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Taking the lead

For someone so ballyhooed in his role as a dynamic recruiter, Oregon football coach Willie Taggart spoke softly on the patio at Rogue Valley Country Club Friday afternoon.

And yet the passion he exhibited for the sport he loves and the opportunity he now has with the Ducks may have well been blaring from a bullhorn.

Making his first appearance at the 32nd annual Duffin’ Fore the Ducks golf tournament, banquet and fundraising auction, Taggart blended in nicely with all those adorned in green and yellow but still stuck out as the lead figure in what many hope will be a return to prominence for a football program only two years removed from playing for the national championship.

“I think there’s a newfound energy in the program,” said Chad Cota, who played a key part in Oregon’s Rose Bowl run to cap the 1994 season. “You could definitely see that this spring with his whole staff, with coach Taggart leading it from the top on down. He’s got that confidence and that energy that is good, and obviously on the recruiting end is where I think he excels with that. And we’ll see it pay off hopefully on the field this fall.”

Taggart knows full well his task, and he doesn’t shy away from great expectations thrust upon his program. Oregon played in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 12, 2015 to conclude a stellar 2014 season, and Ducks fans have been chomping at the bit to get back after also falling short in the title game four years prior.

“That’s going to happen, especially when you’ve got a program like Oregon,” Taggart said of championship aspirations. “Everybody wants to win it all, but that’s what you want. You’ve got to have high expectations if you want to achieve high, so we’ve got to have high expectations.”

“It’s important to me to stay locked in to our team and make sure our team understands what it’s going to take to get what we ultimately want,” he added. “It’s not just going to happen, it’s every single day that we have to work toward winning a national championship. You can’t win a national championship without winning your conference. So it’s all a step to getting there, and we’ve got to work toward that every single day. Our fan base is going to have high expectations — and you appreciate that — but you’ve got to be a realist with your football team in what it takes and not get caught up in all those other things.”

To wit, Taggart’s focus since assuming control of the program from Mark Helfrich on Dec. 7, 2016, has been filling the roster with the best players possible and surrounding them with top-flight coaches at every turn. The affable Helfrich went 24-4 with the Ducks in his first two seasons but saw them dip to 9-4 in 2015 and then not be bowl eligible at 4-8 last fall.

Count Cota as someone who has been impressed thus far.

The former NFL safety has had the rare insight of gauging Taggart and company as an interested alum, as well as being the father of one of the nation’s top Class of 2018 recruits in South Medford receiver/defensive back Chase Cota.

“It was a bummer for coach Helfrich and the way that it slid a little bit because I really liked him,” said the elder Cota. "But I think now after everything, it was maybe good for a change and maybe we needed a little shot in the arm. I think coach Taggart’s doing that and I really like the energy in the whole staff. The guys he’s put together in the staff, it’s an amazing group and just a high-energy, enthusiastic group of coaches that I think are going to get it going.”

It bears noting that is not an endorsement of Oregon over other potential suitors for his son. The Cotas have long since made it clear that Chase is free to pursue any university he deems is the best fit, even if it isn’t his father’s alma mater.

But as someone who wants only the best for his former school, Chad Cota said he appreciates what he sees in Taggart, who has rebuilt programs at Western Kentucky and South Florida.

“He’s a definite leader and he’s got that ‘it’ factor for sure,” said Cota.

Chief among those factors is a no-nonsense nature that includes action over words. He instilled a “Do Something” mantra from Day 1 with the program and has not let up in making that a core value for all involved.

“I tell our guys all the time, I don’t know one successful person that didn’t do anything,” said Taggart, who turns 41 on Aug. 27. “If we want to be successful we’ve got to go out and do something and not make any excuses or blame anyone for us not having success. We have to work every single day to have the success that we want.”

That includes the head coach himself.

Since joining Oregon, Taggart has tirelessly been on the recruiting trail, first for assistant coaches and then for players to make his high-octane system fly.

“I feel like a flight attendant,” Taggart said with a laugh. “I’m all over the place. I’m really excited that my family will be out here the 12th of July so I really don’t have to go back across the country for a while besides recruiting.”

“It’s been a lot of miles, but that’s what it’s going to take here at the University of Oregon if we want to be the team that I think we can be,” he added. “We’ve got to go all over the country to make it happen, and you can because I feel like Oregon is a national brand and we can go all over the country to get guys.”

For Taggart, recruiting is the name of the game. He wants to be able to hold on to the best and brightest Oregon and the West Coast have to offer and keep the door open for anyone anywhere who can help the Ducks.

“We’ve got to recruit and get really good players in here,” he said. “It’s the only way we’re going to get what we all want is to get some really good football players in here and then just work every single day to try and change the culture to the way we want it.”

So far, Taggart said his message of opportunity at Oregon has been well-received on the recruiting trail and by players already in the program.

“I love the way our guys have been working, I love the way they’ve been coming together,” he said. “That’s been really important to me that we come together as a football team and learn to care about each other. They’ve been doing a great job of doing that. Our guys really want to win, they want to get better, they want to get this program back to where it belongs, and as a coach, you want to help them do that, especially when they buy in by doing the things you ask them to.”

Part of that buy-in has involved leaving egos at the door and embracing heightened competition for team roles.

“I think that’s what changes a football team," said Taggart. "You’ve got to be highly competitive and you’ve got to be working for your job every single day. I don’t think you serve your team right if you allow guys just to think they’re comfortable and it’s just their job. It’s not fair to the other guys that are working their tails off.”

“I really wanted our guys to understand that you can’t take a day off, you’ve got to be at your ‘A’ game every single day,” he added. “All these kids want to play in the NFL, and that’s what it takes in the NFL. You’ve got to take somebody’s job and then you’ve got to keep it once you get it. So that’s the environment we want to have around here every single day, and we want to recruit guys to come take their jobs.”

Besides the positive reception in the locker room, Taggart said he is especially thankful for the reception he’s received throughout the state from Oregon’s passionate fan base, and he plans on honoring those well-wishers.

“Every day you’re going to get my best and we’re going to work our tails off to make everybody proud,” he said before being carted away to the first tee. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but every day we’re making improvements. We live by the saying that you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, nobody stays the same. So we’re working to get better every single day.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

First-year Oregon football coach Willie Taggart attends the Duffin' Fore the Ducks golf tournament Friday at Rogue Valley Country Club. [JAMIE LUSCH/MAIL TRIBUNE]