Part 4 of a five-part series on Oregon coach Willie Taggart that coincides with the CSN special "Taggart" that first aired Aug. 29 and is now available on CSNNW.com. CSN went to Taggart's hometown of Palmetto, Fla., to interview family and friends, and traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., to interview his biggest mentors, Jack and Jim Harbaugh, in order to tell his story.
'Taggart,' Part 1: A skinny boy, a tree and football dreams
'Taggart,' Part 2: A leader emerges and thrives at Manatee
'Taggart,' Part 3: The call, a bond and enthusiasm unknown to mankind
'Taggart,' Part 4: Taggart puts WKU "on his back."
'Taggart," Part 5: The program builder works his way to Oregon
Shy, quiet and the only child to middle class parents, Taneisha took ballet lessons, received plenty of attention and pretty much wanted for nothing.
She thought Taggart had a cute dimple the first time they met on campus at Western Kentucky, but didn't give him much thought, otherwise. She didn't even know he played quarterback for the WKU football team. He, however, became smitten with her right away.
Taggart constantly called Taneisha's dorm room, often speaking to one of her roommates. Odd, for sure, they thought. This young man must have liked someone living in that dorm. But whom? Finally, Taggart found the courage to ask out Taneisha.
“He was bubbly, happy, all the time,” she said. “Always in a good mood and very positive.”
She fell for him, as well, attracted to his personality and his drive to succeed. They became inseparable, except when Taggart was working on fulfilling his dreams.
Jack Harbaugh needed a playmaker and a leader. He got both in Taggart, who made an instant impact.
“He put the Western Kentucky football program on his back for four years,” Harbaugh said. “We went from not having a program to becoming a playoff football team.”
WKU went 2-8 in Taggart's first season as a starter while the program still reeled from nearly being dismantled two years prior to his arrival.
The deft option quarterback led the Hilltoppers to a 7-4 record in 1996 and then a 10-2 mark in 1997 that ended in the quarterfinals of the I-AA national playoff.
WKU went 7-4 Taggart's senior year. The highlight of the season came when the Hilltoppers played at South Florida in front of 30,000 fans at Raymond James Stadium just 47 miles North of Taggart's hometown.
Taggart had about 25 family members and friends attending the game. However, his parents missed the first half because of traffic. Good thing, too. Taggart stumbled, fumbled and generally struggled during the first 30 minutes of action and his team trailed 17-0 at halftime.
“It was obvious he didn’t want a conversation at that time,” Harbaugh said.
Finally, Harbaugh found his way to his quarterback.
“Willie if you think I’m going to light you up and raise my voice in any manner, you’re wrong,” Harbaugh told him.
He understood he had been pressing and felt the pressure to perform at home in front of his family. Harbaugh hugged him, gave him support and told him to go play his game. At about the same time, Taggart's parents arrived at the stadium.
Taggart finished the game with about 26 yards rushing and two touchdowns with a long run of about 60 yards.
WKU won 31-24.
“That was just one of those moments that I just understood that he didn’t need someone to be disappointed in him," Harbaugh said. "He needed someone that understood the situation. That was one of those great moments that I’ll always remember.”
Taggart finished his career at WKU with a college football rushing quarterback rushing record of 3,997 yards (since broken) and scored 77 touchdowns. The school years later retire his number. Taggart was convinced a NFL career would be next.
On draft day, 1999, Taggart expected his name to be called.
“I was sitting at home, waiting, waiting, waiting,” Taggart said. “Draft was over with. I was hoping to get a free agent call. Then I got this call from a number I didn’t know.”
He answered. "Hello," an eager Taggart said.
“Yes can I speak to Willie Taggart please,” said the voice on the other line.
Taggart's heart raced. This was it.
Then he heard laughter on the other end. It was Jim Harbaugh, who lost it in the middle of his prank call.
“I was like, 'Jim, don’t play with my emotions like that,’” Taggart said.
Harbaugh asked if Taggart had heard from any teams. He hadn't. Harbaugh, already a NFL quarterback, knew that Taggart's style of play didn't fit the league at that position.
Taggart could go to the Arena League to hone his passing skills, something he attempted to do so with the Tampa Bay Storm for a couple of weeks. Or, maybe he could switch to wide receiver or defensive back. It didn't take long for Taggart to realize that his NFL dream had died before it even began.
Taggart had a sociology degree and a fall back plan developed from how he had been treated at WKU.
“He was one of those guys that you didn’t want upset with you,” Taggart said of Jack Harbaugh.
Taggart missed a tutoring session once. Just once.
“Boy he laid into me,” Taggart said. “I vowed at that moment that I’d never disappoint him again.”
The Harbaughs looked after Taggart as they had promised his mother, Gloria Taggart.
Jackie Harbaugh helped Taggart with school papers. Jack Harbaugh offered advice on any subject.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to coach,” Taggart said. “I saw the way they were changing my life and the way I looked at things. If they could do that for me I could do that for a lot of young people.”
Taggart told Jack Harbaugh of his desires during his junior year then began learning the game from all angles. When the NFL didn't materialize, Taggart had a decision to make. Spend a few years chasing a playing career, or get a job now and start down the path of a more secure future, one he envisioned with him as a high school teacher and football coach.
“When I left high school there was three things I wanted to get accomplished,” Taggart said. “I wanted to graduate from college, which I was able to do in four years. I wanted to find my wife in college. I wanted to go to the NFL so I could buy my mom and dad a house.”
Two out of three wasn't bad. The one lost dream would only lead to a greater one he never saw coming as a kid.
“I think he made a phenomenal choice to go right into coaching,” Jim Harbaugh said.
That summer, Willie and Taneisha became Mr. and Mrs. Taggart.
Jim Harbaugh was Taggart's best man. Their relationship had continued and grown throughout Taggart's career at WKU.
“When it was time to get married and I needed a best man, I couldn’t find anyone better than Jim Harbaugh,” Taggart said.
Harbaugh helped ease Taggart's nerves on his wedding day.
When the doors opened and Taneisha began walking down the aisle in her wedding dress, everyone stood up and Taggart's heart began to race.
Jim leaned in to Taggart and whispered: “You sure you want to do this? I’ve got the car running in the back.”
Harbaugh grinned being reminded of that story.
“I think I saw that in a movie,” Harbaugh recalled. “I was trying to loosen the mood.”
Taggart began his coaching career as a limited-earner on Jack Harbaugh's staff and coached wide receivers in 1999.
“It was very obvious very early that this guy was cut from a coaching cloth,” Jack Harbaugh said.
In 2000 Taggart coached receivers before becoming the co-offensive coordinator in 2001.
“He loved responsibility," Jack Harbaugh said. "The more responsibility you would give him the higher he would rise up and bring those along with him.”
The Hilltoppers won the 2002 1-AA national title with Taggart calling the plays.
In the national semi-finals against Georgia Southern, the Hilltoppers blew a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead to fall behind 28-24 with 4:26 remaining in the game. Taggart then called the plays on a 13-play, 76-yard drive that ended with the game-winning touchdown with 46 seconds remaining. WKU converted two fourth downs on the drive.
Over the coaching headphones Harbaugh asked, "are you sure? Willie, we haven’t run that play all season. If we don’t’ get it, it’s over."
Taggart responded: "Coach, this is the right play for this situation.”
The fullback ran toward the flat then cut back over the middle. Completion. First down. Drive continued on. WKU won and advanced.
In the championship game, WKU faced McNeese State, which had earlier that season had defeated the Hilltoppers 38-13.
At the time, Jim Harbaugh was the quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders while John Harbaugh was an assistant for the Philadelphia Eagles. Both told their father that if he ran the same style of offense against McNeese again they would get destroyed. So, the two got on the phone with Taggart to offer up some ideas to better prepare the WKU's passing game to take advantage of the job McNeese had done against the option the first time those two teams had met.
Willie mixed in those plays and WKU won 34-14.
Jack Harbaugh retired following winning his first national title. Taggart, then just 25, threw his hat into the ring to become WKU's new head coach. It didn't happen. Defensive coordinator David Elson, far more experienced than Taggart, took over as head coach.
“I interviewed and I sucked,” Taggart said. “I felt bad after that. But I told myself that the next time I get this I’m going to make it hard for them to tell me no.”
Prior to the 2002 season, Taggart worked with Harbaugh while an intern with the Oakland Raiders. The job came about after a chance meeting with owner Al Davis in a bathroom at the NFL Combine.
Taggart had heard the horror stories about the often-grumpy Davis but built up the courage to approach him after both had washed their hands and both were alone. Taggart told Davis he was looking for an internship in the NFL. Davis said he might be able to help with that, so Taggart gave him two business cards.
“I saw him put them in his wallet where the dollar bills go,” Taggart said. “So I knew he was going to see them again.”
John Harbaugh, already in the NFL with Philadelphia, introduced Taggart to Eagles head coach Andy Reid. Taggart hit him up for an internship, as well. John Harbaugh asked Reid about that meeting later and his boss said that he would be leery of going to his owner to hire a coach who had gold in his teeth.
“Growing up in Florida pretty much everyone had gold in their mouth,” Taggart said. “That was on a Sunday. Tuesday afternoon that gold was out of my mouth.”
Davis didn't care about the gold and hired Taggart as an intern that summer under coach John Callahan. Taggart got to work with superstar receivers, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and cornerback Charles Woodson the year the Raiders went to the Super Bowl.
Three years later, Taggart interned with the Eagles.
“That was big in my development as a coach,” Taggart said.
All of these experiences set up Taggart for much bigger challenges ahead.