TAMPA, Fla. — You want to know about influences. You ask how one family can shape a man and mold him into the leader he has become.
Willie Taggart’s voice sounds a little fatigued through his cell phone. Many things have kept him busy since being hired to lead South Florida in December. Building a foundation. Creating a vision. Stretching his limits along the way.
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You want to know how the Harbaughs have led him here. You want to know how family values of will and work can be passed to another man to be given to others.
Most of all, you want to know where he would be without them.
“It means everything,” Taggart says. “They’ve been a big reason why I am at where I am right now. Without them, I don’t know where coach Taggart would be right now.”
Taggart plans to be in New Orleans on Sunday when John’s Baltimore Ravens will face Jim’s San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. That much he knows. Ask for a prediction for the big game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and his voice perks up and says, “I’m going for coach Harbaugh.”
It’s the safe and most fitting choice. Jim recruited Taggart, a Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee High quarterback prospect, to play at Western Kentucky, coached at the time by Jack, Jim and John’s father. Taggart started as a freshman in 1995 and became the third player in the past 50 years at the university to hold the position for four consecutive seasons. He finished with 3,997 yards rushing — an NCAA record for quarterbacks at the time — and with a school-record 47 rushing touchdowns.
Taggart’s tie to the Harbaughs grew stronger after earning a degree in social sciences in 1998. He was an assistant at Western Kentucky under Jack from ‘99 until his mentor began a short retirement in 2002, after the pair won a Division I-AA national title that season. In 2007, Jim asked his former recruit to join his staff at Stanford, where Taggart coached running backs before becoming Western Kentucky’s coach in 2010. (Jim was Taggart’s best man at his wedding.) Over the years Taggart also became friends with John, Baltimore’s coach since 2008.
“You hear people say that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” says Taggart, who led the Hilltoppers to a 16-20 record from 2010 to ’12. “That’s true with them. They’re just like their mom and dad. All they do is work. They outwork people, and they don’t ever make excuses. They are strong in their convictions and what they believe in — that’s playing hard and smart and tough and being highly competitive.
“You see that in both football teams, and both those guys are leaders of men. They’re just like their dad. They’re leaders of men. I think that’s why everyone follows them and they’re having the success that they’re having.”
Taggart was at work building that foundation, creating that vision for USF, when the 49ers beat the Atlanta Falcons and the Ravens topped the New England Patriots to create the first coaching matchup between brothers in a Super Bowl. To him, the meeting was a year in the making; he thought it would happen last season, before the 49ers lost to the New York Giants and the Ravens fell to the Patriots. Eventually, he thought his favorite football family would be showcased before the world.
Come kickoff this weekend, focus will be turned to the sidelines to study how environment nurtures ambition. The world will watch Jim and John and wonder, in part, how the past influences the future. There are many questions that come with this uncommon Sunday, this unlikely family reunion.
Among them: What about the brothers made their drive possible? Why were they able to sustain it for so long, through small college assistant jobs at places like Morehead State and San Diego to lesser NFL positions to the sport’s largest stage? Why did they avoid burnout and refuse to become settled? Why has their example, as well as Jack’s, a Bo Schembechler disciple, impacted others?
“You’re always a product of the people you’re associated with and the things that they do,” says Joe Kinnan, Taggart’s coach at Manatee High, who led the Hurricanes to a state championship in the quarterback’s junior season. “When (Taggart) went to Western, he brought the offense that Jim was running at Stanford at the time. When Willie was at Western, even though he had an offensive coordinator, he called the plays. At South Florida, he told me, even though he has an offensive coordinator, he’s still going to call the plays and run his offense.”
Once learned, perhaps the Harbaugh edge stays sharp because it becomes a comfort. Once learned, perhaps the Harbaugh focus becomes part of a pupil’s approach forever.
Why has their example impacted others? Perhaps because it works.
“The way they do it in Baltimore, the way they do it in San Francisco, and the way we’re going to do it at South Florida is the Jack Harbaugh way,” Taggart says. “That’s the winning way, the championship way. And that’s the right way.”
You want to know about Harbaugh memories, and Taggart presents plenty. Each man became an influence. Each man offered gifts.
On Jack: “Winning the national championship in 2002. It was big for us. The thing is, before that, they were about to drop football.”
On Jim: “Beating USC was big-time, because he said that was something we were going to do when we first got to Stanford. And we did it.”
On John: “Seeing the smile on his face when he got the job with the Ravens.”
The Super Bowl will be presented as brother against brother, Jim against John, two approaches under one name with each a victory from a title. That’s what the world will see. But Taggart knows better.
At heart, this Super Bowl is about a process, about faith in what is taught and learned. It’s about yielding little and surrendering less. It’s about balancing focus with fire, a high-wire act with a headset.
So what Harbaugh lessons will he always carry with him?
“One is treat people like you want to be treated,” Taggart says. “But work often and work hard. Don’t bow down to no man or no program. It’s something we learned from Jack and all of us had.”
You want to learn how one family can shape a man. You discover the vision and foundation never change.