Hannibal, Mo., is known as the home of Mark Twain. Someday, Willie Taggart and Bowling Green, Ky., might be looked at in the same way.
Don't wince! A miracle is unfolding in the quaint little town where Western Kentucky University sits, and Taggart is the driving force behind it.
Those fortunate enough to watch Joe Kinnan create a phenomenon known as Manatee High football can spot it.
Taggart, one of Kinnan's prized pupils and former quarterback for the Canes, learned well from the master and is doing the same on another level.
Those familiar with the football talent that resides here know a miracle when they see it, even in its early stage.
The almost-37-year-old Taggart is on his way to becoming one of the hottest coaching commodities in the country.
He is doing it with a lot of homespun players and a down-home attitude.
He can't sell what coaches like Alabama's Nick Saban can offer. He sells himself, and that is proving to be more valuable than a BCS game and stadiums filled with 100,000 fans. The players he attracts see a man who will never let them down.
When the Hilltoppers take the field for their season opener Sept. 1 against Austin Peay, there will be six players from Manatee County on the roster.
To have that many on a Division I program from a county of only about 327,000 people is astonishing. Better put, its Taggerish.
In his second season last year, he guided the Hilltoppers to a 7-5 record, a big jump from the hapless, winless program he inherited in 2009.
He saved Jon Dowling.
Three Manatee Coun
ty players are penciled in as starters for '12, and a couple more could be before the season ends.
Taggart is able to recruit extremely talented players who made mistakes and get them to see the error of their ways. He has found skilled players others overlooked and made their talent blossom.
As we sit on the cusp of the 2012 season, Taggart's prized player is Dowling, who epitomizes what the coach is all about.
Dowling was an All-American defensive back at Southeast who disappointed nearly every coach in the country when he went to Florida.
Unfortunately, he fell so passionately in love with himself, Dowling couldn't see his way to the classroom in Gainesville, lost the focus that made him a great player and was dismissed from the program.
Taggart picked up his fragmented talent and put the pieces together. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound sophomore is slated to start at free safety and is generating raves up on the place they call "the Hill."
"Jon has All-American potential, no doubt about it," Taggart says. "The way he plays, the way he practices is impressive. He is very hungry. He understands what is going on. He plays instinctively and has mad ball skills. We are even going to put in some plays for him at receiver."
Taggart already has two budding receivers in Boe Brand (Southeast) and Willie McNeal (Braden River), both listed as starters.
McNeal, who sat out last year with a knee injury, was an All-American kick returner as a freshman. He will do that again and is in the running to be the punt returner after John Evans from Riverview was declared academically ineligible for the upcoming season.
"Boe will be our X and McNeal our Z receiver. Both are deep threats and will be used in different ways depending on the situation," Taggart says.
Terran Williams, another Southeast grad, will see a lot of playing time at weakside linebacker as he heads into his sophomore year.
"I like Terran's attitude and physicality, and he is very athletic," Taggart says. "He can cover and is able to play the run. They like to throw the ball a lot in our league (Sun Belt Conference), and we need him in pass situations."
Taggart has been happy with the progress of true freshman linebacker Daqual Randall from Palmetto and says he could get on the field a lot quicker than most people anticipated.
The running back position is up for grabs. Taggart might take a committee approach, but two of the leading candidates are Manatee High products Ben Axon and Leon Allen.
Unfortunately, not everyone has been able to find a seat on Taggart's miracle train. Former Southeast quarterback Dyron Speight and Palmetto linebacker Ty Scott left the program.
Speight wants to play quarterback, and his chances would be better at another school. It's OK with Taggart because as his program grows, its harder to find a spot.
That's called progress.
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112.