Ken Whisenhunt pushes right buttons to make Arizona Cardinals winners

Think of it as just another warm, fuzzy Christmas story. Think of it as a holiday classic. Think of Ken Whisenhunt as just another wise man.

You know, the one who brought the gift of "big boy pads."

To be sure, it was a different holiday in the desert. Already, the Cardinals had clinched the playoffs, a rare gift in itself. Already, there was talk of home games and possible opponents.

As for Whisenhunt, well, he wasn't in the mood to go carolling. The Cards had just lost again, 47-7 to the Patriots, and the team looked as if it was in full plummet. Arizona had lost four of its last five, and opponents had averaged 41.7 points in the defeats.

If you want to figure out just who this Whisenhunt guy is, this seems as fine a place as any to start. It was then that Whisenhunt, an affable man with a good sense of humor, decided to go caveman on his team.

"Bring the big boy pads to practice," he told his team. And for an hour and a half on Christmas morning, in a cold, driving rain, the team went after each other in a full-bore scrimmage.

Lo, the Cardinals came out of the scrimmage as a tougher, more disciplined team. Since then, they have won four straight games, three of them in the playoffs. Gee Whiz, what a good idea.

"I think that was frustration from a number of weeks when we didn't play well," Whisenhunt says now. "When that happens, you go back to your roots. You look back on places you've been and coaches you've been with and how they handled those situations."

So which coach did this come from?

Whisenhunt looks at you for a minute and glares, just like his old boss Bill Cowher would have. Then he grins and says, "Which one do you think?"

And there you have it, a glimpse into why Whisenhunt has been able to turn around a franchise that has been rudderless for years. It doesn't matter which X's they like or which O's they prefer; the good ones always share a knowledge of their team and a feel for its situation. They know when to pat a back, and they know when to kick a butt.

It would appear that, two years into his career, the coach they call Whiz has a knack for knowing the difference.

"Looking at the opportunity to have a playoff game at home and playing the way we were at the time, I knew something had to change," said Whisenhunt, sitting in an office last week at the Cardinals' training facility beneath a large photo of Pat Tillman. "That's really what it was about. I viewed it as something we needed to do. And no one complained. The guys knew we had to pick it up."

Whiz knew, too. That's what happens when a man who spent his life planning to be an engineer turns out to be an architect.

Who is Whisenhunt? In a way, he's the accidental coach. Whisenhunt has a degree in engineering from Georgia Tech, and after his playing days were over, he planned to use it. He could be living an easier life, perfecting a golf game that is good enough for him to shoot 72 at Augusta National.

"I know a lot of people who are very glad I'm not an engineer," Whisenhunt says, grinning. "Especially those who are driving on the roads and bridges and things that maybe I would have had a hand in building."

The thing is, football wouldn't let go of Whisenhunt. He was a walk-on at Georgia Tech who lasted long enough for a seven-year NFL career. His original plan was to use his engineering degree after that, but that was before coaching took its grip on him.

"When I retired, something was missing," he said. "That part of me, the camaraderie, the competitive aspect of the business that drives you. It isn't what it is as a player, but it's close."

In other words, things don't always go according to plan. That might have been the first lesson Whisenhunt learned as a player.

Go back to his freshman season at Georgia Tech. Whisenhunt was a walk-on quarterback who had a good view of a 1-7 start. Then came unbeaten and top-ranked Notre Dame. Tech lost its starting quarterback on the game's second series, and when the backup couldn't play because of a bad knee, Whisenhunt was thrust into the huddle for his first college snap.

"I always said my biggest fear was throwing a spiral," Whisenhunt said. "On my first pass, I rolled to my left, and the thing I remember the most clearly is that it was a spiral. The only problem was that it came down in the first row of the stands because I overthrew everybody so badly."

These days, Whisenhunt, who turns 47 next month, has Kurt Warner to do the throwing for him. And his offense is working just fine, thank you.

Who is Whisenhunt? He's the coach who isn't afraid of ghosts. After all, the Cardinals have ended a lot of coaching careers — Buddy Ryan, Dennis Green, Bud Wilkinson — over the years. They were owned by Bill Bidwill.

None of that bothered Whisenhunt. Nor did the fact he still had a shot at the Steelers' job, where he was offensive coordinator, two years ago.

Things worked out for both teams, wouldn't you say?

Who is Whisenhunt? He's a coach who has kept his team focused despite Larry Fitzgerald's contract negotiations, despite Anquan Boldin's unhappiness, despite Edgerrin James' benching. He's the man who delivered the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.

Gift wrapped, as it turns out.

Ken Whisenhunt pushes right buttons to make Arizona Cardinals winners 01/26/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 4:09pm]

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