWT if it was OK if he brought along [great corners’ coach] Charles Clark with him, and then Taggart and Leavitt almost simultaneously coming up with the name of the “perfect” defensive line coach [Joe Salave’a].
To get the highly-regarded-by-all Mario Cristobal to leave the #1 program in the country and pass up a lot of other desirable job offers to come to the mysterious Pacific Northwest (an area I’ll bet he’s never seen) took exceptional recruiting ability from Coach Taggart.
But then troubles arose in the new magic kingdom. Taggart was faced with early difficulties.
“The only way to truly judge a person’s character is to see how they deal with adversity.”
Three Duck players were hospitalized. Too many folks, who only read headlines, inappropriately panicked. And even though Taggart rightly called the over-reactive story “bogus,” his new strength coach, Irele Oderinde, was unfairly suspended for just doing his job. Now I was impressed by how CWT quietly took his medicine, wrongfully prescribed though it was. Oh, Taggart told the real story to a reporter for The Oregonian, but that reporter [according to Taggart] ignored CWT’s interview and printed his own version of “over-conditioning gate.” I’m sure Coach T was pissed about this over-reaction, but he impressed me a lot by his letting it go; it wasn’t worth fighting over.
Then highly regarded assistant David Reaves got busted for drunk driving. Another character test for Taggart, who immediately took the proper action by firing Reaves. A wonderful opportunity to show all, “Coach T don’ t allow that shit” — even for a good friend.
At the time, I was surprised CWT allowed Coach Jimmy Dougherty [a passenger in the DUI car] to remain. But, as we’ve now learned, Dougherty was also correctly told to find employment elsewhere. (As were players in the program who had displayed improper behavior before Taggart arrived.) Now Duck players know they won’t get a second chance.
As he was dealing appropriately with those two issues, Taggart and his dream team (despite their late start) were able to recruit what appears to be an exceptional recruiting class. Jerry Thompson of Mighty Oregon magazine aptly called them “a first-class first class.” Recruiting Royce Freeman, Darren Carrington, and Tyrell Crosby to enthusiastically return for their senior years were also important preseason victories for Coach Taggart.
Now as Coach T readies for spring ball and continues recruiting for the future, he must complete his coaching staff. A very interesting-to-me surprise has recently happened in the assistant coach search.
Even if Reaves and Dougherty were still on his staff, Coach T needed a QB coach. All signs pointed me to LSU’s Dameyune Craig as that guy. Shortening the story to hopefully prevent eyes rolling, Craig seemed very desirable, and recently became available. All seemed in place for another great Taggart SEC dream hire – except it didn’t happen; no Dameyune Craig.
Instead, another wonderfully qualified coach, Marcus Arroyo from Oklahoma State, was hired as QB coach and co-offensive coordinator [in charge of pass offense, with Mario Cristobal in charge of the rushing offense].
Not hiring Craig might be another preseason victory for Taggart. My educated guess for not signing Craig says, “power struggle” and/or “not that eager to be at Oregon.” For whatever reason[s], Taggart thought Arroyo was better qualified than Craig to lead the Duck offense. As good a QB coach and recruiter as Craig might have been, he wanted something that Taggart didn’t want to give him. Whatever it was, Coach T was again strongly consistent in sticking to what he believes. Lowering your standards to maintain a relationship always leads to trouble.
So I send a surprised but very enthusiastic greeting to Coach Marcus Arroyo. A wonderful resume, strengthened greatly by rave reviews from those coaches he’s worked with and players he’s taught. Yet another great teacher with juice. Oklahoma State was as well-coached as any offense in the country in 2016. They were 9th in passing offense, 14th in total offense, and 17th in scoring [38.6]. Also, their freshman RB gained over 1,000 yards rushing. Just ask Coach Leavitt about Oklahoma State – they put up 38 against his very good Colorado defense in the Alamo Bowl.
After not offering Craig two things he might be enticed by, coaching QBs and being co-coordinator, Coach T still offered Craig the WRs’ coaching job, respecting his ability but knowing Craig probably wouldn’t take such a non-resume-building position.
So now Coach Taggart gets to positively move on with the unexpectedly wonderful hiring of Michael Johnson as the WRs’ coach. I remember Mike Riley giving Michael Johnson [whom I remembered as a great high school QB in So. Cal.], his first college job, as WR coach at OSU in 1997 and ’98. Then Dennis Erickson came to OSU and made Michael his QB coach. I remember Erickson introducing his young QB coach at an Oregon State Football Clinic in 2000 by saying that, “Some day Michael will be an outstanding head coach.” Johnson then gave a wonderful lecture on QB mechanics. I well remember his articulateness and charisma.
After a year under Erickson, Mike Riley got Johnson to join him again as his QB coach for the San Diego Chargers. In 2000 and 2001 Michael Johnson coached then Chargers’ QB, Jim Harbaugh. (The Harbaugh connection lives on) Michael Johnson also spent two years working for the other Harbaugh – John — as a WR coach with the Baltimore Ravens. As most of you probably know by now, Jim Harbaugh was set to hire Michael Johnson at Michigan, until Taggart’s friendly, family-style, intervention.
Looking at the rest of Johnson’s NFL and UCLA resume, you can see that he’s very well qualified for this WR coaching job. I’m not going to mention the possibility of Michael Jr., his highly touted QB son, joining him. That’s too far down the line for an old man like me.
But for now, Taggart appears to have kept his preseason victory streak alive. He’s taken the losses of Reaves and Dougherty, and replaced them with two better coaches: Marcus Arroyo and Michael Johnson.
The tight end coach will be named in April, when all NCAA football teams will be allowed to add a 10th assistant coach. It appears Taggart will promote his highly regarded graduate assistant David Gilbertson to coach the TEs; Gilbertson filled this role for Coach T at USF in 2015. But who knows what will be the next surprise Coach T will reveal?
It’s a very exciting time to be an Oregon Duck football fan, because Coach Willie Taggart has definitely DONE SOMETHING.
Retired Coach Mike Morris (Grizzled Ol’ Coach)
Pleasant Hill, Oregon