Column: Two Willies, but only one is winning

Willie Simmons at FAMU game against North Carolina Central
Photo courtesy of FAMU Athletics Department

Another season of college football is in the books in Tallahassee. The 2018 season ended without a postseason berth for either of the city’s prestigious programs, but the sharp contrast in the direction of both programs is the biggest story headed into this offseason.

The Florida State Seminoles entered the 2018 season with so much hype and so much promise surrounding their new head coach, Willie Taggart, and the culture and swagger he brought to Tallahassee. The expectations surrounding this team when Taggart came in were at a level I haven’t seen in a long time.

And then came the Virginia Tech game on Labor Day, where Florida State was blown out by 21 points, and it all went downhill from there. The reality began to set in that the team Taggart inherited from the previous administration was plagued with issues that would derail this team’s hopes of extending the longest-running bowl streak in the nation.

Willie Taggart at FSU game against Syracuse
Photo courtesy of AP/Nick Lisi

From an undisciplined and uninspired team that would lead the nation in penalties and turnovers, and would suffer blowout losses to Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, and North Carolina State by at least 19 points, to an offensive line whose play was sporadic (and that’s being kind). All the way to a schedule that would have been absolutely brutal for any coach, let alone one taking over a program in his first season.

Add to all of that a blown 20-point lead against rival Miami in October, the worst home loss in the history of the program to rival Clemson, and the fact that Florida State’s record bowl streak was ended at the hands of the hated Gators in a 27-point home loss, I don’t think you could have had a worse start to your tenure as Florida State’s head coach if you are Willie Taggart.

One mile to the south and across the tracks, a revival was underway at FAMU as Willie Simmons began his first year as head coach of the Rattlers football team. Unlike Taggart, Simmons inherited a losing culture as he took over a Florida A&M team that had not had a winning season since 2011.

Unlike Florida State however, there were no high expectations going into this season for the Rattlers. Many fans that had endured the pain of six straight losing seasons didn’t think the Rattlers would be contenders so early into the campaign. Most experts in the MEAC picked the Rattlers to finish as low as fifth in their conference.

But late into his first season as Rattlers head coach, Simmons had not only managed to change the culture, he had sparked a resurgence of a once-proud tradition. Simmons began his first season as Rattlers head coach with a 6-2 record and a first place MEAC conference record of 5-0.

But how did a program that had failed to record a single winning season for the past six years, suddenly start to win seemingly overnight? Well, much of the success can be contributed to the arrival of Simmons, who has revived Florida A&M’s stagnant football culture and has given new direction to players and fans.

“The commentary was always the potential. Everyone spoke in the realm of down the line. A year or two years from now. It will take time to build the program. I think people questioned the heart and makeup of this team,” Simmons said in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat. 

“The leadership of returning players like Ryan Stanley, Chad Hunter, Elijah Watkins, Elijah Richardson, Terry Jefferson, Antonio Miller. These guys were frankly tired of losing. We challenged those guys when we got here.

“I told them it's not going to be me that changes the culture. It's going to be you guys. They took that message and ran with it. They started holding guys accountable about practice, coming to meetings on time, competing and the way we dress. Those guys and so many others deserve the credit.”

However, as the season began to wind down, the team began losing its focus down the home stretch. The Rattlers blew an opportunity to win the MEAC against an overrated Howard team due to turnovers and a lack of discipline.

And from there, it was the beginning of the end for this team. They would go on to lose their last three games of the season and finish 6-5, and in second place in the MEAC. Despite the disappointing end to the season, Simmons’ first season as Rattlers head coach was more of a success than anyone anticipated, as the Rattlers finished with a winning record for the first time since 2011.

Now that the season is over, the direction is clear for both of Tallahassee’s institutions. Both coaches have what it takes to win. For one coach, it’s a matter of establishing accountability and discipline and getting players and coaches who genuinely want to help turn your program around, while weeding out all of the cancers in the program that are ruining Florida State’s reputation.

As for the other coach, it’s all about continuing to implement your system and bring in more players to help contribute to rebuilding this tradition. More importantly, however, is the importance of stressing to your returning players the importance of finishing strong and not losing focus late in the season to prevent what happened this year from happening again next year.

“I'm not pounding my chest because we went 6-5,” Simmons said to the crowd at last week’s 220 Quarterback Club. “Yes, this was a good season. But we want more and we're going to do it.”

The precedent is there for both coaches, and they’ve already begun to lay down the groundwork. Now we look to see if they can piece it together next year and produce champions in Tallahassee.