Once loyal employees, Whisenhunt and Grimm would love to knock off players they used to coach

Three of the four finalists for the Steelers' head coaching job early this year will stand on the field Sunday in Arizona.

There will be Ken Whisenhunt, who took the Cardinals' offer rather than wait for the Steelers to go through a more protracted interview process.

There will be Cardinals assistant head coach and line coach Russ Grimm, who thought he had the Steelers' job only to learn a day later he did not.

And there will be Mike Tomlin, who is tied with Bill Cowher as the only Steelers' rookie coach to win his first three games.

As Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger acknowledged Sunday, it should make for an interesting week.

"It's going to be a great game, I think," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "Arizona is going to come at us with everything they have. Whis wants to win that game, I think, more than getting to the Super Bowl and winning it. I know they're all excited to play us."

Whisenhunt was the Steelers' offensive coordinator the past three seasons under Bill Cowher, and their tight ends coach for three seasons before that. Grimm, a native of Scottdale in Westmoreland County who played at Pitt, was the Steelers' offensive line coach since 2001 and promoted to assistant head coach in '04 in part to help him get a head coaching job.

As it became more evident that '06 would be Cowher's last season, Whisenhunt and Grimm quickly became prime candidates, if not the candidates to succeed him. Whisenhunt even opted out of the Atlanta Falcons search for a coach when he told them he wanted to wait for the Steelers' decision.

He changed his mind after interviewing with Arizona and accepted its offer.

The Steelers choice then came down to Grimm and Tomlin, a young outsider seen as a long shot. Grimm thought he had the job on Jan. 20, and there were published reports that both Grimm and Tomlin would be the new head coach. Tomlin was given the job Jan 21 and introduced as the new coach at a news conference Jan. 22.

Team president Art Rooney II acknowledged that "leaks," including those from the NFL office, led to confusion and that there might have been a misunderstanding on Grimm's part.

"I think it's fair to say Russ was close," Rooney said in January. "We gave serious consideration to giving Russ the job and he merited it. That's why we made him a finalist."

It's fair to say Grimm would like nothing better than for the Cardinals to beat the Steelers Sunday.

Keisel joked about it when he said the Steelers would "get ready to go down and smack Russ around."

"It's going to be cool, I think," Keisel said. "It'll be interesting to go out there and face Whis, who we're used to going against. It'll be nice to see them again."

But neither Grimm nor Whisenhunt will get to play against the Steelers, and it's hard to tell if their passion for this game can be passed to players who weren't emotionally involved. Only three Steelers from last season are on the Cardinals' roster -- special teams player Sean Morey, defensive end Rodney Bailey and center Chukky Okobi, signed by Arizona two weeks ago after the six-year veteran was released by the Steelers before the opener. They also have tight end Tim Euhus, who spent the first week last season on the Steelers' roster.

The Cardinals have played well despite a 1-2 record. Each of their two losses came in the closing minute on the road, in their opener at San Francisco and Sunday at Baltimore. They beat a good Seattle team at home.

Tomlin can become the first Steelers coach to win his first four games. Jim Mora was the last rookie coach to go 4-0 in 2004 with Atlanta. He was fired after the '06 season.

Wally Lemm holds the NFL record by winning the first 10 games he coached. He took over for Lou Rymkus after the Houston Oilers opened 1-3-1 in the 1961 season of the old American Football League. The Oilers won their next 10 games, including the AFL championship against San Diego. Lemm then quit to become head coach of the old St. Louis Cardinals.

Those Cardinals are in Arizona today, and a rivalry with the Steelers, at least for one year, began the day Whisenhunt was hired. It intensified when Grimm was hired after the Steelers spurned him. It picked up in the offseason when Whisenhunt and Roethlisberger disagreed over why the quarterback had a poor 2006. Roethlisberger has since taken some not-so-subtle swipes at the "old" Steelers offense under Whisenhunt vs. the new one under Bruce Arians.

"Obviously they're going to be coming off a hard loss and coming at us with everything they have," Keisel said. "I think it's going to be our biggest test of the year."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com . First Published September 25, 2007 4:00 AM


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