Willie Taggart, The Leader

Recently I had the extremely appreciative joy of attending the Oregon Coaches’ Football Clinic.  I’ve been pretty-much annually attending football coaching clinics since 1964; heard many of the all-time greats speak, while always sitting up-front, eagerly asking questions when I could.  I’ve learned a lot about football and the personalities of many coaches.

But this Duck Clinic was wonderfully unique.

Head Coach Willie Taggart spoke, and he let all nine of his assistants also speak about who they were and how they taught. Each coach was given about a half-hour to “build relationships and talk ‘ball” with the [mainly high school] coaches in attendance.  It was the most enjoyable football clinic I‘ve ever attended.  I’ve rarely, if ever, seen any coach display the charismatically eloquent knowledge and likability displayed by the entire Duck staff.

A very interesting aspect of the coaches’ presentations was that Willie Taggart was the least charismatic of all the coaches.  Oh, Taggart was great – he gave definitely one of the best presentations because of its honesty, but, compared to the rest of his staff, Taggart is the lowest on my charisma scoreboard.  Saying that, I realize charisma, like sex appeal, is in the eye/mind of the beholder.

David Tarkington - Typepad

John Wooden

Is charisma important in a head football coach?  Definitely not.  Ever seen and/or heard Nick Saban? Bill Belichick?  Both definitely charisma-impaired. My all-time favorite coach, John Wooden, would register extremely low in charisma.

Many coaches – and bosses in other professions – think they have to speak [too] loudly and [too] often to establish themselves as the alpha.  Willie Taggart wisely knows he must be himself – very intelligent, thoughtful, organized, and positively ambitious, but lacking in charisma.  He knows well he can’t fool college football players into thinking he’s someone he’s not.

So he hired assistant coaches that were full of genuine “juice” [exuberant charisma].  Instead of being intimidated by assistant coaches with more charisma, Taggart searched passionately for them.  Three of his nine assistants have been head coaches, and six have been coordinators at the Division I or NFL level.  Two that haven’t been coordinators —Joe Salave’a and Charles Clark — are considered by many to be the best coaches of their position in the nation.

Taggart is definitely the leader – the alpha – of these great assistant coaches, but he leads with:

INTEGRITY

Every close relationship’s most important ingredient is trust.  Without trust, a healthy, honest  relationship is impossible.  People with 24/7/365 integrity are consistently moral.  They don’t respond to adversity by unnecessarily hurting someone else to improve themselves.

A leader can’t be trusted without constantly displaying integrity. Every Duck assistant coach said a big part of why they came to Oregon was the integrity of Willie Taggart.  They could trust him.

BELIEVABILITY

A head coach can have rock-solid integrity and still not have the knowledge necessary to get the job done. Taggart talked about his first interview to be the Head Coach at Western Kentucky.  He was only 25 and, in his words, very unprepared to even interview for that job, much less be able to do it well.  But after his embarrassment at that inept interview, Coach Taggart dedicated himself to learning how to become a great head coach.  He worked daily, using his job and friendship with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, to write down all his thoughts about what was necessary to lead a great football program.

Gary Breedlove

Coach Taggart watching Travis Jonsen.

When he had a chance at another Western Kentucky head coaching job interview, he was thoroughly prepared and confidently knocked it out of the park.  He didn’t know a lot more about the X’s and O’s of football, but he thought he now knew what it took to organize and LEAD a championship-level football program. When he was contacted about the Oregon head coaching job by Rob Mullins, he knew he’d be the best man to lead that program. “Preparation + Opportunity = Good Luck”

Each of Taggart’s assistants talked of how much Taggart’s shared “vision” of what Oregon would become influenced them to join him.  In Willie Taggart’s two previous rebuilding jobs and the way he dealt with people, Taggart had acquired the necessary “cred” to hire the finest staff of assistants in college football,  They believed . . .

CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM

Coaches have a unique power:  They are the only members of society who can give criticism [to their players] and have that criticism be immediately [apparently] acted on.  Misuse of that power, by way-too-influential and unqualified youth coaches, really infuriates me.

And even highly qualified college assistant football coaches must be held just as accountable to constructive criticism as their players, by the head coach..  While many bosses say, “It’s not important that you like me, but you must respect me”, it’s a lot easier to accept constructive criticism from someone you trust and like.

Again, all the coaches mentioned how much they genuinely liked Willie Taggart and the other assistants.  Alabama’s Nick Saban is having a hard time keeping assistant coaches because they simply don’t like working for him.

Gary Breedlove

Coach Willie Taggart cares for his players which is the big reason for an epic spring game weekend.

Don’t confuse likability with being “nice”, if that niceness in a coach hurts the football program.  Taggart isn’t always nice, nor does he expect that in his assistants. He didn’t pick his nine best friends to be assistants to be nice to them.  He picked the nine best possible coaches, who could help him build a new culture and win a National Championship at Oregon.

ROLE PLAYING

In today’s college football, it’s the assistant coaches that do the actual hands-on teaching of physical and mental skills.  They need the charismatically eloquent knowledge and likability [“juice”] they displayed at the coaches’ clinic.  Coach Taggart’s role is to provide supportive and/or critical wisdom to his players and assistant coaches. To substantiate what the assistants have taught their players.  To be a leader.

THE FUTURE

For now everything is going great in the University of Oregon football program.  But, as we all know, adversity is going to happen sometime in the future.  That’s when Coach Taggart’s leadership will really be tested.  But as the Ducks have concluded spring practice and move forward on player improvement and recruiting, I’m a definite believer in Coach Willie Taggart, the leader. 

Coach Mike Morris
Pleasant Hill, Oregon

Top photo by John Sperry

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