Can Willie Taggart make Oregon a Pac-12 contender again?

Oregon's winter of discontent wasn't immediately made glorious upon the hiring of Willie Taggart as head coach. January presented plenty of tumult and controversy.Yet Taggart and the Ducks are emerging from the chill, hoping to start a new narrative. A...

Can Willie Taggart make Oregon a Pac-12 contender again?

Oregon's winter of discontent wasn't immediately made glorious upon the hiring of Willie Taggart as head coach. January presented plenty of tumult and controversy.

Yet Taggart and the Ducks are emerging from the chill, hoping to start a new narrative. A solid haul on national signing day and an impressively completed staff, never mind the fits and starts, now yield to the hope of spring, with a return to the practice field in April.

What transpired since Taggart's arrival on Dec. 7 -- a freshly hired assistant coach fired because of a DUI and a controversy over three players hospitalized after a workout -- will fade from the headlines as one question moves to the foreground.

That question: Is Oregon's run as an elite college football power at an end as hated rival Washington makes its move?

From 2007-15, Oregon went 98-22 (.817). During that span, it twice played for the national title. Three other times, it played in BCS bowl games -- two Rose Bowls, one Fiesta Bowl. While Washington wallowed in misery and irrelevance, Oregon never won fewer than nine games over those nine seasons, while extending its winning streak against the Huskies to 12 games.

But the bottom fell out for Oregon in 2016 while the Huskies won the Pac-12 and earned a College Football Playoff berth. The Ducks' season included a 70-21 shellacking from Washington in Eugene, Oregon.

The Ducks finished 4-8, failing to qualify for a bowl game for the first time in 12 years, and coach Mark Helfrich was fired. He was just two years removed from leading his team to the first CFP national title game after blowing out Florida State in a semifinal.

When Taggart watched film from last season, he saw what Ducks fans and administrators thought they saw. Something was missing.

"When I was at Stanford [from 2007-09] and we played Oregon, you could tell they cared about each other with the way they played," Taggart said. "When I watched film, you didn't see that."

Shortly after arriving in Eugene, Taggart quizzed his players about what they thought went wrong in 2016.

"A lack of accountability. No leadership. That was the most consistent [comment]," Taggart said. "Guys wanted to get stronger.”

Ah, stronger. Tougher. More physical. The perceived absence of those qualities played into Taggart's first crisis. Three players -- offensive linemen Doug Brenner and Sam Poutasi and tight end Cam McCormick -- were hospitalized after a team workout. As a result, strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde, who followed Taggart from South Florida, was suspended for one month without pay.

A week after that report, co-offensive coordinator David Reaves was arrested for DUI, and he was fired shortly thereafter. New Ducks receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty was in the car with Reaves, and he ended up leaving for UCLA.

It wasn't the start anyone, including Taggart, had hoped for.

Taggart remains angry with how things went down for Oderinde, whom he vehemently defends. Taggart said the story took on a life of its own, with an inaccurate picture emerging of players passing out during and after a brutal workout. A number of Ducks defended Oderinde on social media.

"It was frustrating," Taggart said. "That's never happened to me Betpas before. People who know me know my players are everything to me."

In fact, when Taggart backtracks on the stepping stones of his coaching career, that -- players first -- is a consistent theme.

He started at quarterback for four years at Western Kentucky under Jack Harbaugh and then coached under him for four seasons. From the Harbaugh patriarch, Taggart said the chief lesson he learned was, "You've got to truly care about the kids and get to know the kids. It doesn't work any other way. If they don't feel like you truly care, they won't do anything for you."

During his tenure under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, the coaching lesson was a bit more terse.

Said Taggart, "Make no excuses. Blame no one. You've got to go out and work. Jim didn't sugarcoat anything, but he jumped right into the fire with [his players]."

As a head coach, Taggart has specialized in recovery and rebuilding. In his seven seasons as a head coach at Western Kentucky and South Florida, his teams never regressed. Every season, save one, his team posted a better record than the previous year.

While Oregon is a much different job than Western Kentucky and South Florida, Taggart sees his marching orders as being fairly similar.

"They all were going on a downward spiral when it comes to wins and losses and you've got to stop that in order to build it back up," he said. "The first thing is our guys need to play for each other. That doesn't just happen. You've got to create that culture."

Speaking of Oregon Ducks football culture ... Washington!

Just mentioning the hated Huskies furiously fluffs the feathers of Ducks fans, who mourn Washington's resurrection nearly as much as Oregon's faltering. And there's good news for the Oregon faithful on this front.

Helfrich was good friends with Huskies coach Chris Petersen, while former Oregon coach Chip Kelly seemingly enjoyed bothering Ducks fans by constantly announcing how much he liked former Washington coach Steve Sarkisian.

While Taggart respects what Petersen has accomplished -- "I know he's a damn good football coach who's had success everywhere he's been," he said. -- they have no relationship. And Taggart appears fully aware of the feeling among Ducks fans for all things purple.

"I got that sense the first time I set foot in the state of Oregon," he said. "There is not a lot of 'like' when it comes to those schools with each other. I figured that out from day one. That's a big-time rival."

While the inglorious ending of an eight-game winning streak to Oregon State in the Civil War hurts, nothing infuriates the Ducks more than the notion that the Huskies are seemingly poised after a decade-and-a-half hiatus to retake the Northwest.

So, January tumult and controversy aside, that's the ultimate measuring stick for Taggart.

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