Someone asked me before the start of the 2009 football season if I thought the administration at WKU would change football coaches assuming the team failed to meet a minimal level of expectations. The question, at that time, should have been a no brainer given the public support and investment WKU had made in Head Coach David Elson. “No.” However without actually thinking the question through my natural on the spot response was, “Only if Willie Taggart wants the job.”
Believe it or not Willie Taggart is as much a part of WKU Football as Jimmy Feix, Jack Harbaugh, or anyone else you have read about in Hilltoper Football lore. To understand this you need to look no further than the stadium wall that bears his retired jersey. That name, Taggart, and that jersey number 1, is one of but four names to boast such a privilege. I was a freshman at WKU Willie’s final year on the Hill (as a player), and all I heard about coming on campus that fall was Willie Taggart. I would ask “Who is Willie Taggart and why are you people so in love with him?” I was met with an immediate look of “are you serious?”
While Willie’s play on the field spoke for itself the depth of Willie Taggart in the fabric of the Red Towel of WKU football was never more telling than in a recent interview we did with former Coach Jack Harbaugh. The interview took place prior to the WKU v Troy game, on the eve of Willie’s induction into the the WKU Athletic Hall of Fame (Listen Here). Here is a man, “Captain Jack” Harbaugh, who for years was the rugged face of Hilltopper football. The man who held the history of WKU Football close to his heart and guided WKU through, and out of the lowest of lows as a program. The Head Coach of WKU’s ONLY National Championship team in any sport. While we could have spent the afternoon singing his praises as the savior of WKU Football, all he wanted to reflect on was his “other son,” Willie Taggart, and what he meant to Hilltopper Football.
Following a 1992 Board of Regents vote of 5-4 to keep football on campus, the program was facing dramatic budget cuts, little success, and certainly no momentum. That was until Jack Harbaugh’s son Jim (current head coach at Stanford) reached out to help his father’s team. Jim became an unpaid assistant coach for the Hilltoppers and immediately hit the recruiting trail. First stop, the state of Florida. Before setting out Jim asked his father for a list of players in the sunshine state that he could seek out and preach the Red Towel Gospel, in an effort to resurrect this once proud football program. At the top of that list set this name; Willie Taggart. Jim made that fateful drive to Palmetto, Florida to meet with a young Willie Taggart, and the rest as they say is history.
Willie would go on to star at QB for WKU, and shine a much needed spotlight on a program that had seen its darker days. Willie wasn’t just the star player (a 2 Time Walter Peyton Finalist), he was a coach on the field, the number one recruiter, and in many ways the most recognizable ambassador for WKU football. Only fitting that Willie wore #1 on his chest. That momentum created by Willie and those Hilltopper teams would roll forward as the Hilltoppers would become a regular in the IAA Playoff picture leading up to their National Championship season in 2002. An improbable run in which the Hilltoppers knocked off the number 1, 2, and 3 seeds on their way to the championship. All while co-offensive coordinator Willie Taggart stared down from the booth, watching over the Hilltopper program the same way he had for so many years.
With his return to the Hill it’s easy to get nostalgic when reflecting back on the legacy that is Willie Taggart, but hard to imagine he is still only 33 years old (youngest head coach in FBS). But now as he proceeds, once again the proud face of WKU Football, the question is not what HAS he done but what CAN he do to once again resurrect WKU Football?????