Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, in only his second season with the Cardinals, has pulled off quite an accomplishment—leading the franchise into its first ever Super Bowl appearance this coming Sunday. Beyond his wild story of how the Cardinals’ season went, winning the under-performing NFC West and then rolling through the playoffs as underdogs, Whisenhunt has quite an interesting history with roots here at Tech.
Whisenhunt was born in Atlanta in 1962 but grew up in Augusta. As a football player in his junior year at the Richmond Academy, he was highly sought after by recruiters until he injured his knee senior year, when all scholarship interest faded. Knowing that it was improbable to earn a full ride at a Division I school, he was encouraged by his high school coach to attend a Tech spring practice. At that time, Tech’s head coach Bill Curry had just taken over the football program, and he showed great interest in Whisenhunt. Soon after, Whisenhunt decided to attend Tech as a walk-on in 1980.
Even though he was a walk-on, Whisenhunt’s versatility allowed him to play several positions that were the thinnest on the depth chart. That 1980 season for the Jackets was a disaster, marking their worst start since 1934. In the eighth week of the season, Whisenhunt saw his first game action at wide receiver in a loss to Duke. The following week, with a 1-7 record, the Jackets hosted the No. 1 ranked Notre Dame. In the first quarter of the game, starting quarterback Mike Kelley and backup Ted Peoples both went down with injuries. Curry called on Whisenhunt, the true freshman, to take the snap against the number-one ranked defense on Tech’s own four-yard line.
In his first passing play, he threw a nice spiral, but his jitters made him throw the ball to the left and into the stands. After that, Whisenhunt was able to calm down and lead the Jackets on a scoring drive that resulted in a 39-yard Johnny Smith field goal—Tech’s only points of the day. Notre Dame later tied the game in the fourth quarter with a field goal and the game ended 3-3, making it one of the greatest games in Tech history.
Following that first season, Whisenhunt went on scholarship and continued to be a jack-of-all-trades for the next few years. Curry said that they lined him up everywhere except for the offensive and defensive line. Eventually he settled on tight end, where he earned all-ACC honors.
After the 1983 season, the NCAA modified redshirting rules, which allowed Whisenhunt to return for a fifth season due to injuries he sustained during freshman year.
In his senior year, with John Dewberry at quarterback, Tech finally beat Georgia for the first time in seven years. Whisenhunt finished his career at Tech with 82 catches for 1,264 yards. He remains the only five-time football letterman in school history. In addition to these football accomplishments, Whisenhunt also graduated from Tech with a Civil Engineering degree.
After graduation, Whisenhunt entered the 1984 NFL draft, where the Atlanta Falcons selected him in the twelfth round. He went on to play nine years in professional football as tight end for the Falcons, Redskins and Jets. Following retirement, he took a year off and contemplated his future. He considered finding a job using the degree he received at Tech, but decided that football was still in his blood. When Rod Dowhower became the head coach at Vanderbilt, he offered Whisenhunt a coaching position at special teams and tight ends for the Commodores from 1995-1996. A year later he went back to the NFL to be tight ends coach for the Baltimore Ravens. He then received coaching positions for special teams and tight ends with the Browns, Jets and Steelers. In 2004, Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator position opened as Mike Mularkey became the head coach for the Buffalo Bills. Whisenhunt was given the job and enjoyed instant success. He won a Super Bowl ring with Pittsburgh in 2006 as he directed well-timed trick plays that led the Steelers through the playoffs and into the big game itself.
On Jan. 14, 2007 the Cardinals hired him as their head coach and improved their record to 8-8 in the first season (Arizona’s first non-losing season since 1998). This past season, the Cardinals won their first division title since 1975 and rolled through the playoffs. Whisenhunt will now face his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in Super Bowl XLIII this Sunday.