Willie Taggart expected to be disappointed.

It was 1994, and Taggart, then a senior quarterback at Manatee High School, had received a telephone message at his Palmetto, Fla., home.

The caller had claimed to be Jim Harbaugh, the NFL quarterback, and was recruiting Taggart for Western Kentucky University.

Taggart rushed out to a pay phone in town and returned the call.

“He asked me if I knew who he was,” Taggart said. “I said, ‘The only Jim Harbaugh I know plays for the Chicago Bears.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s me.’”

That was the first encounter in a close relationship between Taggart, now 34, and the Harbaugh family that’s spanned more than 15 years.

Harbaugh told Taggart that his father, Jack Harbaugh, was the head coach at WKU and wanted Taggart to come play for him. Jim said he’d be in Florida in a few days, coming to visit Taggart at his high school around lunchtime.

So there sat Taggart in the cafeteria on a Tuesday afternoon, expecting to be disappointed.

“That was one of those things you weren’t going to believe until you saw it,” Taggart said. “And sure enough, Jim Harbaugh comes walking into lunch and over to the table. I’m thinking, ‘Holy shit.’”

Taggart’s relationship with the Harbaughs has become more personal with time. Jim, now 46, was the best man in Taggart’s wedding. Taggart was in Jim’s when he was remarried.

Both Jim and his father said even Taggart’s wife Taneshia and two children, Willie Jr., 8, and Jackson, 3, are now considered extensions of the Harbaugh clan.

But the bond started with that lunchtime visit.

“I owe everything to them,” Taggart said. “I tell people now that I’d do anything for the Harbaughs – anything in this world. They changed my life.”

Several firsts

Jim Harbaugh said that meeting in 1994 meant as much to him as it did to Taggart.

Jim was still playing professional football, but he was also trying to help his father stabilize a reeling WKU football program.

His main objective as an unpaid assistant was recruiting, and his first target was Taggart.

“There was an enthusiasm and gleam in his eye that’s rare — that comes along every five or 10 years,” Jim said.

Taggart said that first encounter with Jim was a blur, as droves of fans descended on Manatee High to see Harbaugh. But as surreal as the experience was, Taggart said he was surprised by how comfortable Harbaugh made him feel.

Jim had the same effect on Taggart’s mother, Gloria James.

“I liked the way Jim talked,” said James, who still lives in Palmetto. “A lot of people that came to me, I didn’t like what they had to say. But being with Jim, I felt that he was more safe. As a mom, it’s just a feeling I get about people.”

It wasn’t long until Taggart pleased his mother and decided to attend WKU.

The decision brought along a lot of firsts. Taggart was the first in his family to attend college, and the trip was also his first time away from home.

“It was just a big comfort to know you’re sending a son off with someone that you can really trust,” James said.

Being at WKU meant that Taggart would essentially be in Jack Harbaugh’s care while Jim was playing in the NFL.

But Taggart said he quickly built a bond with Jack that was similar to the one that he’d made with Jim.

It also helped that Jack took an immediate liking to his newest recruit.

“We were on the ropes when he came there,” Jack Harbaugh said. “The program had been decimated, and we really had no program. Things aren’t as good as they should be now, but I’m not sure that they weren’t worse when Willie got there.

“But he had a smile on his face and this energy.”

Taggart calls Jack, now 71, and his wife, Jackie, his “parents away from home.” He was even tutored by Jackie as a freshman at WKU.

“Coach Harbaugh made everything that I took for granted important,” Taggart said. “I wouldn’t make any rash decisions today without consulting any of them. I always call because I know they’ll shoot me the right way.”

As the Harbaughs took care of Taggart, Taggart took care of WKU on the football field.

Taggart set 11 schools records from 1995-98, helping the Toppers finish 17-6 in his final two seasons.

“He’s the guy that held it all together for us until we got our feet in the ground and were able to really make a move,” Jack Harbaugh said.

Becoming a man

It looked for a long time like Taggart might have his football career at WKU cut short.

He came to WKU as a “Proposition 48 freshman,” meaning that he lost a year of eligibility for not meeting NCAA academic requirements before admission.

But a new rule gave Taggart the opportunity to regain the lost playing year, and he said he did so by completing 76 hours of courses in just two years, including 21 over two summers.

During the summer sessions, Taggart also worked as a factory line worker at Williamette Industries Inc. from 3 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. He’s moved up professionally since then, but he said the long hours on the job haven’t changed.

“My mom and dad taught me how to work at a young age,” Taggart said. “I think that’s why I don’t mind getting up at 5 in the morning and leaving at 12 at night. But I think Coach Harbaugh and his family taught me how to not only work, but to use my work to get me bigger and better things.”

James said she slowly saw the changes in her son as he transformed from a child to a responsible adult.

“He was getting his own independence,” James said. “It taught him how to hold his surroundings and not be shy about it. It brought the real man out in him.”

Taggart played his senior season as an alumnus in 1998 after graduating the previous August. He then had to choose between continuing to pursue football or doing something else.

There was the temptation to put his bachelor’s degree in social sciences to use, but Taggart said Jack Harbaugh had other ideas.

“He made me understand football completely differently than I knew it before,” Taggart said. “I think that’s when I realized that I wanted to coach football.”

Jack offered Taggart a position as wide receivers coach at WKU in the spring of 1999. Taggart was also planning to get married in June.

“I had to have a job,” he said. “Coach Harbaugh had one for me, and it was the best thing for me.”

Jack Harbaugh said “one look on the field” was enough to know that coaching was a perfect fit for Taggart, which made it even sweeter when he accepted the offer.

“I wrapped my arms around him and gave him a hug,” Jack said. “I told him, ‘That’s what we need. We need coaches, and we need teachers.’”

Former WKU quarterback Jason Michael, who was the starter on WKU’s 2002 national championship team, said it was likely awkward at first for Taggart to coach some of the same players he played with a semester before.

But Michael, now the quarterbacks coach for the San Francisco 49ers, said Taggart countered the situation with humility.

“He didn’t think that just because he was a coach now that he had all the answers,” he said. “But he was a natural leader, and he made that transition smoothly.”

Taggart worked with WKU’s quarterbacks until 2006 while climbing the coaching ladder. He was named co-offensive coordinator from 2001-2002, then he became assistant head coach in 2003.

Jack Harbaugh said Taggart called every offensive play in 2002 when WKU won the Division I-AA National Championship.

Jack said he’ll never forget a gutsy fourth-down call that Taggart made in a playoff game against Georgia Southern that year. WKU needed four yards to keep playing, and Taggart called a play the Toppers hadn’t used all season.

“He told me that was why it was going to work,” Jack said. “(Fullback) Jeremi Johnson made the catch, and we got the first down. Willie just had that kind of vision.”

Living a turnaround

Taggart was content with his position at WKU in 2006.

But then Jim Harbaugh was hired as the head coach at Stanford, and one of the first people he called for an assistant job was Taggart.

Taggart was hired as the Cardinal’s running backs coach, a position he had for three years.

Stanford finished 1-11 the year before Harbaugh and Taggart arrived. When Taggart left in 2009, the program finished 8-5 and earned a bowl berth.

“The beautiful thing about it at Stanford was ... they didn’t have to clean the cupboard or start all over,” Jack Harbaugh said. “They were able to sell the players on the vision.”

Part of Jim’s vision was changing the losing mentality of Stanford’s players.

That’s one thing that Clayton White, who was also an assistant at Stanford, said stuck with Taggart. White is now the defensive backs coach at WKU.

“You can see it in how hard he is on the guys about the little things,” White said. “It was the same thing at Stanford. He had to get their minds right and change the culture.”

Right as things were coming around at Stanford, Taggart got the call that he had dreamt about for years.

WKU Head Coach David Elson was fired in November 2009 amidst a 17-game losing streak, and the school reached out to Taggart as a possible replacement.

Taggart said he did what he always does in a tough situation — talk to the Harbaughs. Jim’s message was simple: “Go.”

“It was a no-brainer when I thought about it,” Jim said. “I also told him when you get the job, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is you’re the head coach at Western Kentucky University. The bad news is you’re the head coach at Western Kentucky University.

“So, get the hell to work.”

His own personality

When Taggart took over the WKU program in December 2009, he quickly found a catchphrase: “Chasing Greatness and Catching Excellence.”

The tagline was Taggart’s own, but slowly and surely, famous Harbaugh quotes appeared.

Taggart started talking about “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” Plenty of former WKU players will tell you they’ve heard Jack Harbaugh say that for years.

Taggart talks about avoiding getting “emotionally hijacked,” a staple of Jim Harbaugh’s interviews at Stanford. He mentions “Freddie Soft,” a fictional character that Jack said sits on players’ shoulders and tells them to slack off.

But White said that’s not surprising. He said it’s natural for coaches to mold themselves in the form of their former coaches.

“Everybody’s their own man at the end of the day, but he has no choice but to take a few things,” White said.

Jack Harbaugh said he beams when he hears Taggart say things that echoed through Houchens-Smith Stadium more than a decade ago. He said he also sees it in his own sons, Jim and John, who is now the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

But at the same time, Jack said watching Taggart put his own mark on WKU is what he likes the most.

“There’s a lot of things I hear Willie say that make me proud, just because it’s all him,” Jack said. “It’s his personality being interjected into the program.”

Taggart said adopting some Harbaugh traits isn’t a bad thing, because that probably means he’s doing things that will lead to winning. His faith in the family is that strong.

But he said that’s because they’ve never let him down before.

“When they came to recruit me, I was just a young, green teenager with no guidance,” he said. “That was the first time I had someone that I wanted to be exactly like. Anything they did, I wanted to do, and it’s still like that to this day.”

If Taggart is going to follow in the Harbaughs’ footsteps, he’ll eventually have to right the ship at WKU. The Toppers broke their 26-game losing streak last Saturday, but Taggart said he’s going to keep working until the job is done.

It’s what he expects of himself, and the Harbaughs said it’s what they expect of him too. 

“When he got hired, I told him, ‘You better damn sure make sure you work hard,’” Jim Harbaugh said. “I know that’s what he’s doing.”