UNION — A murmuration of starlings danced among the treetops beyond Union County High at dusk on Thursday as Steve Taneyhill walked off the Yellow Jackets’ practice field.
The mass of birds — amorphous and seemingly adrift on the light, northerly breeze — once could have been an accurate manifestation of Taneyhill’s passions and goals after four years as USC’s first standout quarterback of the SEC era.
“I had no plan,” he said. “I just thought I’d play football.”
He came from a family of coaches. His father, Art, and sister, Debbie, both coached basketball. On Thursday, Art was on the sideline watching his son work, high-fiving and hugging players as they came off the field.
Art routinely makes the eight-hour drive south to attend his son’s games, be it when he started out at Cambridge Academy in Greenwood, his wildly successful years at Chesterfield High or now at Union.
He joked about his son’s headstrong ways, how it would be difficult for him to do anything but be a head coach.
It took some time before Taneyhill himself came to that realization. But once he did …
“It’s as close as you can get to playing without the bodily harm,” he said. “You have way more responsibilities, but it’s just like playing.”
At all three stops in his still-young career, the 39-year-old has won. Even this season, when the sleeping giant that is the Union program struggled to a 5-5 regular season mark. Two impressive postseason performances have the Yellow Jackets making a road trip to Columbia tonight to face A.C. Flora, with a berth in the Class 3A Upper State championship on the line.
From the outside, it seems obvious a USC Hall of Fame quarterback who led once-lightly regarded Chesterfield to three consecutive state championships should be the successor to David Lipsey.
But this is Union, one of the great football towns in South Carolina. Home of the five-time state champions and cradle of Palmetto State coaching legends.
“I think it’s one of those 10 places in the state of South Carolina as far as high school football being a town tradition,” Taneyhill said. “No question about that.”
When Union principal Floyd Lyles advertised the opening early this year, he was buried in resumes. Superintendent Kristi Woodall put together a search committee that would make a blue ribbon blush.
Taneyhill’s candidacy was strong, but it had to withstand the scrutiny of state championship coaches Shell Dula (Union, Greenwood), Mike Anthony (Union), Pat Littlejohn (Jonesville) and Lawrence Vanderford (Lockhart), among others.
It was in front of this group that Taneyhill boldly proclaimed he was the leader of the state’s second-best program at Chesterfield, behind only national powerhouse Byrnes.
“He was probably as confident in the interview as he was when he first put on his Carolina uniform,” Lyles said. “He’s very passionate and he has high expectations and he talked about his success at Chesterfield and what it takes to create a winning program.”
He convinced the group that he could reignite the once-proud Yellow Jackets’ tradition … but those hopes threatened to fly out the door as a man so used to winning and routine had neither during a rollercoaster 2012 season.
“He absolutely hates losing, without a shadow of a doubt,” Lyles said with a laugh. “We had a tough schedule and we lost some games, and he didn’t deal with that very well at all. So, I had to go in and remind him of what he said in the beginning.”
What Taneyhill was missing was his own routines. Like that murmuration of starlings, Union’s players were a shapeless mass of disorganized and undisciplined skill sets and focus.
After losing to Chester in the regular-season finale, though, Taneyhill perked up.
“He was so happy,” Lyles said. “I asked, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ and he said ‘I’m so happy. It’s the playoffs and everyone is 0-0.’ ”
Now, Union is 2-0 in Taneyhill’s view.
“We probably played our two best games of the year, and it has happened at the right time,” Taneyhill said. “Our season was up and down, and there were some tough Fridays. But there’s no question, I think our kids have done a good job.”
Thursday, every player was in his place, practice was executed with precision and — most important — routine. The Yellow Jackets were loose and most vestiges of that 5-5 regular season were long forgotten.
Taneyhill expects an overflow crowd to make the 70-mile trip to Columbia. When he is out and about in Union, all he hears is talk about the Yellow Jackets.
“When you’re winning, you’re one of the greatest coaches ever,” Lyles said. “When you lose, you’re one of the worst.”
Taneyhill understands that passion, for it burns within him.
“It’s great for the town and great for the place you’re living,” he said. “You look at football as such a big thing. You want the community to support the kids. That’s what it should be.”
At one time, Taneyhill had no idea what his future held. Now, he can imagine nothing other than what he’s doing. Coming to Union was about challenging himself. It was about building something. And at the same time, it was about doing what he was meant to do. His life has come into perfect focus.
As he summed up those feelings, the starlings coalesced on a hillside.
“Oh, yeah, I love it. I never thought I’d be a coach. Never crossed my mind,” he said. “But I’m glad it worked out. I love it.”