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A Look Back: Get to Know Ken Whisenhunt
The 2013 season is just around the corner with the San Diego Chargers holding their first training camp practice on July 25th. On the precipice of a new season, we decided to take a look back at a feature we published earlier this year getting to know the new Chargers coaches. We continue the series with an in depth look at offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.
Sitting down with Ken Whisenhunt, one thing becomes crystal clear; this man lives and breathes football. He not only has a great mind for it, but is extremely passionate about the game that has brought him the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
Throughout my interview it’s become very apparent why Mike McCoy hired him just two days into his tenure as head coach to become the Chargers new offensive coordinator.
Still, even though football is a major part of his life, it does not solely define who he is as a person.
So just who is Ken Whisenhunt?
He grew up in one of the most famous sporting cities in the United States, but one well known for a sport almost the polar opposite from the gridiron.
“I grew up in Augusta, Georgia,” he said. “When you think of Augusta, you think of the Masters; the golf tournament they have there. One of the unique things that I had the ability to do as a kid was work the scoreboards at the tournament. It was a pretty big deal because it was an old fashioned scoreboard. It was a panel that you had to slide the numbers in like you do at Wrigley Field, so it was a unique experience.”
Even though he played numerous sports like any other kid, it became clear at an early age that he was destined for a life in football.
“I had a good childhood, and I played baseball too, but I gravitated to football,” Whisenhunt said. “I was a quarterback growing up, and played a little bit of quarterback in college before moving to tight end.”
In fact, one of his standout memories from his collegiate career at Georgia Tech was coming off the bench as a freshman QB to lead the then 1-7 Yellow Jackets to an upset tie of number 1 ranked Notre Dame.
“That was a very notable moment for the school,” he reflected back upon. “Notre Dame was number one in the country, and I was a freshman quarterback nobody knew and we ended up tying them. That was a big story at the time, so that was my only claim to fame as a quarterback.”
Soon after, Whisenhunt was moved to the tight end position, which changed his pro football destiny.
“That was a good thing because I got to play,” he said. “It also gave me the chance to play at the pro level too which wouldn’t have happened if I stayed a quarterback. I wasn’t very good. Let’s just say passing wasn’t my strength.”
But that doesn’t mean the transition was a smooth one.
“It was very tough,” he admitted. “It was tough because the mentality for me was throwing the football or running the option, and now I had to block big linebackers and defensive ends. That was something I had never done. Plus, physically, I hadn’t grown up to the point where I was big or strong enough. So the combination of learning a new position, especially one where I had to do inline blocking, and trying to get bigger and stronger was challenging. So the pass catching I was fine with, but the run blocking was tough.”
Still, Whisenhunt excelled at his new position and was an All-American Honorable Mention his senior season. As a result, he was drafted by his hometown Atlanta Falcons in the 12th round.
“That was a unique opportunity to be drafted in the same city where you played college and where you grew up,” he said. “Atlanta is only two hours from Augusta. So that was a lot of fun. I had a lot of my college teammates and friends still there, my childhood friends were only a couple hours away and it allowed me to have a great experience for many years as a player in the NFL.”
Whisenhunt played four years for the Falcons, two for the Washington Redskins and two for the New York Jets before hanging up his cleats. Over his career he caught 62 passes for 596 yards and five touchdowns. Overall, one memory stands out from the rest.
“Catching my first touchdown pass was pretty special,” he said. “It was against the Dallas Cowboys in Texas Stadium. That was really neat and I won’t forget that.”
After retiring, Whisenhunt did not see himself getting into the coaching ranks. Still, others he’d met along the way had an inkling it suited him, and that ended up being his in to the coaching world.
“I really didn’t know I would be one,” he admitted. “There were times during my career I had coaches tell me as a player I would be a good coach. They’d make those off the cuff comments, but I never really thought much about it. But I realized pretty quickly once I was out and retired that there was something missing. Not only the camaraderie and the time spent with teammates, but the actual preparation. Having that goal of working toward something as a group and a team, I really missed that. So I was very lucky. Rod Dowhower, who was one of my coaches when I played, got the head coaching job at Vanderbilt University and he offered me a job coaching. To get that opportunity I was at least smart enough to recognize that maybe I should look into that. And the first time I stepped onto the field and got involved in the process, I knew it was right for me.”
Whisenhunt’s coaching career started in 1995, spending two seasons at Vanderbilt in a number of capacities. He left in 1997 to become the tight ends coach for the Baltimore Ravens, where he stayed for two years before moving on to the Cleveland Browns to be their special teams coach. Following a one-year stint there, he moved back to coaching tight ends with the Jets for a season before taking the same job with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2001. After three seasons, he was elevated to offensive coordinator for the next three years, and it was during this stretch that Whisenhunt experienced the ultimate goal of any NFL coach, winning Super Bowl XL in 2006, 21-10, over the Seattle Seahawks.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” he said. “There’s nothing like it. I’ve been in a lot of playoff games and a lot of championship games, and obviously the Super Bowl is the biggest, and there’s nothing like walking off that field with the feeling of accomplishment that you have with your teammates and coaches. Everybody in the organization has worked so hard toward the common goal. And that feeling, that’s why you do it. Every year your goal is to get there, and when you don’t it hurts. This weekend, that game is going to be played and I’m a little bit sick each time because I want to be there.”
In Whisenhunt’s Super Bowl XL win, he was responsible for the game’s signature play, a reverse wide-receiver pass as Antwan Randle-El threw a 43-yard touchdown to Hines Ward. It was a back-breaker that sealed the win. Delving deeper into the trick play, Whisenhunt gave a glimpse into his thought process as an offensive coordinator and what goes into calling plays.
“We had a number of those type plays called throughout the year at different times,” he said. “That was something we had planned going into the Super Bowl. We talked about the down and distance where that play would work, the situation it was best suited for and when we were going to use it. Three plays before we ran that play, we called a play that was a similar formation and motion to set that play up. Then we had a third down and about three or four yards, and I told Coach (Bill) Cowher I’m going to call the quarterback draw with Ben (Roethlisberger) because I know he’ll get the first down, and it will put us on the right hash, and that the next play after that we’re going to run the reverse-pass. That doesn’t happen if Coach Cowher doesn’t believe enough in what we’re trying to get done. And obviously with Randle-El and Hines we had guys that believed in what we were doing. Ben made a great block on that play which allowed Randle-El to get the ball off. So the guys executed the play, and I think the belief in doing it obviously made me feel comfortable calling it in that situation. So the belief in our guys that they can make it work is a big reason why it did.”
Following his success with the Steelers, Whisenhunt was hired as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2007, a position he held until December of 2012 when he was let go and subsequently became the Chargers offensive coordinator. During his time in the desert, the Cardinals experienced their greatest success in franchise history, winning a division title for the first time since 1975 and reaching their lone Super Bowl in 2009. Unfortunately, Arizona lost the big game to his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“As great as it felt to win it, that’s how much it hurt to lose,” he said. “But you can’t forget the amount of work it takes from everybody in the building to get there, and not just the coaches and the players. So it’s still an accomplishment but as great as it feels to win it, that’s how much it hurts when you don’t.”
Now, Whisenhunt has turned his excitement toward being with the Chargers.
“I’m really looking forward to working with Philip Rivers,” he said. “That’s an obvious one. I’m also excited to work with Coach McCoy. We’ve been friends for a number of years, and I’ve watched him take the progressions in this business and he’s done a great job. What he did in Carolina and then in Denver is impressive. And I’m also excited about the staff that he’s hired. He’s put together a staff that I think are both good people and good coaches. And that’s important to have that chemistry working together.”
Whisenhunt’s success as a coach comes through his tireless dedication - a dedication that also translates to his family. He is married to his wife, Alice, who he met his senior year at Georgia Tech, and together they have two children, a son, Kenneth, Jr. and a daughter, Mary Ashley. He spends much of his free time with them, but also enjoys playing golf, is a big movie buff and loves to read.
“One of those three things is what you’ll find me doing when I’m not with my family or working” he said. “I am a big fan of sports movies. I like “For Love of the Game” with Kevin Costner and of course “Rudy”. I like the whole idea of that. And reading, I like those thriller-fiction books like David Baldacci and James Patterson. And I do like to read historical books like the Navy Seal ones such as “Lone Survivor” by Marcus Lutrell."
But when it comes to the Chargers, Whisenhunt has a good feel for who this team is and what they can accomplish.
“I’m excited to work with these guys and these plays,” he said. “I’m looking forward to winning a lot of games. My vision of the Chargers has been one that I’ve played against. It’s a tough, physical team that’s really played well. That’s my sense of this team and that’s what I think we’re going to see.”