Tuesday, June 19, 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."

 
Comments
Rays DFA Rob Refsnyder to make room for Kevin Kiermaier

Rays DFA Rob Refsnyder to make room for Kevin Kiermaier

The Rays made official after Monday's game that CF Kevin Kiermaier would be activated on Tuesday.And to make room on the 40- and 25 man rosters, they designated for assignment OF Rob Refsnyder.Acquired from the Indians for cash considerations just be...
Updated: 20 minutes ago
Rays journal: A 4-0 lead disappears in loss at Houston

Rays journal: A 4-0 lead disappears in loss at Houston

HOUSTON — The Rays brought up several of their top prospects so they can get as much experience as possible.And Monday that included seeing how the relentless defending champion Astros worked their way back from an early four-run deficit to sco...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella pondered upside-down pitching in 2005

Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella pondered upside-down pitching in 2005

HOUSTON — Well before the idea of using a reliever to open games, as the Rays did against the Astros Monday for the 12th time, and then bringing in a starter was even a gleam in the eyes of the current Rays staff, former manager Lou Piniella wa...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Rays-Astros

Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Rays-Astros

RHP Ryne Stanek continues to look comfortable and confident as the game opener, retiring all five batters he faced. His six starts now cover a complete game, and he has allowed only two runs in the nine innings.OF Carlos Gomez's feelings about not li...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Sports on TV/radio for Tuesday, June 19

TODAYBaseballOrioles at Nationals7 p.m.MLBRays at Astros8 p.m.Fox Sun; 620-AMMarlins at Giants10 p.m.FSFDiamondbacks at Angels10 p.m.ESPNCollege baseball, World SeriesFlorida vs. Texas2 p.m.ESPNTexas Tech vs. Arkansas7 p.m.ESPNGolfPGA Professionals c...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Iceland World Cup Fever … catch it!

Iceland World Cup Fever … catch it!

TAMPA — Iceland isn't what it used to be. Literally. The Nordic island country is shrinking, what with global warming. Iceland's glaciers are getting smaller. If you took all that ice and laid it end to end, well, you clearly have nothing bette...
Updated: 6 hours ago
For starters: Rays at Astros, trying to stop a streaking champion

For starters: Rays at Astros, trying to stop a streaking champion

UPDATE, 6:40: Cash said he had a good talk with Hechavarria, and that he understood the situation. Cash said Hechavarria will get to play some, and when he does it will be at short. … RHP Chris Archer (abdominal strain) is slated to throw a bul...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Kevin Kiermaier set to rejoin Rays Tuesday

Kevin Kiermaier set to rejoin Rays Tuesday

CF Kevin Kiermaier is here in Houston and will work out with the Rays today, and said that if all goes well he will be activated on Tuesday.That would be a couple days ahead of his most recent timetable, which had him slated to return to Friday.Kierm...
Updated: 7 hours ago

Captain’s Corner: Tips on targeting American Red Snapper

American Red Snapper (ARS) season opened a few days ago and some types of bottom are holding bigger schools of ARS then other bottom types. The hard bottom areas that most fishermen prefer are holding large schools of ARS, but the fish have yet to m...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Barry Trotz resigns as coach of Stanley Cup-winning Capitals

Barry Trotz resigns as coach of Stanley Cup-winning Capitals

Barry Trotz abruptly stepped down as coach of the Washington Capitals on Monday after failing to agree to terms on a new contract, a stunning move that left the newly minted Stanley Cup champions without a coach with the draft later this week and wit...
Updated: 9 hours ago