Humbled coach has bond with hometown

Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was honored at the Friends of Scouting dinner Thursday night. The Richmond Academy graduate led upstart Arizona to the Super Bowl this year.

It's been 75 days since the Pittsburgh Steelers stuck a dagger in the Arizona Cardinals with a last-minute rally to win the Super Bowl.

 

How has Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt recovered?

"I'll tell you when that happens," Whisenhunt said. "It's been tough."

The former Richmond Academy, Georgia Tech and Atlanta Falcons player came home Thursday night to be honored at the Friends of Scouting dinner at the Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites. He was feted in a way befitting a Super Bowl head coach -- with the key to the city, the retirement of his high school jersey and a police escort and personal invitation to sit with Cal Ripken Jr. at the Augusta GreenJackets home opener.

"I'm a little uncomfortable because I really believe I'm just one of the guys," Whisnehunt said of all the attention.

It was all a little humbling for the former Eagle Scout.

"I still am," Whisenhunt quickly corrected of his Eagle Scout status. "I don't think you ever lose that."

Whisenhunt remains bonded with the Augusta community his three siblings still call home. He felt it today as he went by his old high school.

"I drove down Walton Way, which I've done so many times before, and realized the profound influence Augusta and the Boy Scouts had in my life," he said.

It spoke volumes that Whisenhunt would even be in town just six days after he visited for the Masters Tournament and nine days before one of the most important days of the season for a pro football coach -- the NFL Draft.

"I can't say that I would be here," Whisenhunt said of the effort to come back for anything other than the Boy Scouts. "A lot of the principles and values that scouts instill in young men, I use those values every day in the NFL."

Said his youngest sister, Becky Whisenhunt: "All he talks about is Boy Scouts. It meant a lot to him."

To that end, Whisenhunt spoke about the discipline, dedication, determination and teamwork that he learned in scouting and that led him to the pinnacle of football coaching despite being a walk-on at Georgia Tech and a 12th-round draft pick of the Falcons.

"That tells you I was not the most talented or gifted athlete," he said. "But I've always done my best to be prepared."

Whisenhunt prepared a Super Bowl winner as an assistant for the Steelers in 2005. Four years later, he was on the losing end to those Steelers but earned nothing but praise for leading one of the most moribund franchises in the NFL to and NFC championship and within seconds of a Super Bowl title.

All of the success the Cardinals had, however, didn't make it easy to stomach losing at the end.

"I'm getting to the point where I'm almost able to enjoy it," Whisenhunt admitted. "I've seen highlights of all the special things we did last year. Then they have to show that Super Bowl and it brings back tough memories of how close we came."

There's been little rest since. Whisenhunt has dealt with coaching staff turnover and long free-agent negotiations with quarterback Kurt Warner. The Cardinals typically have held one of the early draft picks, but this year the Super Bowl runner-ups get the next-to-last choice (31st) in the first round.

"I hope that's a problem for years to come," he said.

All these worries, however, took a back seat Thursday so that Whisenhunt could enjoy a moment with family and friends in his hometown. He was touched when his No. 12 Richmond Academy jersey was retired.

"I don't know if I'm deserving," he said. "Gosh, that was so long ago. You always remember where you got your start in football. I think it's a big part of the reason I am where I am today."

Whisenhunt was in his element on a significant local sports day.

The GreenJackets returned to Lake Olmstead Stadium, with Ripken accepting the franchise's South Atlantic League championship trophy from last year. Earlier in the day, Ripken announced a critical step in the effort to build a new downtown multi-purpose baseball stadium. A few hours later, the baseball Hall of Famer hosted the Super Bowl coach in his box.

"What a huge sports day for Augusta," said Mayor Deke Copenhaver.

For a community still recovering from an electric Masters Tournament and filing taxes, Thursday was an extended sports high.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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