Sunday, January 21, 2018
Sports

Taggart's Western union

It is home to a bustling college and a Corvette plant, a modest-sized city in the Commonwealth's southern midsection. For those rearing families or retiring, they say Bowling Green, Ky. — with a population of around 60,000 — is tough to trump. The town square resembles something off a Norman Rockwell easel. The fall foliage is breathtaking.

"It's a great place to live," Willie Taggart said. "It's one of those places where you go and get there, and it'll trap you, it'll suck you in. You don't want to leave."

But leave he did. Three Decembers ago, Taggart, then Western Kentucky's football coach, bid farewell to his alma mater for the chance to coach at USF, less than an hour from his hometown of Palmetto.

When he informed his WKU team, just before a bowl practice, Taggart needed several minutes to compose himself before getting the words out. When he did break the news, players left their seats to hug their departing coach.

"It was like a morgue," said Bulls linebackers/special teams coach Raymond Woodie, in the room that day.

Yet in a sense, the departure was only physical. Ask Taggart and he'll tell you: Bowling Green remains embedded in his DNA. It's where he crossed manhood's threshold and found his vocation. Rest assured, the city and school embrace him back.

"He would be the Michael Jordan of Bowling Green," said USF defensive backs coach Alonzo Hampton, who also served on Taggart's WKU staff.

"They love him. Just what he did as a player, and then when he came back (as head coach) he changed the whole mindset, the attitude of the university. ... Everybody knows Willie Taggart in Bowling Green."

•••

Taggart would prefer the Miami Beach Bowl be about the program he has resuscitated instead of him. After a 1-3 start that appeared to leave his job in serious peril, USF (8-4) has won seven of eight and evolved into arguably the American Athletic Conference's best team this side of Houston.

But someone pulling the strings of this bowl — owned by the AAC — put this Bulls-Hilltoppers match-up together, and it's naive to suggest they weren't aware it might prompt some to reflect on Taggart's impact in Bowling Green.

"It's almost like LeBron (James) and Ohio," USF running backs coach Donte Pimpleton said.

Yep, that's how big Willie Taggart is at Western Kentucky. It's as clear as the likeness of his retired jersey (No. 1) emblazoned on the side of L.T. Smith Stadium. So just what kind of emotions will be percolating when Taggart takes the Marlins Park field today?

"I'm sure there will be some emotions," he said. "I don't know what kind of emotions or how it will be, but it will be something."

Of course it will. No one questions Taggart's ability to spend an afternoon locked in on vanquishing WKU's pass-centric offense. The 39-year-old has invested way too much sweat equity into USF to suggest otherwise.

Yet no one expects him to muster a deep-seated hate for the guys on the other sideline — many of whom he recruited — or the program they represent. There's simply too much history — nearly two decades worth — for Taggart to remain totally detached.

"I tell everyone, everything about me is WKU," he said.

"If a book was written on Western Kentucky football," Hilltoppers athletic director Todd Stewart said, "there would be a very long chapter on Willie Taggart."

•••

The genesis of Taggart's bond with Bowling Green is well-chronicled.

In the early 1990s, the Hilltoppers program was a Division I-AA bottom-feeder on the brink of being shut down. Veteran coach Jack Harbaugh's son Jim, then the Indianapolis Colts quarterback with a residence in Orlando, became certified as an NCAA volunteer assistant to help Jack recruit Central Florida. When Jim first phoned Taggart, then a senior at Bradenton Manatee, Taggart thought it was a prank. Things got serious when he learned the Harbaughs — unlike most Division I programs — wanted him to play quarterback. Taggart became WKU's starter immediately.

Three years later, he finished with 3,997 rushing yards (then a Division I and I-AA record for quarterbacks), 77 total touchdowns, three winning seasons and a playoff berth.

"They were ready to close us down," Pimpleton said. "He ... got 'em going."

When Taggart's playing career ended, he stuck around and served as an assistant for eight seasons.

By 2002, he was co-offensive coordinator for the Hilltoppers team that won the I-AA national championship.

Seven years after that, he was completing a three-year hitch on Jim Harbaugh's staff at Stanford when WKU, again wading in mediocrity after transitioning to I-A (Jack Harbaugh had long retired), was seeking a coach.

•••

Cue Act III of Taggart and the Hilltoppers. Assuming the reins of a program mired in a 20-game losing streak, Taggart had WKU bowl eligible by his second season and bowl bound by his third. His prevailing mantra: "Just keep fighting and something's gonna break," Bucs (and former WKU) running back Bobby Rainey said.

"I think what he brought that we really needed right away was confidence," said Stewart, the Hilltoppers' media relations chief at the time of Taggart's hiring.

"Even though we went 2-10 our first year, he always remained confident and he always projected that confidence.

"And I know that had a positive impact on our players. And he recruited at a high level, and then eventually we started winning. To me, that's really his biggest contribution: He established a winning culture here."

Willie and Western. So much to embrace.

"It's my alma mater and (this game) is different I guess because of that and the relationships," he said. "I'm happy for Western and their success and where they're at, but I'm very happy and proud of the Bulls and where we're at and where we're going."

 
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