DURING A COACHING career that spans 40 years, Charlie Taaffe counts any number of significant victories. While the coach at The Citadel, Taaffe’s Bulldogs defeated Arkansas, South Carolina, Army twice and Navy on two occasions.
More recently, as offensive coordinator, Taaffe and Central Florida registered a win against Penn State. A victory Saturday against 12th-ranked South Carolina would be yet another notch on Taaffe’s coaching belt.
Yet none of those noteworthy accomplishments compares to The Citadel’s 20-14 victory against Furman to conclude the 1992 regular season. The win clinched the Southern Conference championship and sent The Citadel into the NCAA Division 1-AA playoffs.
“As great as the Arkansas win was that season, and to beat the Gamecocks in 1990, those were great wins,” Taaffe said earlier this week. “But when you’re playing in the Southern Conference, you want to win that championship and to beat our arch-rival on that last regular-season Saturday, that was very special.”
The conference championship was The Citadel’s first since 1961. The Bulldogs have not won one since. The Citadel earned a No. 1 national ranking late that 1992 season before losing to Youngstown State in the second round of the 1-AA playoffs.
Taaffe was named the Eddie Robinson Award winner as the national coach of the year that season to go with Southern Conference coach of the year honors in 1988 and 1990. Taaffe’s teams at The Citadel went 55-47-1 over 10 seasons, leaving him with more wins than any coach in program history.
The Citadel teams ran the wishbone offense under Taaffe, and that explains how he became the coach at the Charleston-based school for the 1987 season. Taaffe, who played one season of football at Clemson before transferring to Siena, had previously coached at Albany, Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Virginia and Army.
Taaffe joined the staff at Army under coach Jim Young, whose success at Purdue featured a passing game with future NFL quarterbacks such as Mark Herrmann and Jim Everett. After a 2-9 season in 1983 primarily throwing the ball, Young recognized the success Air Force was having with the triple-option attack, and put Taaffe in charge of running the same offense at Army.
Army went 8-3-1 with a Cherry Bowl victory against Michigan State in 1984, then 9-3 with a Peach Bowl win against Illinois in 1985. The Citadel, which was not having success trying to throw the ball, took note and hired Taaffe as its coach.
“I think that made me an attractive candidate for The Citadel,” Taaffe said. “It’s harder to recruit at those schools and get the big linemen and the great skilled athletes to run that type of offense. So, the option attack became the great equalizer.”
Through his success at Army and at The Citadel, Taaffe had become labeled in the profession as an “option” offense coach. That quickly changed when he headed to Canada, first as offensive coordinator then as head coach of the Montreal Alouettes, where three-down football and a larger field leads to wide-open passing attacks.
Now in his fifth season at Central Florida, Taaffe has incorporated both styles of offense into the Knights’ multiple-look attack that features the zone read running game as well as numerous passing formations.
Prior to his arrival in 2008, Central Florida averaged 230 yards of offense per game. That total jumped to 341 yards in 2009 and the Knights have been among the nation’s leaders in offense every season since.
Among Central Florida’s bigger wins with Taaffe in charge of the offense was a victory against Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. Central Florida also won the Conference USA championship that season.
“The thing that makes coach Taaffe so special is he’s won everywhere he’s been,” said Everette Sands, USC’s running backs coach who was an All-American running back under Taaffe at The Citadel. “You’re a wishbone guy and then you go to Canadian football and you win there. Then you come back to college football and you’re winning there. He can adjust.”
Never were the rewards for those adjustments greater than at The Citadel for Taaffe, who is as proud of his former players’ off-field accomplishments as he is for the Bulldogs winning the Southern Conference title.
Taaffe can rattle off the successes of his Citadel players, starting with Sands.He also talks about having had someone to lead prayers at The Citadel and how Carey Cash, a guard on that 1992 team, is now the Rev. Cash — the U.S. Navy chaplain at Camp David and President Obama’s pastor.
Then there was the booming voice Taaffe can still hear from his Citadel days from guard DeRhon Robinson, who now goes by Morris Robinson as a singer for the Metropolitan Opera.
At least one of those former players speaks in the same reverential tone about their coach.
“He’s a great coach,” Sands said.