Walt Bell, Willie Taggart hold reunion in Florida as UMass faces FAU

  • University of Massachusetts head coach Walt Bell walks the sideline in the first half of the Minutemen's 45-20 loss to Southern Illinois at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. KEVIN GUTTING/STAFF PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/20/2020 6:06:30 PM
Modified: 11/20/2020 6:06:17 PM

Walt Bell shared a sideline with Willie Taggart for 12 games in 2018.

On Friday night, they faced each other from opposite sidelines at FAU Stadium where the UMass football team played Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton, Florida.

It was Taggart’s first season coaching Florida State after taking over for Jimbo Fisher. Taggart hired Bell from Maryland in January 2018 to be the Seminoles’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, though Taggart retained play calling duties initially.

Their partnership wasn’t overwhelmingly successful on the field. Florida State went 5-7, the program’s first losing season since 1976. The Seminoles missed a bowl game for the first time since the 1981 season.

Bell took over play calling duties for the final four games, three against ranked teams. Florida State went 1-3 and averaged 19.25 points per contest compared to 19 across the whole year.

“You always prepare like you are going to call it no matter what, especially with as collaborative as we are,” Bell told the Tallahassee Democrat at the time. “Glad to get the opportunity and hopefully we don’t let Coach Tagg down.”

Bell developed a deep respect for Taggart in their brief time together. Taggart built a reputation as a program builder before arriving at Florida State. He turned Western Kentucky, his alma mater, into a bowl team at the beginning of the last decade before building South Florida into an American Athletic conference contender. After a one-year stop at Oregon he took over the Seminoles.

“Regardless of what happened at Florida State, Coach Tagg is a great man. You want to talk about people in this business that actually value and care about those players, he is one of those guys,” Bell said this week. “Even when he shouldn’t be, he is. He truly, genuinely is in the sport for the right reasons.”

The situation went sideway at Florida State. Bell left to coach UMass in December 2018, and Taggart was fired after a 4-5 start to the 2019 season. He landed at Florida Atlantic and has picked up speed since the season began. The Owls are 4-1 and only lost to a ranked Marshall team when they were playing without most of their starting defensive line because of COVID-19 quarantines.

“Willie is a guy that’s had to earn it the hard way,” Bell said. “I’ve got great respect for Willie.”

The coaches weren’t originally going to face each other this season. When UMass restarted its postponed football season, the Minutemen were looking for games and as an independent, they didn’t have a conference to provide opponents. UMass announced the game at Florida Atlantic on Nov. 6, just a two-week window before kickoff.

“Walt and I texted a couple weeks ago when this thing was coming together. He was fired up. Walt wanted to play some games,” Taggart said. “In order to get better you gotta play. I commend him and his program for doing that.”

They haven’t been in touch this week, though.

“Willie’s a competitor, too, now,” Bell said. “He’s ready to go play.”

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