EUGENE — Willie Taggart’s number one goal when he arrived at Oregon was to change the culture with the Ducks’ football program.
His idea was to create a family atmosphere where players not only wanted to play with each other, but for each other.
That would be far different from last season, when the locker room became fractured, and when things went bad, the team spiraled to a 4-8 record under former head coach Mark Helfrich.
With the Ducks opening fall camp on Monday, Taggart told the media Sunday that he has seen a shift in the culture during his first eight months on the job.
“They enjoy each other. When we sit down and have a meal, you see them joking around. For me, to sit back and watch that, I get goosebumps. This is how it’s supposed to be,” Taggart said during media day at Autzen Stadium. “When guys are leaving the building, there’s four or five guys together, and I’m like, ‘Yes. The guys aren’t by themselves anymore. And I think that’s a good sign.”
VIDEO: Ducks players to watch
Taggart is not a stranger to rebuilding programs. He turned Western Kentucky from a 2-10 team his first season to a 7-5 program in his second and third seasons. At South Florida, he went from 2-10 to 10-2 in four seasons.
There still is work to do in rebuilding a winning culture in Eugene. In fact, Taggart said his biggest worry is how the team will respond to adversity.
Taggart’s concern is that they will revert back to their old ways when things go bad. His job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“We have to handle adversity,” Taggart said. “We have to look at adversity and say ‘bring it on.’”
Oregon opens the season at 5:15 p.m. Sept. 2 against Southern Utah at Autzen Stadium. Between now and then, there will be heavy competition at most positions, and that includes the freshmen.
“I told the freshmen that I recruited them to take somebody’s job,” Taggart said. “We won’t solidify a depth chart anytime soon.”
The biggest difference between Taggart and Helfrich is the energy level. Helfrich was usually soft-spoken and reserved, while Taggart speaks with excitement and emotion.
His energy, especially on social media, is the driving force behind his recruiting success since joining the Ducks in December. After delivering the No. 19-ranked recruiting class in 2017, his current 2018 class ranks fifth in the nation.
But his energy is not just felt on the recruiting trail, it’s also felt in the locker room. The players are taking notice, and they say that his style is infectious.
“Coach Taggart brings a lot of energy every day to the building, whether it’s talking about football or just life itself,” sophomore linebacker Troy Dye said. “He wants you to be enthusiastic about everything you do. He wants us to do everything 100 percent, and have fun doing it.”
Taggart’s enthusiasm was on display Sunday as he and the team prepare for the start of fall camp.
“It’s Christmas in July. I’m very excited for the 2017 season,” Taggart said. “I’m really excited for this training camp. There’s going to be a lot of competition, and that’s how we want it around here.”
This season will be a turning point for the Oregon program. In the past eight seasons, the Ducks have won four Pac-12 championships, earned two Rose Bowl victories, advanced to two national championship games and had one Heisman Trophy winner.
But Oregon has been trending downward since quarterback Marcus Mariota left. The program also has its fourth head coach in 10 seasons — Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly, Helfrich and Taggart.
Taggart’s job is to get the program back on the right track and build toward another championship run.
It has been a busy offseason for the Ducks as Taggart has built a staff, introduced his systems and worked tirelessly to recruit better talent.
However, Taggart ultimately will be judged by how Oregon does on the field, and fall camp is the last chance to get the team together and ready to face competition.
“It’s so important that our guys come together and enjoy being around each other and love each other,” Taggart said. “I think training camp is a time when we can continue to build that, so once we get to the fall, guys want to play for one another.”