SAN DIEGO — Once upon a time, Ken Whisenhunt was where Bruce Arians is now.
He was a former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator who was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, popular and winning games.
Now, he is back for his second stint as the offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers, and his time in Arizona — which ended after a 5-11 season in 2012 — seems like a distant memory.
The only coach who can say he led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl got an up close look at his former team this week as the Cardinals and Chargers practiced together, and though just five players remain from the last Arizona team Whisenhunt coached, it was still a bit of an experience for him.
“It’s good,” Whisenhunt said following Wednesday afternoon’s practice. “You don’t ever get a chance, in a little bit less a competitive environment like a game where you get to see them again, all the people that are there. It was great seeing them.
“There’s obviously not as many players on the team, but there’s still a lot of the staff, you get a chance to see them, so it’s been good. I’ve been happy to see the success the team has had over the years.”
This was not the first time Whisenhunt has faced his former team in any capacity, as he and the Chargers visited Glendale for a preseason matchup in 2013. But in this case there was more time as well as a relaxed environment. Tuesday night when he was spotted having a nice chat with Larry Fitzgerald, whom he coached in Arizona and has stayed in touch with.
“It was good talking with him,” he said. “You don’t ever get a chance to really see him and spend time with him and just catch up. He’s such a good man, such a great player; it’s always great to be able to spend time with him.”
Since being relieved of his duties at the conclusion of the 2012 season, Whisenhunt has had a couple of different stops. In 2013 he was the offensive coordinator in San Diego, and he parlayed that job into the head coaching gig with the Tennessee Titans in 2014. He lasted just 23 games there, though, and was let go last season after posting a 3-20 record with the team.
While Whisenhunt’s star has lost some of its luster in recent years, Arians’ — and the Cardinals organization’s, really — has never been shinier.
In the three seasons since parting with Whisenhunt and hiring Arians, the Cardinals have posted a 34-14 record, gone to the playoffs twice and reached the NFC Championship Game. In Whisenhunt’s final three seasons, the Cardinals were 18-30.
The organization’s ascension seems rather sudden, especially given where they were as recently as four years ago, but Whisenhunt does not see it that way.
“Well we did have a little bit of success there,” he said, with a smile. “It isn’t wasn’t like we didn’t do anything.
“No. I think Michael (Bidwill) has done a great job there; I’m very grateful to him for having given me the opportunity and I’m glad for him and his family that they’ve had the success. All the people that have been in that building that worked so hard with us when we were there, it’s good to see them have success.”
No one would blame Whisenhunt, whose 49 wins rank first in Cardinals franchise history, if he harbored at least a little resentment over what has transpired since he and then-GM Rod Graves were let go on Dec. 31, 2012.
After all, perhaps with better fortune in the injury department with QB Kevin Kolb or a little more time for young players like Patrick Peterson and Michael Floyd to develop, the team could have turned things around under his guidance.
Then again, maybe not. After six years with Whisenhunt running the show, the team may have simply needed a change.
Regardless, it’s clear now that if nothing else, the Cardinals did not make the wrong choice back then. The subsequent hires of Steve Keim as GM and Arians as head coach helped pave the way for one of the best stretches in franchise history, and nowadays Arizona is viewed as a model organization and legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Whisenhunt said it’s not for him to talk about whether or not what Arians has accomplished as a head coach was expected, only that he knows “Bruce is a good football coach” who is also a good man and friend.
“So I’m very happy for him,” he said.
If there is any jealousy, Whisenhunt is not letting it show. Though his tenure in the Valley ended on a sour note, for a while he was the one credited with changing the team’s culture. Before him, the Cardinals were a struggling franchise with a nice stadium but no direction and little credibility.
It was under him where the Cardinals won their first two NFC West titles, and it was under him where they came within less than a minute of winning Super Bowl XLIII.
It happened a long time ago, especially in NFL years, but the fact remains, it happened.
And for all he has done so far, Arians has yet to lead the Cardinals as far as Whisenhunt. This might be the season where the Cardinals get back to the Super Bowl and who knows, maybe they will even come out on top.
If they do, however, it could be argued at least in some capacity that the current coach would not be winning like he is if not for the man he replaced.
“I don’t know if I would say that,” Whisenhunt said. “We had a good run; we won some playoff games and had some success. I’m very grateful to all the fans there and their support, but I’m happy for them, they’ve done this. It’s been Michael and Steve and Bruce and the players and the people in that organization that have worked hard.
“They worked hard when I was there and it’s good to see them have the success like they’ve had.”
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