It's not going to be easy to find an oasis in this desert

  • Follow Scott Michaux

The impulse reaction was simple.

When the news came out Sunday that Augusta's own Ken Whisenhunt had accepted to be the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, the instinctive response was, "What, the L.A. Clippers didn't think a football coach could turn their sorry franchise around?"

Do we offer congratulations or condolences? Is this a step up or just a misstep into the NFL's coaching graveyard? Did he beat out seven other candidates or lose to them?

It's easy to think that way. After all, Whisenhunt was the most sought after coaching candidate on the market in recent weeks, interviewing for four NFL vacancies. On Sunday morning he was still considered by many to be the favorite to get the coveted Pittsburgh Steelers gig that only two men in 37 years had called their own.

Instead of taking over one of the league's most storied franchises where he'd worked for six seasons and helped win a Super Bowl title, Whisenhunt ended up with one of the NFL's sorriest.

Check that. He ended up with THE NFL's sorriest franchise - ever. I mean, short of taking command of 1st Battalion forces trying to secure Baghdad, chances of failure couldn't be higher.

Right?

Well, where most of us see a history of perpetual failure spanning most of 109 years, Whisenhunt sees opportunity. He sees collegiate offensive stars such as Matt Leinart, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald waiting to be molded into professional winners. He sees a gleaming new stadium in the Phoenix suburbs waiting to crown a champion other than the Florida Gators. He hears the lyrics of Frank Sinatra's timeless tune of optimism rattling through his well-schooled head.

If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere.

It's up to you, Glendale, Glen-DALE!

"This is a dream come true for me to get an opportunity to do this," Whisenhunt said on Tuesday in his introductory press conference. "The more I looked at it the more excited I got about this organization."

The Richmond Academy and Georgia Tech grad has taken on the greatest challenge in football this side of Duke University. And he just might be the guy to do it. Granted, the definition of "doing it" in Arizona is well below acceptable standards.

But Whisenhunt plans to bring physical, disciplined and innovative football to the desert.

"Based on my assessment of this situation, I feel like we're close," he said. "I've thought this was a good young team and I've seen some things on tape that led me to believe that."

History, of course, is not on Whisenhunt's side. History has never been on the Cardinals' side - and that history goes beyond being a charter member of the NFL to being the oldest continuously operated American professional football club.

We're talking bad on a scale that only South Carolina football fans can appreciate.

Originally formed in 1898 as the Morgan Athletic Club in Chicago and known as the Racine Normals, the club changed its name to the Cardinals to suit the shade of the uniforms they inherited from the Chicago Maroons. Call it frugal foreshadowing.

"This hand-me-down, low-budget situation would prove to be a good metaphor for the team's chronology," reads a Wikipedia entry.

The franchise - which earned the title of NFL champion by collegiate-style acclimation in 1925 - was purchased for $50,000 in 1933 at the peak of the Great Depression by Charles W. Bidwell. He died in 1947 just months before the team won its only NFL title with an actual championship game victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Thus endeth the glory days.

Succeeding Bidwells - an oxymoron - comprising heirs Violet, Charles Jr. and, for more than four decades, Bill - have done little with the club other than to move it around the country disenfranchising as many communities as it can with a brand of sub-par football that has incongruously grown worse in the era of parity. In the history of the playoffs that go back to 1932, the Cardinals have participated in only seven postseason games and gone 2-5 - two more appearances than the Steelers have won Super Bowls.

The only postseason victory since that high-water mark of 1947 came in the 100th season of the franchise with a wild-card win over the Dallas Cowboys in 1998 - its only winning season since 1984.

So the good news is that Whisenhunt doesn't have a whole lot to live up to. The bad news is, that fifth-year team option on his contract hasn't been exercised on any of the seven coaches preceding him in the 19 season since Bill Bidwell brought the team from St. Louis to the desert in 1988.

Still, Whisenhunt believes the future is promising.

"I don't think that you live in the past," he said. "I think you look at what they did on the on the tape and that's what I looked at."

Maybe the Bidwells (fourth generation Michael is his father's vice president and general counsel) are finally committed to producing a winner.

The brand new University of Phoenix Stadium was a nice start. Some quality draft picks and a couple of free-agent signings such as Edgerrin James, Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson and Boldin are encouraging. Rod Graves, the vice-president of football operations, seems willing and able to hire talent like he did Whisenhunt.

"I think the ownership is committed to winning," Whisenhunt said. "I feel very comfortable about the direction this organization is going with their personnel."

Maybe Whisenhunt can succeed where Dennis Green, Dave McGinnis, Vince Tobin, Buddy Ryan, Joe Bugel and Gene Stallings each failed. His predecessors combined to average 5.5 wins per season in this age of parity.

Whisenhunt is a smart guy. If he sees an opportunity to turn the Cardinals' long-standing sins into something graceful with these young players, it's an acceptable risk.

"The goal is to create a fan base here where the city is excited about this team," Whisenhunt said of the Cardinals' grail. "Put a product on the field that this town is going to be proud of and that this organization is going to be proud of and make it consistent. We're not trying to change the world."

Just history. Hopefully he can win soon, win well and then bid the Bidwell's farewell to greener pastures that won't need so much constant irrigation to avoid drying and dying.

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

COACHES IN ARIZONA

COACH SEASONS RECORD
Gene Stallings 1986-89 23-34-1
Hank Kuhlmann 1989 0-5
Joe Bugel 1990-93 20-44
Buddy Ryan 1994-95 12-20
Vince Tobin* 1996-99 28-43
Dave McGinnis 2000-03 17-40
Dennis Green 2004-06 16-32

*Note: 1-1 in the playoffs


- From wire services


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