Underdog Coach Won't Nip At Foe

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 2009

TAMPA, Jan. 25 -- Rarely have Super Bowl opponents arrived on football's biggest stage with more vivid contrasts in history and reputation.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are viewed as a model of organizational stability and have the richest of winning traditions as they ready for a seventh Super Bowl appearance. The Arizona Cardinals will show up for their first appearance in the game, trying to shed their image as longtime losers, and not even loveable ones at that.

But there are some commonalities, and the most obvious one is Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt. He was the offensive coordinator of the Steelers for their last Super Bowl triumph, and the fact that he will be on Arizona's sideline and not Pittsburgh's for this game promises to be a leading topic of conversation when the teams arrive in town Monday.

If anyone wants to make a story line of Whisenhunt and his offensive line coach in Arizona, Russ Grimm, seeking vindication for being passed over by the Steelers in favor of Mike Tomlin when they hired a replacement for Bill Cowher following the 2006 season, Whisenhunt is unlikely to play along. He spent last week saying that he has no bitterness toward the Steelers, pointing out that he bolted to take the Cardinals' head coaching job before the decision was made in Pittsburgh.

"Why would I have any hard feelings?" Whisenhunt said at a news conference last week. "I don't see why you wouldn't want an NFL job. I had a great opportunity here. There were a lot of things that I thought were in place that would help us have an opportunity to win. I think we have shown that, and I am excited about that."

Whisenhunt, like Grimm, is a former Washington Redskins player, having had a stint with the team as a tight end during the first coaching tenure of Joe Gibbs. Both were assistant coaches in Pittsburgh under Cowher, and Whisenhunt called the trick play -- a pass from one wide receiver, Antwaan Randle El, to another, Hines Ward -- that sealed the Steelers' Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks to conclude the 2005 season.

When Cowher walked away from the Steelers after one more season, Whisenhunt and Grimm were considered by many to be the most likely successors. But Tomlin, then the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, became a factor during the Steelers' interviewing process.

At that point, Whisenhunt chose to leave. He has acknowledged in recent weeks that some associates advised him against taking the head coaching job with the Cardinals, who'd produced one winning season since 1984. But Whisenhunt took it anyway, leaving Steelers owner Dan Rooney to choose between Tomlin and Grimm.

"They still had a week or so to go, at least, of interviews before they were going to make a decision with that [Pittsburgh] job," Whisenhunt said last week. "I had an opportunity here that I felt was a good opportunity. I had to make the decision, waiting to see if I could get that job or having the one here. . . . The one thing I learned is that if you have an opportunity, you have to be very careful about passing things up because you never know if you will get another one."

Late in the Steelers' search, there was media speculation that the job would go to Grimm. It didn't. The Steelers hired Tomlin, and Grimm ended up joining Whisenhunt in Arizona.

"I was very excited to get Russ here," Whisenhunt said. "He is an outstanding football coach, one that I have a tremendous amount of history with, both as a player and a coach. We have had great success together. A lot of the things we do here, I know we think a lot alike. I think he has been a great part of why we have had success."

Now, in only their second season as NFL head coaches, both Whisenhunt and Tomlin have their teams in the Super Bowl. Both have won respect inside their own locker rooms and around the league. But while Tomlin's task in Pittsburgh was to follow a successful coach and add to a franchise's winning legacy, Whisenhunt had to plow new ground.

He made all the right moves this season, from picking Kurt Warner as his starter over Matt Leinart at quarterback to somehow restoring his team's confidence after five losses in five games on the East Coast during the regular season by an average margin of 20 points. He faced one more obstacle in recent days, having to deal with the fallout from a heated sideline exchange between his offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, and standout wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the final minutes of the NFC championship game.

There undoubtedly will be more questions this week about the incident, which Whisenhunt and Boldin dismissed last week as inconsequential.

"That's something that goes on every week in the NFL, whether people know it or not," Boldin said at a news conference. "Every week, somebody on the sidelines gets into an argument. But it's in the heat of the moment. It's part of football and once it's done, it's dead on all sides."

Whisenhunt also appears prepared to take a nothing-to-see-here approach to any talk of a rift with the Steelers. He said last week that he continues to have "a strong place in my heart" for Rooney and others in the organization. He spoke fondly of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Once the Cardinals beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game, he said, he fully expected the Steelers to prevail over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game later that day to get to Tampa as well.

"Did you expect anything different?" Whisenhunt said last week. "I mean, when we actually won the game, how could it have not been the Steelers? That was what I expected. It's just a shame there won't be many story lines."

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