WKU head football coach Willie Taggart is leaving the school to become the coach at the University of South Florida. Taggart is a Florida native who has been an ace Sunshine State recruiter for the Hilltoppers.
Taggart broke the news to his players after Friday's practice, and then boarded a plane that night for Florida.
At a Saturday morning news conference athletic director Todd Stewart said he, like everyone, had been hearing rumors for weeks about Taggert's future and said he really wasn't surprised given what he called the current landscape of college football.
"I was optimistic that he would stay here because of the financial package we could offer him and because, as he has frequently said, WKU is in his DNA," Stewart said, "After more than doubling his salary a year ago, we were prepared to offer him a much better contract than he even had this year but there are some ties to Florida that obviously weight heavily into the situation."
Hilltopper's tight end, senior Jack Doyle, said the team was initially shocked at the news but Stewart spoke to the players early Saturday morning.
"One thing he said was 'Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react,'" Doyle said. "So it's up to these seniors to get this team right and get them to react the right way. We've been through so much as seniors the past 4-5 years here so there's nothing that can really divide us now."
WKU defensive coordinator Lance Guidry was named interim head coach while the search for a permanent head coach is underway.
WKU will play Dec. 26 in the Little Caesar's Bowl vs. Central Michigan. The Toppers went 7-5 on the season, including wins against Kentucky, Southern Mississippi, and Sun Belt Conference champ Arkansas State.
Taggert had been earning a base salary of $425,000 a year at WKU. South Florida paid their last head coach $2 million annually. Taggert must pay WKU a $500,000 buyout.
WKU’s weekend football matchup with Louisiana-Monroe is important on several levels. For starters, it’s WKU’s homecoming game. It’s also an historic event. Saturday’s game will be the first time two Sun Belt teams receiving votes in a Top 25 poll will face off.
The WKU football team faced questions this week about whether they could focus on Saturday night's opponent following the jubilation of their win last week against Kentucky. The answer to those questions would be a resounding "yes."
When WKU beat Kentucky for the first time ever in football Saturday, the significance was not lost on Todd Stewart. He was part of the WKU athletics department when the Hilltoppers lost 26 straight games, including a winless 2009 season.
The worst thing you can say about Saturday night's win by WKU over Kentucky is that it was the second biggest victory in Hilltopper football history. The only competition for that distinction is the 2002 1-AA national championship game WKU won against McNeese State.