After all, as a freshman walk-on tight end at Georgia Tech he stepped in as quarterback and led the Jackets to a 3-3 tie of No. 1 Notre Dame.
He turned a civil engineering degree into an eight-year stint in the NFL.
He led the Arizona Cardinals – yes, those Arizona Cardinals – to the Super Bowl and came within about the width of Santonio Holmes’ toenail of being a world champion.
He instantly resurrected Philip Rivers’ passing career as offensive coordinator in San Diego, yet employed a puzzling run-oriented game plan in a failed bid to beat the Denver Broncos with an AFC title game bid on the line.
So why was most of the pro football world scratching its collective head this week when Whisenhunt weighed multiple head coaching offers presented to him and zigged instead of zagged – choosing the Tennessee Titans instead of the Detroit Lions?
His decision left NFL insiders aghast. Whisenhunt was the hottest commodity in the coaching carousel and the Lions were considered the closest thing to a “sure thing” instant contender for whomever took the reins.
Detroit was so sure it had Whisenhunt on the hook to turn Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh & Co. into a championship team that it had a plane fueled and ready to go pick him up in San Diego a day after the Chargers got ousted from the playoffs.
Then word trickled out that Whisenhunt had spurned Motown and was going country instead in Nashville, Tenn. – the place where his coaching career began 18 years ago as an assistant for Vanderbilt.
“It is kind of ironic that I get a chance to come back to where it all started for me,” Whisenhunt said in his introductory press conference Tuesday. “This is a special place for me and I’m glad to be back.”
Whisenhunt said the Titans just felt like a better fit for him.
“What it came down
to was you have to feel
comfortable about the direction you are going in and who you are doing that with,” he said. “That is not to say anything about any other organization. I think one of the things that I have learned in my time in the NFL is that chemistry is an important part of this. When you feel like you have that chemistry and you are excited about it that plays a big part of it.”
The decision to come closer to home was even a surprise to Whisenhunt’s family in Augusta, where his brother and two sisters still live. Becky Whisenhunt admitted that picking Tennessee over Detroit or Cleveland was a bit of a shock, but she is certain it was for the right reasons.
“Wherever he can be the happiest and get accomplished what he wants to get accomplished, I’m 100 percent behind him,” she said.
Truthfully, there had to be more than just chemistry to Whisenhunt’s choice. Reports say that Tennessee offered him a longer and more stable contract worth an additional $1 million per year. He is also expected to have more control over personnel decisions, which could be substantial given the fact that the Lions have much more salary cap money ($50 million next season) locked up in their three marquee stars.
Whisenhunt has developed the reputation as a bit of a quarterback whisperer – given the right kind of quarterback. At Pittsburgh he developed Ben Roethlisberger into a championship QB in only two seasons. In Arizona he reignited the skills of an aging Kurt Warner in a shocking Super Bowl run. In San Diego, he brought out the best in Rivers, prompting a bounce-back performance that lifted the Chargers’ offensive ranking from 31st to fifth and passing attack from 24th to fourth in one season.
That was the kind of success the Lions were hoping to see Whisenhunt harness when he got his hands on the gifted Stafford, the former No. 1 pick out of Georgia. Combined with Johnson, the greatest player to come out of Whisenhunt’s alma mater, it seemed like a match made in heaven.
But Whisenhunt chose Door No. 3, with the oft-injured Jake Locker as his inherited project. Asked his ideal quarterback, Whisenhunt playfully answered “Kurt Philip Roethlisberger ... all three of those guys combined?”
Locker seems hard-pressed to turn into any one of them, let alone a hybrid of all three. Whisenhunt was unable to develop a replacement for Warner in Arizona, with Matt Leinart, Kevin Kolb, Derek Anderson, John Skelton and Max Hall all failing to get the job done leading to the coach’s eventual firing at the end of 2012.
Whatever Whisenhunt sees in Locker or general manager Rushton Webster or CEO Tommy Smith or the Titans, he made a bold choice. It certainly wasn’t the safest one. But after surviving and briefly thriving during six seasons in the coaching graveyard that is Arizona, we shouldn’t doubt Whisenhunt’s potential to surprise everyone again.