Stephens: It would’ve been fun to see what Taggart could’ve done

Head coach Willie Taggart celebrates with the players after defeating North Texas 25-24 Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Brad Stephens

Willie Taggart was on the verge of doing something special.

He came here in 2009 with the dream of making WKU a nationally relevant FBS college football program.

It was laughable at the time — a young guy who’d never even been a coordinator on the FBS level was trying to turn a fledgling program into a south-central Kentucky version of Boise State.

It would all happen, Taggart promised, if everyone joined him in the belief that the Toppers, who finished 0-12 the season before he took over, “had it better” than everyone.

He asked players, coaches, administrators, students and the community to join him in a chase of greatness, hoping to catch some excellence along the way.

And Taggart did it his way.

He went to his home state of Florida and boosted WKU’s roster by recruiting some athletes that could compete at the FBS level.

Taggart ditched the Toppers’ spread offense and installed an offense built around the quarterback going under center, turning around and handing the ball off to a power running back, or hitting a tight end over the middle.

While everyone else in the Sun Belt was spreading it out, Taggart’s offense was methodically hitting people in the mouth.

Sometime early in his second season, 2011, it all started to come together. A program used to getting its butt kicked was, in the words of Taggart, backing down to no man and no program.

The Toppers went 7-5 in 2011, then came back and did the same thing in 2012.

When WKU was picked Sunday night to appear in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, another program milestone was reached.

On Dec. 26 the Toppers would run out on Detroit’s Ford Field for their first FBS bowl game behind Taggart, their fearless leader and the man who got the program there.

But then this week the Taggart Era ended with one big thud.

When talking with reporters Wednesday he danced around reports that he’d interviewed with anyone else. It looked obvious to anyone reading between the lines that he was flirting with the open market.

Rumors quieted down Thursday and Friday, as he attended all bowl practices and the team’s annual football banquet.

Then Friday, after leading an entire practice, he reportedly gathered his team and told them he was gone to South Florida.

He and USF pretty much made that move by going around the backs of his bosses, athletics director Todd Stewart and president Gary Ransdell.

Five days before, he’d been grinning ear-to-ear at a podium in Diddle Arena, talking excitedly about his team’s bowl bid. Now he’s gone to something bigger, better and richer.

Stepping back and weighing the two schools, it’s hard to fault Taggart choosing USF over WKU. Money, nearby recruits, nationally televised games, bowl tie-ins, attendance — you name it, and the Bulls have more of it than the Toppers.

Add in the fact that the school is located in Tampa, right near where Taggart grew up, and it’s an obvious destination for him.

I have no doubt that Taggart will take his offense and his us-against-the-world mentality with him to USF and win a lot of football games.

But, just like when Dennis Felton, Darrin Horn, Ross Bjork and others throughout the years left, we’ll all sit around and wonder what he could’ve done if he’d given it a few more years.

The bowl berth would’ve given Taggart that much more recruiting leverage.

With a move to a bigger conference with more bowl tie-ins likely, more of those could’ve been on the way.

It also appeared the football culture was slowly starting to develop. Even though attendance at the last two home football games was downright pitiful, there were fans in the stands earlier in the year when the Toppers were playing well.

WKU was never going to be an SEC-type football atmosphere, but for a basketball school in a basketball state, it was starting to show some more enthusiasm for what was happening.

If Taggart stayed for another five years or so and had the Toppers winning eight games a year, chances are those attendance issues would fix themselves.

Taggart’s departure doesn’t leave his alma mater starting back completely at square one, but it definitely leaves it short of what he promised all of us throughout the years.

He got the pigskin rolling in the right direction for WKU, but who’s there to keep pushing it?

I always understood Taggart’s objective as getting the Toppers to the point where, even if he left, the program would be able to sustain itself pick right up where he left off.

Had he stayed a few more years, he could’ve gotten the program to that point.

Instead he left after just three years and put the next coaching staff in a really tough position of trying to maintain this two-year momentum stretch at a program with no previous FBS success.

If the next coach fails to recruit well and doesn’t develop the talent Taggart recruited then this program won’t be much better off then when he replaced David Elson in 2009.

There’s no doubt that, for the time being, WKU is better off now than it was when Taggart took over.

But there’s also no doubt Taggart could’ve caught a lot more excellence with it before jumping ship.