Ken Whisenhunt got his degree in civil engineering at Georgia Tech, but he never really wanted to build bridges. Instead, he wanted to build a football team, construct a winning foundation, assemble the necessary parts of a franchise that had an infrastructure as solid as tungsten steel.
None of that is necessary with the Steelers. They do not need an architect to rebuild a tattered franchise or build a winning tradition. With five Super Bowl trophies on display in their South Side offices, they do not need someone to reinvent the wheel. They just want someone to keep the wheel rolling.
That's why Dan Henning, a former NFL head coach who worked with Whisenhunt as a player and assistant coach, wonders what the Steelers are waiting for to name a replacement for Bill Cowher.
"Next to player personnel in the National Football League, continuity is the next best thing," said Henning, who is offensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers. "Kenny knows the Steelers' organization, they know him. They're not getting an unknown quantity. They know the quality of his work, the way he gets along with people. It's a tremendous advantage in transition."
Henning was head coach of the Atlanta Falcons from 1983-86 when Whisenhunt was a tight end/H-back there. He later coached with him for one season with the New York Jets, Whisenhunt's last coaching stop before joining the Steelers in 2004. Henning was also head coach with the San Diego Chargers from 1989-91.
"When we drafted him, he was a quarterback/tight end who could do all things. All those qualities he had as a player have transitioned for him as a coach. I don't know if there are any candidates out there who have all those qualities rolled into one.
"There is an old saying: A prophet in his own land is scorned. It's disappointing to me they haven't jumped on Kenny. Sometimes you hesitate because nobody is perfect. I can tell you this -- nobody knows for sure if somebody will be a successful head coach. You can only gauge based on the credentials and their body of work. Kenny has all that."
Whisenhunt had an indistinguishable career as an NFL player, catching 62 passes for 601 yards and six touchdowns in nine seasons with the Falcons (1985-88), Washington Redskins ('89-90) and Jets ('91-93). In college, he finished as Georgia Tech's second all-time receiving yardage leader (1,264) and fourth in receptions (82).
But it has been as an NFL assistant coach where Whisenhunt's career has been almost meteoric. He joined the Baltimore Ravens as tight end coach in 1997, was special teams coach under Chris Palmer with the Cleveland Browns in '99 and joined the Jets for one season before Cowher hired him to coach the Steelers' tight ends.
Now he could be the Steelers' next head coach. He has interviewed with three other NFL teams since the season ended, making him perhaps the most marketable head-coaching candidate in the league.
But Whisenhunt, 44, doesn't want to coach those other teams as much as he wants to coach the Steelers. That's part of the reason he lost an opportunity this week to replace Jim Mora Jr. as coach in Atlanta. Not that anyone would know underneath that calm, placid exterior.
"What people miss when they deal with him is that he's low-key, but very, very competitive, very focused," Henning said. "He wants to win and his actions follow through with that."
Whisenhunt has always been calm, even-tempered. But it does not belie his intensity, his toughness, nor does it adversely affect his performance.
That was apparent as far back as 1980 when Georgia Tech, in a game against unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Notre Dame, asked Whisenhunt to play quarterback after injuries felled its starter and top backup after a couple series. The Yellow Jackets were 1-8 at the time. And Whisenhunt, a walk-on freshman, wasn't really a quarterback. He was a receiver/defensive back.
But he kept Georgia Tech in the game, and the Yellow Jackets managed a 3-3 tie that derailed Notre Dame's season.
"You knew he was athletic, but when he stepped in to play in that Notre Dame game, you knew the guy had more," Ben Utt, a former NFL guard who was captain of the 1980 Georgia Tech team, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "Especially in hindsight, just the composure you have to have to be able to do that."
Whisenhunt has always done that, whether on game day or on the practice field, whether in uniform or coaching sweats.
"He has this calm presence about him that he will function as if he did it all his life," said former Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry. "He never panics and he's absolutely brilliant.
"He'll make the call that makes the most sense, that requires calm and presence. He won't be plucking things out of the air or choking on a hot dog. Coaches do all kinds of crazy stuff; there is a legion of ways they can panic in those situations. This guy is cold-blooded in the clutch."
Whisenhunt did not always want to be a football coach. When he retired after eight seasons as a tight end/H-back in the NFL, he thought about being a professional golfer, not a far-fetched thought for a person who grew up in Augusta, Ga. So he worked on his game for six months at Willow Springs Country Club in Roswell, Ga., lowering his handicap to 4 and even qualifying for the 1994 U.S. Mid-Amateur.
But, at age 31, staring at the same reality that eventually smacks most professional athletes who desire to be professional golfers, Whisenhunt thought it was time to do something else.
So he called his old position coach with the Falcons, Rod Dowhower, who was in line to become head coach at Vanderbilt University. Whisenhunt asked him if he needed an assistant coach. And, in 1995, a new career was started.
"I didn't know if I felt I could really succeed at it, but I thought it felt like the right thing to do," Whisenhunt said. "If there's anything that felt right, it was that first year at Vanderbilt. I got back into the game."
It began the ascent that has seen Whisenhunt go from position coach to Steelers offensive coordinator in 2004 to maybe the most viable -- certainly the most-interviewed -- head-coaching candidate in the NFL. Last week, a whirlwind tour took Whisenhunt and his wife, Alice, to Atlanta, Arizona and back home to Pittsburgh to interview with the Miami Dolphins in Wayne Huizenga's private jet.
He was the first person Falcons owner Arthur Blank wanted to interview and probably could have had the job if he didn't want to wait to see what would happen with the Steelers. Now he is among what is believed to be a field of four, competing with Russ Grimm and two other candidates -- Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin -- to become head coach of the team whose offense he has directed the past three seasons.
"Tough guy, extremely tough," Dowhower said the other day from Cape Creek, Ariz., where he is retired from coaching. "A tremendous competitor.
"They asked him to do things that were never asked of a tight end before in Atlanta and that's slam-block 300-pound tackles. And he would do it over and over and over again. Never said a word."
Former Pitt coach Foge Fazio was a linebackers/special teams coach with the Falcons, and he always remembered Whisenhunt's toughness. When Fazio went to the Jets and head coach Bruce Coslett was looking for a tight end, he recommended Whisenhunt, who ended up playing three seasons in New York.
"He was always in there watching film and he knew the playbook inside and out," Fazio said. "He knew everyone on that offense and where they were supposed to be. He knew the pass protections. He knew all that. He knew what everyone was doing."
He still does, mainly because of his job description.
When Whisenhunt replaced the pass-happy Mike Mularkey as offensive coordinator in 2004, the Steelers jumped from No. 31 to No. 2 in rushing in the NFL and became the first AFC team to win 15 games in a regular season. When they needed to win their final four regular-season games last season to make the playoffs -- a streak that ended with the Super Bowl championship -- the Steelers leaned on their running game to average 185 yards rushing in that stretch.
But Whisehunt saved his best for the playoffs, and everyone around the NFL noticed.
The Steelers developed into one of the league's most diverse, explosive and productive offenses, a unit that was maddening to defend because of the big-play ability of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the threat of hammering the opposition with the run. The Steelers averaged nearly 28 points a game in their eight-game winning streak and scored on 13 of 28 possessions in the AFC playoffs.
And, yet, there were specific instances of his artistry:
After falling behind, 10-0 and 17-7, in Cincinnati, he pulled out a gadget play that resulted in a 43-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger to Cedrick Wilson to highlight a 24-point run.
In Indianapolis, he put in a special play to tight end Heath Miller that resulted in a 36-yard completion on the second play of the game, immediately setting the tone for what would be a 21-18 victory.
In the AFC championship game in Denver, Whisenhunt put in two plays he thought could work against the Broncos' defensive scheme, one that resulted in Roethlisberger's pump-fake 12-yard touchdown to Wilson, the other a 12-yard touchdown run by Jerome Bettis that was negated by a penalty.
That stamped him a candidate to be an NFL head coach.
"Nobody knows how someone will do until they're a head coach," Dowhower said. "That's all relative to the team you're with and the people you're able to hire and players you have. But I have no doubts he will be. The results will be based on the types of players he has and the support he has. I think he'll handle the rest."
The head coaches
Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt have the chance to become the 16th Steelers head coach, a job that the previous two coaches held for a combined 37 seasons. However, a closer look reveals that six past coaches lasted only one year. Here's the list in alphabetical order:Ed Yozwick, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.
*-Kiesling was co-head coach with Greasy Neale in 1943 (Phil.-Pitt.) and with Phil Handler in 1944 (Card.-Pitt.)
**-Record includes postseason
Gerry Dulac can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1466.