LOS ANGELES — Willie Taggart realizes he only has the keys to Oregon’s football machine because it broke down last season.
So while the coach is respectful of the Ducks’ history and eager for the opportunity to take charge of a marquee program, Taggart clearly isn’t afraid to make any major changes he deems necessary to compete in the Pac-12.
“Anytime you come into a new program, changing the culture is probably the biggest thing and the hardest thing to do,” Taggart said Thursday during Pac-12 media days in Hollywood. “They have been doing it a certain way for a while, so it’s hard changing behaviors. But that’s the most important thing that we’re doing, is trying to change the culture, change the behavior to the way that we want it to be, not necessarily how it was before.”
One particular change will catch everyone’s eye this fall, although Taggart doesn’t consider it to be a big deal: The Ducks — long considered the most fashion-forward football team in the land with their splendid Nike gear — won’t wear a new uniform combination every week, the coach said.
Another difference seems pretty hard to fathom: The Ducks redefined up-tempo offensive football over the past decade, but quarterback Justin Herbert says you haven’t seen anything yet.
“We’re going to try and go even faster this year,” Herbert said. “The emphasis is on going fast. We’ve got so many guys to make plays, and my job is to distribute the ball.”
After fixing two programs already in his head coaching career, Taggart is taking on his biggest challenge yet with the Ducks.
Oregon’s 4-8 finish last season led to coach Mark Helfrich’s firing just two years after he won the Rose Bowl and reached the College Football Playoff’s championship game.
But Helfrich’s former players hint at fraying aspects of last season’s team, some of them visible only in retrospect.
When a program has as much momentum and importance as Oregon, it’s seemingly tougher to see why things aren’t working while it’s happening — and the differences under the new coaching staff are already clear.
“We’re just coming together as a team and bonding,” linebacker Troy Dye said. “You have to respect your brothers, love your brothers, and then it’s easy to play the game. Last year, I feel like the team didn’t know each other as well. Everybody had their own little groups. Now it’s a real team-bonding situation. It’s a real family group.”
Taggart is the Ducks’ first outside hire as head coach since Rich Brooks in 1977, and he realizes the high expectations inherent in the firing that led to his arrival.
After several months of implementing his plan heading into fall camp, the former Western Kentucky and South Florida coach still speaks passionately about his intention to instill his own athletic culture in Eugene, no matter how long it takes.
“It wasn’t necessarily broke or anything,” Taggart said about the Ducks’ off-the-field culture. “I don’t know what it was like before. It was just important that we get it the way that we want it, and knowing that that was going to take some time. We’re still in the process of changing that, but it’s been great.”
Until last season, Oregon’s approach appeared to work tremendously well. The Ducks had a spectacular six-season run under coaches Chip Kelly and Helfrich from 2009-14, but even the relatively minor slip of the past two years led to a major change.
Taggart made his intentions clear earlier this month when he dismissed talented receiver Darren Carrington following his arrest. Carrington transferred to Utah, depriving the Ducks of an offensive playmaker.
Although last season’s slip was a surprise, not many people will be surprised if Taggart needs a few years to get the Ducks back on top.
Oregon was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 North division in the preseason media poll.
Taggart knows he could have years of work to do, but he’ll do it day by day.
“Coach has already brought a lot of energy we didn’t have before,” Herbert said. “He’s so pumped up, even about practice. It’s a contagious thing.”