The Daily Nole

Taggart Turnarounds: Western Kentucky

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Although most were expecting a smoother transition, 2018 showed Florida State fans that head coach Willie Taggart has his work cut out for him.

While Taggart did not achieve anything close to what fans had hoped for in 2018 and put his future in Tallahassee significantly more in doubt than when he was first hired, the situation did prove to be more of a rebuild than initially thought — although talent isn’t the issue. Rebuilding programs, fortunately, has been Taggart’s forte.

In a new series, we’ll be examining Taggart’s history as a head coach of turning around programs. We begin the series by looking at Taggart’s first head coaching job — at Western Kentucky.

A former standout quarterback for the Hilltoppers from 1994-98, Taggart went from the field to the sideline with no transition in between. Following his playing career, Taggart spent eight years as an assistant, coaching receivers, quarterbacks and the offense. After a 3-year stint as running backs coach at Stanford, Taggart was named head coach of his alma mater prior to the 2010 season.

Western Kentucky had been an FBS program for just three years and had won just two games in two seasons prior to Taggart’s tenure as head coach. The previous season watched Western Kentucky go 0-12.

The early parts of the tenure were trial by fire as Western Kentucky was defeated handily by major conference programs, Nebraska, Kentucky and Indiana. Taggart would lose his first six games as head coach although Western Kentucky was competitive with Florida International and blew a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead to Louisiana-Monroe before ultimately breaking through with a 54-21 win over Louisiana-Lafayette.

Western Kentucky would add just one more win that season in a thrilling 36-35 win over Arkansas State in which Derrius Brooks scored the game-winning 2-point conversion in overtime. Despite the 2-10 record, the Hilltoppers had become competitive in the Sun Belt, losing four of its six conference games by one score, including 1-point losses to Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee State.

In 2011, Western Kentucky again started 0-4 with the last loss coming to Arkansas State, 26-22.
Derek Lawson scored the game-winner in the final minute of that one for the Red Wolves in a contest that would ultimately decide the Sun Belt. It would be the closest conference game for Arkansas State, which proceeded to finish 8-0 in conference and 10-3 overall.

As for Western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers would win seven of their final eight games with the only loss coming at eventual SEC champion and national runner-up LSU. With running back Bobby Rainey headlining the offense and defensive end Quanterus Smith being the face of the defense, Western Kentucky finished 7-5. It was one of just two bowl-eligible teams not to receive a bowl invite.

With the exception of a 35-0 loss to eventual national champion Alabama, Western Kentucky would prove to no longer be a punching bag in the non-conference. Perhaps the signature win of Taggart’s tenure came in Week 3 in Lexington.

Trailing 31-30 in overtime against Kentucky, Taggart decided to go for two and the win against the Wildcats following a Antonio Andrews touchdown run. Taggart again put the ball in Andrews’ hands, but this time as a passer as the running back threw back to quarterback Kawaun Jakes for the winning score in a 32-31 victory.

One week later, the Hilltoppers crushed reigning Conference USA champion Southern Mississippi, 42-17. Western Kentucky began the year 5-1, but floundered down the stretch, finishing just 7-5 and 4-4 in the Sun Belt.

Seven of the eight conference games were decided by nine points or less. Although he didn’t stick around to coach the Little Caesars Bowl against Central Michigan, Taggart had led Western Kentucky to its first bowl appearance as an FBS program. His final contest as head man of his alma mater saw the Hilltoppers outscore North Texas 15-0 in the final quarter for a thrilling 25-24 win.

Statistically, Taggart’s Hilltoppers never really stood out in many areas — at least not nationally. Still, they managed to have consecutive 7-win seasons after winning just four games in the previous three seasons combined.

Although Western Kentucky turned in a disappointing 3-9 campaign in 2018, Taggart helped transform his alma mater into a respectable FBS program. After winning eight games in each of the next two seasons under Bobby Petrino and Jeff Brohm and transitioning to Conference USA, the Hilltoppers broke through with consecutive conference titles in 2015 and 2016.

Mike Ferguson is the editor of The Daily Nole. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson

One Comment

  1. Pingback: The Daily Nole — Dec. 29, 2018: FSU Makes Top 5 for Top Hoops Prospect – Planet News

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply