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Monday, November 23, 2009
Western Kentucky taps Taggart

Associated Press

The last time Willie Taggart interviewed for the head coaching position at Western Kentucky back in 2002, the former Hilltopper star knew he had no shot of landing the job.

"I was 25. It wasn't going to happen," Taggart said. "But I wanted to go through the process."

Seven years later, Taggart didn't give his alma mater a chance to say no.

Western Kentucky hired Taggart on Monday to replace David Elson, fired two weeks ago with the Hilltoppers in the midst of the longest active losing streak in the country.

Elson will finish the season before Taggart, currently the running backs coach at Stanford, takes over.

It's a job the 33-year-old Taggart has coveted since his playing days with the Hilltoppers from 1994-98, when he set 11 school records as a quarterback before joining the WKU coaching staff.

"When I saw this opportunity, I knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime," said Taggart. "I know what it takes to win here. I know what type of athlete we want and I know what type of direction we want to go."

WKU has struggled while making the jump from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Hilltoppers (0-10, 0-6 Sun Belt) head into Saturday's game against Florida Atlantic riding an 18-game losing streak and are just 1-24 against FBS opponents since 2007.

Elson, who the Hilltoppers chose over Taggart, is 39-42 in seven seasons. He agreed to a $500,000 buyout.

The contract details between Taggart and the Hilltoppers are still being worked out, said WKU athletic director Wood Selig. Taggart will finish the season with Stanford (7-4). The Cardinal wrap up the regular season Saturday against Notre Dame.

Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh called Taggart "the perfect man" for the Hilltoppers.

"I feel the pride of an older brother today," Harbaugh said.

Selig pointed to the time Taggart has spent under Harbaugh as a major factor in the hire.

"That's exposure that he simply had not received at WKU and there's only one way to gain that experience and that's to go through it at an institution like Stanford," Selig said. "He helped Coach Harbaugh take the program from the outhouse to the penthouse."

Duplicating the feat at WKU won't be easy.

Taggart, one of only four WKU players to have their jersey retired, said he's been surprised by the growing pains the program has endured while transitioning to the FBS. The Hilltoppers are currently last in the country in scoring defense and among the bottom five in rushing defense and total defense.

"I love challenges," Taggart said. "That is part of being a competitor. That is one of the reasons I took the job, because of the challenge."

He'll find plenty of challenges to go around at WKU.

The move to the FBS was part of a plan to make football matter on the Bowling Green, Ky., campus. The Hilltoppers spent nearly $50 million renovating L.T. Smith Stadium, expanding capacity to 25,000.

Attendance, however, has leveled off since the school announced it was moving up three years ago. WKU is averaging 16,000 fans a game and didn't even fill all the seats when the Hilltoppers hosted Big East power South Florida in September, the first-ever visit from a Bowl Championship Series school.

Taggart, who served as the offensive coordinator when the Hilltoppers won the NCAA Division I-AA national title in 2002, said the fastest way to get people in the seats is to win games.

"I hope we get the community believing in this program," he said. "I want us to be great. When people say 'Why WKU?' I want them to think 'Why not WKU?'"

Though Selig said the ultimate goal is to have the Hilltoppers competitive in the Sun Belt by 2012, Taggart hopes to move up the timeline.

"I want to win now," he said. "Winning isn't a one-day thing, it's an everyday thing."