How Willie Taggart became an honorary Harbaugh

One of Oregon head coach Willie Taggart's first jobs was selling seashells in his hometown of Palmetto, Florida.

For a few summers during high school, he worked at a shop with his father, John, where they cleaned, bleached, shaped and boxed imported seashells.

John Taggart loved the seashells and often waxed poetic about how they were both fragile beings and armor for sea animals. Whenever someone important came into the life of the Taggart family, John gave him or her a seashell.

Willie was less enthusiastic. His favorite days were when he was allowed to drive the forklift. He has acquired plenty of seashells from his father over the years, though many sit in boxes, unpacked from his many moves as a college football coach.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and his father, Jack, however, proudly display their seashells in their Ann Arbor homes.

Jack Harbaugh keeps his in the basement, next to his television. Jim's favorite is on a bookshelf in his living room. It was a gift from his first trip to Palmetto, when he met the Taggarts nearly 25 years ago.

"I could hear that ocean," Jim said. "I've never been so enamored with a seashell. ... I've had that with me through about 10 different moves."

John Taggart keeps giving the Harbaughs seashells nearly every time he sees them because he knows that no matter how many might fill up their mantels or bookcases, they will never amount to what the Harbaugh family has given to his son.

Early in their marriage, Taggart's wife, Taneshia, started calling him "Jason Harbaugh."

When Taggart wasn't consulting with Jack or his sons, John and Jim, about football, he was catching up with Jackie, the Harbaugh matriarch, or Joani, Jack and Jackie's daughter. Taneshia figured that anyone who spoke with and of the Harbaughs that much deserved a name with a "J" to fit in.

"John, Jim, Joani and Jason," she said. "The Harbaugh kids."

For almost 25 years, that's how Taggart and the Harbaughs have thought of one another.

"It's more than friendship," Jim said of Taggart. "It's like we're brothers. It's a brother relationship. The line from Spinal Tap is always funny. It's 'Closer than brothers.' ... I don't think you can be closer than brothers. Brothers is as close as you can get, and that's the way I look at it."

In a family as tight-knit as the Harbaughs and one that has football as part of its foundation, it only makes sense that football would be what brought the fourth Harbaugh child into the fold.

In 1994, it took a Harbaugh family effort -- through football -- to discover Taggart.

Western Kentucky, where Jack was coaching at the time, was dealing with budget cuts, and the university's Board of Regents considered suspending the program to deal with financial constraints. Both of Jack's sons noticed how the pressure was weighing on their father.

Jim was playing quarterback in the NFL and was set to the join the Indianapolis Colts for that season, while older brother John was coaching special teams for the Cincinnati Bearcats. Jim dedicated his offseason to being an unpaid recruiting assistant for Jack. John, unable to officially recruit for his dad, sent lists of players whom he thought weren't quite ready for the Bearcats but could flourish with the Hilltoppers at the at Div. I-AA level.

Jim lived in Lake Nona, Florida, during the offseason, so Jack figured he could recruit the southeast. When Jim officially became a recruiting assistant for Western Kentucky, he grabbed the most recent list of Florida recruits that John had sent.

The first name on that list: QB Willie Taggart, Manatee High School.

"All we had at that time was the name," Jack said. "It sounds too simple."

Taggart became the first recruit Jim -- as "Coach Harbaugh" -- ever called, and a few weeks later, Taggart became the first player Jim ever helped sign as a coach.

Taggart went on to become a four-year starting quarterback at Western Kentucky from 1995-98, and he remains the program's career leader in rushing touchdowns. Jack gave him his first job out of college by hiring him as an assistant at WKU after he graduated, and Jim gave him his first break at the Power 5 level when he hired him to join his staff at Stanford in 2007.

When Taggart took the job at Oregon last winter -- his first Power 5 head-coaching job -- Taneshia laughed as the phone calls and texts from every Harbaugh family member came in to the youngest son, Jason.

"They all love him for some reason," Taneshia said.

As a junior in college, Taggart told Jack that he had decided he wanted to be a coach. Jack had one piece of advice: Don't make the same mistake I did.

As a first-time head coach at Western Michigan, Jack attempted to be like his mentor, former Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler. Rather than using Schembechler as a guide and finding his own voice, he coached as he believed Schembechler would've, ran practices like he believed Schembechler would've, interacted with players as he believed Schembechler would've.

Jack understood that he and Jim had been instrumental in Taggart's life thus far -- much like Schembechler had been for him -- and because of that, Jack hammered home the point that Taggart must not be afraid to trust his own instincts when it came to coaching -- even if that meant doing something Jack wouldn't have done.

That's why Taggart didn't have any qualms when he decided to completely change his offense, which had been developed under the tutelage of the Harbaughs, to the "Gulf Coast Offense" after his second season at USF. He didn't think twice when he restructured practices as a head coach at Western Kentucky.

But he has kept a lot exactly the same. His game-day routine is essentially the same as it was when he was a player at Western Kentucky: wake up, breakfast, film, walk-through, take the players for a walk, let the players hang out in their rooms until the pregame meal. He has taken an oft-used Harbaugh phrase -- "Who has it better than us? Nobody" -- with him at every head-coaching stop. He has adopted the Harbaugh mentality of tough love, the same mentality he knows Jack used to shape him.

"Make sure a player never leaves the building thinking you're mad at them -- that was something Jack always told us, especially in my early years as a coach," Taggart said. "Never let a player leave this locker room, this building thinking you're ticked off at him.

"It's being honest. That's how all the Harbaughs are, in their own way."

And Taggart too.

Willie and Taneshia remember the whispers on their wedding day, and if they're being honest, they kind of expected it.

Yes, they were the ones getting married. But it was Willie's best man, Jim, who was the NFL quarterback.

"You don't get too many NFL quarterbacks coming through Third Christian Church," Taneshia said.

When Jim got up to deliver the best man speech at the reception (a speech Taneshia remembers ending with, "Let's get this party started!"), Jim displayed how rare of a relationship his and Willie's had become. They were no longer a coach and a recruit, no longer a mentor and a mentee. Somewhere between Palmetto, Florida, and Bowling Green, Kentucky, they had all become family, and Willie had become a Harbaugh.

"It was all from the heart," Jim said. "It was the easiest speech I ever gave. Didn't even need to write it. It just flowed right out of my heart. I love him."

Over the course of more than two decades, they've shared the most important moments and pieces of their lives.

When the Taggarts found out Taneshia was pregnant, it was Jack who sprinted up and down the halls of Western Kentucky, where Taggart was an assistant, shouting, "We're having a boy! We're having a boy!" And it was Jack Harbaugh after whom the Taggarts named their second son, Jackson.

It was Jim who would stop by to visit Willie's parents when recruiting Florida, and it was John Taggart who would send Jim on his way with yet another seashell for his and his father's collections.

Jack laughs now when he thinks how everything had to fit perfectly in order for Willie to come into their lives: Western Kentucky had to be lacking recruiting resources, John had to send along recruits' names, Jim had to be living in Florida at the time, Willie's name had to be the first on that list.

"Is that how life works so often?" Jack said. "Life is made up of those [moments]. It's pretty much how all of our lives are defined."

Taggart was hired to become Oregon's head coach at a unique time in Eugene.

He arrived on the heels of a down season, and there were lingering doubts as to whether the Ducks' run of dominance in the Pac-12 had come to an end. On top of that, he was the first coach to be hired from outside of the program in nearly four decades.

He was determined to be himself, determined not to make the mistakes Jack made in coaching in the shadow of someone else. That meant no more of the "Win The Day" mantra that had come to define the Oregon program.

John and Gloria Taggart haven't seen their son at this high a level of coaching yet. They'll make the trek from Palmetto to Eugene next fall for the Ducks' season opener and to celebrate their son's 41st birthday (almost certainly with some seashells in hand).

It's a big moment for John Taggart. His son, the first in the family to attend college, has reached the level he always hoped he would reach. He has a wife, three children and the greatest mentors he could ask for in the Harbaughs.

"Sometimes I look up in the sky, and I think about things," John Taggart said, "and I don't see how it could get any better."

You can almost hear Jack Harbaugh's reply:

Who has it better than us?