When he was a young assistant down in Bowling Green at then-Football Championship Subdivision Western Kentucky, his alma mater, making the transition from player to coach, starting his way up the career ladder, Willie Taggart wanted to be like another coach.
"I wanted to be like Joker Phillips," Taggart said.
Joker Phillips? The then-Kentucky assistant, now Kentucky head coach? The flash from Franklin-Simpson who played for the Wildcats, was an assistant with the Wildcats, and a few other schools besides, and is now the head coach of the Wildcats?
"Whenever you heard about Joker, you always heard about how he's a great recruiter. I heard that constantly," Taggart said. "In my early days of coaching, I said, 'I want to be known for that. I want to do some of the things that Joker's doing.' "
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And now he is.
This isn't just the first year for Joker Phillips as UK's head football coach, and the first year for Charlie Strong as Louisville's football coach, it's the first year for Willie Taggart as Western Kentucky's head football coach, three African-American men making their head coaching debuts in the same state.
"I think that's something to be proud of," said Taggart.
The former Hilltopper hero and quarterback was in Woodford County on Friday night as part of a "Toppers on Tour" appearance for alumni and friends at the Good Ol' Days Barbecue Farm. It's part of his summer routine now that spring practice is over, May recruiting evaluations have been completed and there's still time to put the finishing touches on preparation for fall camp.
Taggart isn't overly tall for a former quarterback, one who set 11 school records and is one of four Hilltoppers to have his jersey retired. But back in his playing days, he was known for his quickness and agility and leadership. He knows he'll have to lead now.
"Early on in spring, I was like, 'Whoa, what did you get yourself into?'" he said Friday with a grin.
After all, the Hilltoppers went 0-12 last year in their first official season as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision after making the transition from FCS. They were 0-8 in their first year as members of the Sun Belt Conference.
When Taggart left Stanford after three years as Jim Harbaugh's running backs coach to return to the place where he had served eight years as an assistant, including 2002, when WKU won the FCS title, some asked whether he knew what he was getting into?
"I had a lot of that," he said. "I said, 'Yes, I want to do that.' It's home for me. I didn't like the way it looked either. I want to do everything I can to get it back where it belongs."
Only now, Taggart takes over a program that is taking a step up in competition. He has no illusions that things will be easy in Bowling Green. Rome wasn't built in a day, he said.
After that initial spring slap, he saw his Toppers get better right up to the end of drills. He said he sees some similarities with Stanford, where he helped turn around a program that had won just one game the year before Harbaugh arrived.
"The people that paid the heaviest price (for the losing) are the people in the football program," Taggart said. "Now that the price has been paid, there's a new sheriff in town."
There are three new sheriffs in the state. Taggart said he did not know Strong until the two met in Frankfort at an appearance before the General Assembly. He has known Phillips for years, the two having recruited against each other in the western part of the state.
Now the two will compete against each other, starting Sept. 11 in Lexington, the first of a four-year series with two games to be played at Commonwealth Stadium and the other two to be played at LP Field in Nashville.
"It's gonna be like big brother fighting little brother," Taggart said. "It'll be great for the entire state."