Part 3 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
Finished, spacious and furnished. Framed articles, posters, photos and jerseys cover the walls to create a mini Harbaugh family museum.
Jack coached college football. His son Jim Harbaugh played quarterback at Michigan, where he now is the head coach, and in the NFL. Jerseys representing his various stops can be found lined up side by side on a wall. Older brother John Harbaugh coaches the Baltimore Ravens. He defeated Jim in Super Bowl XLVII when the younger brother coached San Francisco. A mini version of that Super Bowl trophy rests on a shelf.
Also represented is the man they call the third Harbaugh brother. Resting on a wall is a large, black and white photo of Willie Taggart while playing quarterback for Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky.
It was there in Bowling Green, Ky., where Taggart became part of the Harbaugh family. So much so that Jack and his wife Jackie love him like a son while Jim, John and sister Joani love him like a sibling.
“I’m proud of my brother, my friend,” Jim Harbaugh said. “I love him. He loves me back. And
“And we’re like that!” Harbaugh continued, crossing the fingers on one hand.
The Harbaughs did a lot for Taggart. And he did a lot for Jack and the WKU program. How they came together, Jack said could be called “divine intervention.”
Taggart needed a college team to play for. Jack Harbaugh needed a quarterback and a leader.
“That began the process of Willie coming to western Kentucky University and our relationship with the Taggart family,” Jack Harbaugh said.
--- A program on the brink
The Western Kentucky football program was all but dead in the spring of 1992. A Kentucky state budget cut of $6.1 million erased finances for the team.
Jack Harbaugh, who had concluded his third season at 3-8 to follow up a 2-8 year, told his staff they had a couple of months left on their salary.
“I was completely broken as a football coach knowing not many had had their program taken from them in the middle of their tenure,” Harbaugh said.
But rather than give up, the coaches and the team decided to fight to save the program. The WKU athletic department began raising money and selling tickets to fund the football.
The 1992 "Save the Program” team went 4-6. The following year the Hilltoppers finished 8-3.
But the impacts of negative recruiting by other programs and a loss of 13 scholarships following WKU's near loss of its program began to take its toll. Harbaugh had a tough time replenishing talent.
In the winter of 1994, an exasperated coach Harbaugh sat in his office when his son, Jim Harbaugh popped in for a visit. He could tell something wasn’t right with his father.
“We’re getting killed in recruiting,” Jack Harbaugh told his son.
“How can I help?” asked Jim, who lived in Orlando, Fla., and was transitioning from the Chicago Bears to the Indianapolis Colts.
Because of the reduced budget, WKU didn't have a full allotment of seven assistant coaches. Jim suggested that he could work as an unpaid coach, which would allow him to help recruit.
After Jim Harbaugh passed a NCAA recruiting test, his dad handed him a list of prospects in Florida, where his son would be living during the NFL's offseason.
“I’m sitting and telling you, cross my heart, raise my hand, the first name on the list was ‘Willie Taggart, Manatee High School,” Jack Harbaugh said.
The phone rang at the Taggart home in the spring of 1994. Cynthia Butler, Taggart’s sister, answered. Jim Harbaugh, making only his second recruiting phone call, introduced himself and asked for Taggart.
“Is this the same Jim Harbaugh from the Chicago Bears?” Butler asked.
“Yes,” Harbaugh responded.
Butler didn’t believe it but she wrote down his number down, anyway, and relayed it to her little brother when he returned home from track & field practice.
“You got a phone call from some guy named Jim Harbaugh from Western Kentucky and he wants you to call him back,” Butler told Taggart.
Taggart, eyebrows raised, also didn’t quite believe that the quarterback of the Chicago Bears had called his home. The same quarterback he had watched play on television and the same one used to win games against his pals while playing video games.
But he had to find out. The Taggarts didn’t’ have long-distance phone service so he headed to a nearby pay phone and called collect.
Based on both Taggart’s and Harbaugh’s recollection of their first conversation, it went something like this:
Taggart: “Can I speak to Jim Harbaugh?”
Harbaugh: “Speaking. Do you know who I am?”
Taggart: “The only Jim Harbaugh I know is the one that plays for the Chicago Bears.”
Harbaugh: “That’s me.”
Taggart: “Yeah, right. And I’m Mike Ditka.”
Harbaugh: “No, no. It’s really me. I recruit for Western Kentucky. Here’s my dad.”
Harbaugh put his dad on the phone to talk to Taggart. He still wasn’t fully convinced Jim Harbaugh had called him until a few days later when Jim Harbaugh walked into the Manatee High School cafeteria looking for Taggart.
“It’s really you,” Taggart said to Harbaugh.
To that point, Taggart had received only mild interest from college recruiters. To have a NFL quarterback visit him at Manatee put some extra spring in Taggart’s step.
“When he showed up, I felt like the big man on campus,” Taggart said.
The two ate lunch together and talked while students gawked. The pair walked around campus. Harbaugh chatted with Taggart’s coaches and teachers. Then they headed to watch game film of Taggart. When they exited the film room, they discovered about 50 students that had gathered outside to get Harbaugh’s autograph. Some carried Bears hats.
Taggart stood nearby fully taking in the situation and beaming. Harbaugh said he felt the love.
Harbaugh visited the Taggart’s home where they had a huge gathering for a barbecue.
“I felt like the guest of honor,” Harbaugh said.
He and Taggart hit it off instantly.
“I think that’s when my life really changed,” Taggart said. “I became more confident.”
According to Taggart, his conversations with Harbaugh differed greatly from those with other recruiters.
The two talked constantly and quickly transformed from recruiter and recruit to becoming close pals. They talked almost daily.
"And it wasn’t just about football,” Taggart said. “It was about life, what I wanted to get accomplished. He would tell me about his life. He took a genuine interest in me.”
Harbaugh felt the same way.
“Willie has an extraordinary special gift of personality," Harbaugh said. "Warmth and friendship, he just exudes it.”
--- An enthusiasm unknown to mankind
Taggart grew up close to his family and the teammates. They formed his support system. He sought that same family atmosphere in a college.
“I knew, going to college that I needed to go somewhere where someone would look out for me,” Taggart said.
Jack Harbaugh promised Gloria Taggart he would do just that.
“They told me they would take care of my son,” she said. “They kept me updated every step of the way with what was going on. He was like one of their children.”
The football match was a perfect fit.
“It was electric the way he would run,” Jim Harbaugh said. “He was an option quarterback. My dad ran an option system. There was no doubt that this could be a game-changer for the program…And I knew it would be a game-changer for Willie, too, to be in program with my dad.”
Taggart went to WKU to play football but his impact on the Hilltoppers became much more than simply running and throwing on the field.
WKU certainly needed a boost of energy. A lack of talent and depth created by the near loss of the program contributed to the Hilltoppers going 2-8 in Taggart’s first year as the starting quarterback.
But then his leadership chops began to form at the college level.
“He was a prototype quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “A prototype family member. I mean, he was the prototype of whatever you wanted to prototype….You just fell in love with him.”
Taggart motivated players. He inspired fans and the community. He made believers out of doubters. He rejuvenated the program. According to Jack Harbaugh, Taggart held together a group that had been fractured because of the decision not to play football.
Still, times were rough. WKU’s facilities were awful. They wore subpar equipment. Jack Harbaugh needed a way of raising spirits.
He relied on what had become a Harbaugh family saying that he and his friends first used while he was growing up in Crestline, Ohio, a small quiet town where front doors remained unlocked and car keys never left the ignition.
Harbaugh and his pals would make do with that they had to work with while playing sports and end the day by saying: “Who has it better than us? Noooo-body!”
That wasn’t necessarily true at WKU. Still, Harbaugh attempted to remind his players to always find the positives. They had football. They had one another. They were getting an education.
“He’d ask, ‘who has it better than us?’ while he would walk through the halls,” Taggart said. “And we’d look around and say, ‘everybody.”
Yet, the players got the point. So they didn’t have all of the same bells and whistles that other programs had. They had plenty to be thankful for.
“That stuck with you,” Taggart said. “It was a mentality.”
Taggart buying into that mentality helped others do the same. Soon, his talent and leadership elevated the program.