Learning from his mistakes: How Willie Taggart got it right at FSU

As he walked out of that office in December of 2002, Willie Taggart was angry with himself. Furious even.

He had just interviewed for his first head coaching job, and it had not gone well. At all.

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Taggart was only 25 years old at the time. So, in truth, he might have been a little too inexperienced to replace longtime head coach Jack Harbaugh at his alma mater, Western Kentucky, anyway. But he had made it into the room for an interview. He should have at least given himself a chance by performing well in that setting.

He didn’t.

“I was his coordinator, and we had just won the I-AA national championship,” Taggart explained. “And after that, Coach Harbaugh retired. And our athletic director and president called me up and asked me to interview for the job.

“I wasn’t ready. I was 25 at the time. I wasn’t ready. … I’m trying to put something together really quick before I go in there. And I just slap some stuff together, and it was bad.”

Taggart doesn’t just pronounce the word “bad” as one short syllable, either. He extends it to “baaaaaaaaaad” to highlight just how poorly he feels he did that day.

Thinking about that moment more than 15 years later, while sitting in his new office at Doak Campbell Stadium, Taggart can’t help but shake his head at the memory.

But as bad it felt at the time, he knows that failure also played a pivotal role in him becoming the type of coach who would be on Florida State’s radar a decade and a half later.

“Pretty much every question they asked me, I was sitting there like, ‘Uhh. Umm,’” Taggart said. “It was just bad all over. And I was so frustrated with myself when I walked out of there.”

To the point where he vowed it would never happen again.

“I told myself the next time that happens, I’m going to make it hard for them to tell me no,” he said.

One of the people who told Taggart no that day was Dr. Camden Wood Selig, who was the athletic director at Western Kentucky at the time and now serves in the same capacity at Old Dominion.

“I didn’t feel that he was terrible,” Selig said. “I just felt that he had room to improve. What was difficult for us was that Jack Harbaugh gave him such glowing recommendations. He said that he was the smartest football player he had ever coached, had the most innate sense of the game and adjustments that needed to be made of anyone that he had ever coached or coached with. He just raved about Willie.

“So we knew he checked all the boxes from a coaching perspective. But in this day and age, coaches are required to do so much more than Xs and Os and recruit. These programs are a major corporation, a major business. And I think those were some of the aspects that he really improved upon after that initial interview.”

It didn’t take him long.

Seven years after Taggart flubbed that first interview with Western Kentucky, he found himself back in the exact same office. Meeting with the exact same people. Interviewing for the exact same job.

It’s not very often in life that we get a second chance to erase a regret.

Taggart got his.

After spending four more years as an assistant at WKU and then the next three on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford — and taking meticulous notes each day about how he would run his program if he ever got the chance — Taggart essentially got a “do-over” on his interview for the head coaching job at Western Kentucky.

“I was ready to go,” he said. “I knocked it out of the ballpark. I was ready that time. Made sure I was ready for that interview. And it took off.”

“He did knock it out of the park,” Selig said. “He convinced us beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was not only ready to be a head coach, but he was the perfect choice for us. … We were in the middle of a rocky transition from FCS to FBS. The fan support was waning. The energy and enthusiasm around the program had declined. So we needed someone who could not only come in and recruit and X and O, but we needed someone who could galvanize the fan base and bring back the fan base and give them confidence that the move we elected to make to go to FBS was the right move and that we could have success at that level.

“And the fact that he was one of us — that he was one of the most popular and well-liked student-athletes that WKU had ever had — we felt like that would give us the best chance to put the program back on the right trajectory.”

In his first year, Taggart snapped the school’s 26-game losing streak. The next two years, the Hilltoppers won seven games each, culminating in the program’s first ever bowl trip in 2012.

Just like that, Taggart was one of the hot, young coaches in America. And a few years later — after stops at USF and Oregon — he would be getting $5 million a year to coach at Florida State, one of the most prestigious programs in the country.

All because he learned from a mistake. And took advantage of a second chance.

“Jack Harbaugh had a thing he always said: ‘You’ve got to have a vision, a plan, an unbelievable work ethic and the most important thing — you’ve got to have the patience to see it through,” Taggart said. “That’s kind of what happened once I came out of that [failed] interview.

“I had a vision of what I wanted to do, I put a plan together, worked my butt off and had the patience to see it through.”

Selig doesn’t seem surprised with where Taggart has climbed on the coaching ladder. He says he had a feeling back in 2009 that the young head coach could eventually be at a place like Florida State.

“I figured he would go one of two ways,” Selig said. “He would either be a lifer at Western Kentucky like so many others have done at WKU … or he was going to have the type of success that would capture national notoriety, and it wouldn’t take long before he became one of the top Power 5 guys.”

Selig then joked: “I just regret that we didn’t sign the agreement we should have, that he would give me 3 percent of everything he earned after Western Kentucky. Like kind of a finder’s fee almost. He could really help me out. I think that would show just how much he truly appreciates that first head coaching job.”

“But no, Willie’s DNA is all over the WKU program. He did exactly what everyone asked of him. And it’s been really, really rewarding to see someone as nice and sincere and humble as he is have a chance to compete at the highest level.”


For more FSU football coverage, visit Warchant.com

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