USF coach Taggart is 'other' Harbaugh brother

LEFT: Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky QB, with coach Jack Harbaugh.
Right: Willie Taggart, Stanford assistant, with coach Jim Harbaugh.
LEFT: Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky QB, with coach Jack Harbaugh. Right: Willie Taggart, Stanford assistant, with coach Jim Harbaugh.
Published Jan. 27, 2013

By now everyone knows about John, the oldest brother. He's the cerebral one. He's a little calmer, a little quieter.

By now everyone knows about Jim, the middle brother. He's the fiery one. No one has to look twice to see he is willing to fight over every blade of grass.

By now you have heard about Jack and Jackie and Joani and the rest of the Harbaugh clan.

Perhaps it is time the world paid a little attention to Jason Harbaugh, the little brother.

You might know him as Willie Taggart.

Taggart laughs loudly as he tells you about his alter ego. After all, Taggart, the USF coach, is as close to being a Harbaugh as DNA will allow. He walks like them, he talks like them, he coaches like them.

"My brothers,'' he calls Jim and John, the opposing Super Bowl coaches, Jim with 49ers, John the Ravens. "I owe them everything.''

How close are they?

So close that Taneshia Taggart, Willie's wife, has a pet name for her husband: "Jason Harbaugh.''

Is that a dig or a compliment?

"When she says it, it's probably a little of both,'' Willie said.

The Harbaughs are a part of his family, and he is a part of theirs.

In the good times and in the bad, he has leaned on them. Some players like the families of their coaches, and some admire them. Taggart? He bonded with his.

Taggart, 36, played for the father, Jack Harbaugh, at Western Kentucky. He worked as an intern for the Eagles when John (now 50) was an assistant coach there. He worked for the Raiders when Jim (now 49) was an assistant.

Jim was the best man in Willie's wedding. Willie was an usher in Jim's. Willie's second son, Jackson, was named after Jack. When Taneshia and Willie's child was stillborn last summer, constant phone calls from the Harbaugh family helped him endure the pain.

"I wouldn't be where I'm at without them,'' Taggart said. "Without the Harbaughs, I wouldn't be the head coach at the University of South Florida. They showed me the way. They gave me the blueprint. Not just being a coach, but being a person. They taught me how to be a coach, a husband, a father.

"I would do anything for that family. Anything. Willie Taggart owes a debt to the Harbaughs.''

Interesting how strangers can become family, how intersections can change lives. Taggart was a high school senior when the Harbaughs came into his life. Jim Harbaugh was an NFL quarterback for the Bears, but with Western Kentucky talking about shutting down its football program, he volunteered to be an assistant coach for his father as well.

His pay? Nothing.

His plan? Make Willie Taggart his first phone call.

Turns out there was a problem. Taggart, a senior at Bradenton Manatee High, didn't believe that was really Jim Harbaugh on the other end of the phone, not even when Jim handed the phone to Jack. It was only later, when his high school coach vouched for them both, that Willie believed.

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"When you're 18 or 19, you need a mentor,'' Willie said. "From the time they recruited me, they have never changed.

"Jim was the one who first told me to write down my goals and put them up where I could see them and every day do something to get closer to your goal. To this day, I do that. I want our players to do it, too. I'll laminate them, and they can put them in their locker or on a mirror.''

There were other lessons. Every day Taggart saw how the Harbaughs interacted with their players. He saw when the boxes came, filled with practice shoes Jim had gotten from his NFL teams.

Taggart can tell you a few stories about the Harbaugh brothers. Both are smart. Both are driven. Both have a gift to inspire others to play as if they are on a personal mission.

On John: "I remember going to study some things in Baltimore, and he was running gassers with his team. At the end, he was diving toward the line so he could beat his players. Here's an NFL coach, and he's diving across the grass so he can win a wind sprint.''

On Jim: "He and the defensive line coach would play basketball, and they would play to 10, and it would take 45 minutes. Neither one of them wanted to give up a goal.''

On sister Joani: "She's a winner, too. She married a coach (Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean).''

On Jack: "I don't know that anyone knows how good a coach he was. No one was better at dealing with people. He saved football at Western Kentucky. Saved it. Without him, they wouldn't have football at Western Kentucky.''

On Jack's wife, Jackie: "She's the head coach. People think Jim and John got their competitiveness from Jack. They didn't. They got it from her.''

Taggart grins as he ticks off the stories. He picks through his telephone, showing you this photo and that one featuring one Harbaugh or another. They talk often on the telephone. Whenever they say goodbye, each side tells the other that he loves him. Yeah, they are on the same team.

"Being around John, being around Jim, I can see their dad," Taggart said. "They have a passion and a desire to make a difference in their players. They have that rare combination of sincerity and forcefulness. You don't get that with most coaches.''

Still, the best man?

Taggart could have asked a dozen people to be his best man. He picked Jim.

"Because he was the best man,'' Taggart said. "He's been my role model. He's been everything I want to be.''

Later on, Taggart was an usher in Jim's wedding.

Then there were the hard times. Losing a child. Having two of his Western Kentucky players injured in an April shooting. Who else is a man going to lean on?

"You just talk about life,'' Taggart said. "You appreciate what you have. When you can call and get some advice, it makes things easier.''

There were other times, too. When Taggart coached at Stanford with Jim, the Cardinal beat USC in a game in which it was a 41-point underdog. That was a hoot.

He is going, of course. How would you keep Taggart — or Jason, for that matter — away from the Super Bowl next Sunday? He's going to watch, and he's going to feel good for the winning brother, and he's going to commiserate with the losing brother.

Ah, you ask him. But which are you going to do first?

"It depends,'' Taggart said, "on which one I get to first.''

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM The Fan.