Had Whit Taylor chosen to pursue a career coaching college football, there is little doubt he could have gone far. By the time he finished his professional career in the USFL and Arena Football Leagues, the former Vanderbilt star quarterback had had seen just about every defense known to man. He was an X's and O's specialist, and he could read defenses in his sleep.
Instead of the highly pressurized world of college and pro football, Taylor seized upon an opportunity to coach high school football in his hometown. Today as the head coach at Shelbyville-Central High School, Taylor, 43, feels he has landed his dream job.
"I was coaching at Lavergne High School seven years ago, and I was very comfortable there, coaching with a guy who was my head coach in high school," remembers Taylor (right). "I wasn't really looking for a job, but I did tell him that if the Shelbyville job ever came open, that would be the only one I would go after.
|Whit Taylor (Shelbyville-Central HS)|
"It took 17 years for me to get back to Shelbyville, but that thought was always in the back of my mind when I got into coaching-- would I ever get to coach in my home town?
"I just finished my seventh year here."
Who says you can't go home again? Taylor, one of Vanderbilt's most revered former players, will be honored by the Southeastern Conference this weekend as an "SEC Football Legend" in conjunction with the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome.
"My first thought about that was, it must mean you're really getting old," he laughs. "I looked at the list of the other guys who were going to be there, and I thought, well, at least I played with some of those guys. It's a really big honor to be recognized in that way, especially when I look down the list and see guys like Reggie White and Dermontti Dawson, guys who went on and played 12 or 13 years in the NFL."
After leaving Vanderbilt, Taylor knocked around the old USFL and Arena Football League, where he became the answer to a trivia question ("Who was the winning quarterback in the first Arena Bowl?"). He was an assistant coach at Vanderbilt for one year (1985) under George MacIntyre, and assisted several more years at UT-Chattanooga before opting to coach at the high school level.
Vanderbilt fans, however, will always remember him as the heady captain for the 1982 team, the last Vandy team to post a winning record, to beat Tennessee, and to go to a bowl. In fact, the mere thought of Taylor's game-winning run around right end vs. Tennessee in 1982 is enough to get plenty of longtime Commodore football fans misty-eyed.
"When you put five years into a career," says Taylor, "then you get the opportunity in the last game at home, in your senior year, to score the game-winning touchdown, against your rival-- you sit back and think, man, it doesn't get much better than that!"
As a junior in 1981, Taylor threw for 464 yards against Tennessee, a single-game school record that still stands. Taylor says both 1981 and 1982, years when he became Vanderbilt's all-time passing leader with 6,307 yards (later surpassed by Greg Zolman), are full of memories.
"I was just the right guy at the right time, with the right offense under the right coach," says Taylor. "When Watson Brown came in as the offensive coordinator, it put a lot of burden on the quarterback. He sat down and told me, if this offense is going to work, then your numbers are going to be really good-- and if it doesn't, then you're gonna get the blame for it!
"What made it special was that we were doing some things at that time that nobody else in our conference was doing. This was before the West Coast offense came along. The SEC was such a tailback-oriented league, so the fact that we were doing some different things in the passing game helped us.
"We bought into what Coach Brown tried to sell us, that we could be competitive offensively. But the thing a lot of people forget about that 1982 team is that we were pretty good defensively too. We didn't give up a whole lot of points, and we were high in the nation in turnover ratio. We set a school record for interceptions.
"There were a lot of things that went into that 8-4 season besides the offense and Whit Taylor. For instance, we had an All-American punter [Jim Arnold] that could change field position with one kick! The people who were there at that time know all that went into making that season a success."
Besides the Tennessee game, two other games from the 1982 season hold special memories for Taylor: the 31-29 upset of nationally ranked Florida, and the bowl appearance vs. Air Force.
"In my mind, the Florida game was the game that let us know we could play with anybody we played against. We had watched them on TV the week before just destroy Southern Cal on national TV.
"The people who missed that game-- I mean, whoever had the ball last was going to win it. We had an offensive lineman [Rob Monaco] score a touchdown-- it was just a little bit of everything. I think that was the game that gave us the confidence to finish the year strong."
Though Air Force defeated Vandy 36-28 in the Hall of Fame Bowl, Taylor, who was named the game's Most Valuable Player, still remembers that game as a highlight as well.
"Norman Jordan caught 20 balls that day!" remembers Taylor. "Guys just don't catch 20 balls in a game very much.
"It's just hard to believe that it's been 21 years since a winning record, 21 years since we beat Tennessee. In a way, I'm proud that I was part of the last team to do that-- but in another way, it makes me a little sad that we haven't. We need to get to that point where we're competing year in and year out."
Despite living the busy life of a high school football coach, Taylor maintains an active interest in the Commodore football program.
"It's a little harder than it would be if I wasn't coaching," he says. "Saturdays are usually tied up with trading films and that kind of thing, and my oldest son is playing on Saturdays [at the University of the South in Sewanee] now. We put in a bunch of miles this year traveling to watch him play. But I keep up with it as much as I can."
The homespun, down-to-earth Taylor really can't imagine himself anywhere besides Shelbyville, doing anything else besides coaching football. He lives near his extended family, and the chance to coach both of his sons, at the same school where he once played, seems to fit him better than any other glamour job in the coaching world might have.
"The coaching business can be kind of funny at times, especially at the college level, when you bounce around from job to job," he says. "I was fortunate to play football in college, and football kind of got in my blood. I don't know that there's been anything else that I've really wanted to do."
For a complete list of this year's "SEC Legends" honorees, click here.