Super Bowl XLVII | Manatee High product Willie Taggart has special relationship with Harbaughs

USF coach, local standout has special ties to Super Bowl XLVII's first family

adell@bradenton.comFebruary 3, 2013 

The one sure thing about Sunday's Super Bowl is that Willie Taggart will come out a winner.

That was decided in 1994 when then-Chicago Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh walked into the cafeteria at Manatee High and told Taggart he wanted him to play football at Western Kentucky University.

It was the start of a special relationship between Taggart and the Harbaugh family that continues to blossom. On Sunday, it reaches an apex of sorts in the first time two brothers will face each as head coaches at the Super Bowl.

Jim Harbaugh and his San Francisco 49ers are considered a slight favorite over John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens. Taggart will be at the game with his wife, Taneshia.

The 36-year-old Taggart is the third Harbaugh brother. His birth certificate won't verify it, but the Harbaugh family, particularly Jim and John, will vouch that they unofficially adopted the Palmetto native back in 1994.

"I will be rooting for Coach Harbaugh," said Taggart, named head football coach at the University of South Florida in December after serving in the same capacity for three years at Western Kentucky.

In many people's eyes, Taggart is the baby brother of the Harbaugh family. Taneshia has even given him a second name: Jason Harbaugh.

Taggart doesn't challenge his wife's creativity. He played for Jack Harbaugh at WKU and calls him and wife, Jackie, his second set of parents.

"I wouldn't be the head coach of the University of

South Florida if it wasn't for them. I wouldn't have been the head coach at WKU if not for them. I wouldn't be the person that I am today if not for the Harbaughs," Taggart said.

But this is not a one-way street. An argument could be made that the Harbaughs would not be coaching in today's Super Bowl if not for Willie Taggart.

Jack's program at WKU was falling apart and the school was considering dropping football when Jim Harbaugh visited Manatee High that day and eventually persuaded Taggart to play for his dad.

Taggart's play elevated the status of the entire Harbaugh family.

It's also unlikely Taggart would have graduated from WKU as the NCAA's career leader in rushing yards for a quarterback with 3,997. He scored 47 touchdowns rushing and 30 through the air.

Taggart said no one can evaluate quarterbacks better than Jim Harbaugh. He might be a little biased because nearly every college in the 1990s thought Taggart was more suited to play defensive back, fearing his frail frame would not allow him to last a season as a running quarterback.

Taggart says he doesn't have a favorite Harbaugh, but his close ties to Jim Harbaugh are evident.

"The moment you met him you felt like you knew him forever," Taggart said.

It is the same thing recruits and coaches say about Taggart. He makes them feel relaxed and you can trust him.

After leading Manatee to a state title as a junior and to the state championship game as a senior, Taggart found himself quarterbacking a WKU program that had suffered four losing seasons in five years. He finished his freshman year with a 2-8 record, but it was the start of something special. Beginning with his sophomore year, the Hilltoppers put together 10 straight winning seasons, won a I-AA national title in 2002 with Taggart as offensive coordinator, and Jack Harbaugh finished his career with a 61-24 record.

As the years passed from that '94 meeting, Taggart became more ingrained in the Harbaugh family and eventually into the hearts and minds of Jack and Jackie Harbaugh and practically became their fourth child, joining sister Joani, who happens to be married to Indiana head basketball coach Tom Crean.

So when the Super Bowl kicks off, no one seems better qualified to predict the coaches' tendencies than Taggart.

True to brotherly love, Taggart refuses to pick a winner, though his ties are closer to Jim, with whom he worked as an assistant at Stanford when they turned the program around. However, Taggart also worked as an intern for the Philadelphia Eagles when John was an assistant coach there.

Jim Harbaugh was the best man at Taggart's wedding, and Taggart was an usher at Jim Harbaugh's wedding. Taggart's second son, Jackson, was named after Jack Harbaugh.

Those special ties to Jim Harbaugh are hard to downplay.

"I try to emulate him. He is comfortable with whom Jim Harbaugh is. He makes the best decisions for him and his team and doesn't worry about what people think," Taggart said.

Both brothers showed that this past season. Jim Harbaugh decided to make Colin Kaepernick his starting quarterback over incumbent Alex Smith, and John fired his longtime offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, in a move that many say has made the Ravens' Joe Flacco an elite quarterback.

"There is no one better at evaluating quarterbacks than Jim, and he knows a football player when he sees one," Taggart said. "He had Andrew Luck (at Stanford), and he developed (former Tampa Bay Bucs backup quarterback) Josh Johnson when he was at San Diego."

But hold on, Taggart is equally generous regarding compliments for the 50-year-old John Harbaugh, the older brother by a year.

"I guarantee you Coach Harbaugh is going to win, and I am rooting for Coach Harbaugh," Taggart said as he begins a Jay Leno-style monologue. "John was a defensive back in college. He coached special teams. He coached every position on defense. He knows it all. It's going to be a great game to watch. Both teams are going to play with great passion. Both are tough and run the football. They both have good quarterbacks and great players."

The main difference between Jim and John is that Jim wears his emotions on his sleeve. But the real competitor in the family is Jackie, according to Taggart.

"What they both do is get players to play at their best," Taggart said. "They both have a rare combination of sincerity and forcefulness and don't make excuses. Both are smart and competitive and great people if you get to know them. Jim shows his emotions more and in that regard is more like his parents. But Jackie, she makes all the major decisions. She runs the family."

Taggart won't say who he will talk to or text first after the game, whether it's to congratulate one of his brothers or console the other. He says that's secondary.

"I am rooting for Coach Harbaugh," he insists.

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