Whisenhunt's moment arrives

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TAMPA, Fla. --- Two second-year coaches who applied for the same position in 2007 will be standing on opposite sidelines of Raymond James Stadium tonight trying to win the biggest spectacle in American sports.

On one side is the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin, who stepped in and maintained the consistency of the most decorated franchise in modern NFL history looking for its sixth Super Bowl victory.

On the other side is the Arizona Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt, who transformed the worst franchise in NFL history by winning more postseason games in the past month than in the previous 110 years combined.

Guess which one was named the NFL's coach of the year on Thursday. Yeah, Tomlin.

Not to malign anything that Tomlin and the Steelers have accomplished this season, which is substantial, but are you kidding?

Whisenhunt led the Cardinals -- the football CARDINALS -- to the Super Bowl.

Whisenhunt had the vision to tap 37-year-old quarterback Kurt Warner as the starter over the young Matt Leinart.

Whisenhunt had the guts to utilize rookie running back Tim Hightower at the playing-time expense of veteran Edgerrin James.

Whisenhunt righted the ship of a team that lost four of five games near the end of the season and turned them into a postseason juggernaut.

"He's doing a great job," said Steelers receiver Hines Ward, the Georgia grad who credits Whisenhunt for elevating his game when he was in Pittsburgh. "He is the reason why they are in the Super Bowl."

Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said he believed Whisenhunt was the right man for the job from the first moments of the hiring process. Safety Adrian Wilson, the longest tenured Cardinal, had the same immediate sense of the man.

"I knew that as soon as we interviewed him," Wilson said. "I thought he was the perfect fit for us. We had a core here that was pretty good, and just getting those guys to go in the right direction was huge for this organization."

By instilling a sense of discipline and toughness that some have dubbed "Pittsburgh West" into the Arizona program, Whisenhunt coaxed an 8-8 season last year that was just a few plays from being postseason worthy. That got players believing that the Cardinals had legitimate potential in 2008.

It also helped convince Larry Fitzgerald, who has blossomed into the league's premier receiver under this regime, to stick with Arizona instead of taking his talents to a more established winner.

"I saw a man I really believed in and a man I really could go out and play for, someone who went out and fought for me to come back," Fitzgerald said. "That's one of the main reasons I re-signed, because I knew he was going to be here and knew he was going to be getting this program turned around in the right direction."

Perhaps the biggest step in that turnaround came in the preseason when Whisenhunt elected to go with Warner as the starter instead of Leinart.

"He wasn't afraid to bench somebody, and they understand that," Bidwill said. "That helps motivate them to play at a high level."

Whisenhunt agonized a bit over the quarterback choice the night after the final preseason game on the eve of making final cuts.

"It was a very difficult decision," he said. "I liked a lot of the things Matt had done for us in the preseason. I liked how he had grown and how he had handled the competition. Obviously, Kurt had a very good preseason and training camp. He had done very well. It really came down to making the decision on who I thought gave us the best chance to start fast."

The Cardinals won their first two games and eventually raced to a 7-3 record that opened a commanding lead in the admittedly weak NFC West. Then they started to falter, losing two in a row before clinching the division and a playoff berth with a victory over Warner's ex-team (Rams) from the Cardinals ex-city (St. Louis) with three weeks left in the year.

The euphoria was short-lived, as consecutive grim losses to Minnesota and New England served to brand the Cardinals as the worst team in the postseason.

Whisenhunt was particularly disgusted by the 47-7 meltdown against the Patriots and apologized to his bosses for the performance.

"In the locker room after we were defeated in New England in Week 15 by a pretty large margin, he told me that he wouldn't let this happen again," said Bidwill. "And we haven't lost a game since then."

Getting a team to pull out of a nosedive at that point in the season is a testament to Whisenhunt's coaching.

"We re-established our identity on the practice field," Whisenhunt said. "That late in the season, a lot of times, that's not easy to do. We did it with our pads on, we did it in a contact practice. I think that established the mentality that has served us well in the playoffs. It's a little bit of 'us-against-the-world,' which has kind of brought this team together, created a chemistry that is so important, and it's served us well. I think that we'll continue with that on Sunday."

Carrying a five-game winning streak -- the franchise's longest since 1977 -- into the Super Bowl, Whisenhunt has changed the conversation about the Cardinals.

He brought a trophy to Bill Bidwill after 61 years of misery.

"He's done a very, very good job," the elder Bidwill said. "Our record of improvement speaks for itself. I joke about it a little bit, but we found a new way to win a football game when we blocked a kick against Dallas and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown in overtime. You know, that's how we used to lose games, and we're not losing those games anymore."

That doesn't surprise the people who know him best, like receiver Sean Morey, who followed Whisenhunt to Arizona from Pittsburgh.

"He's been a winner his entire career," Morey said.

And he'll gladly trade a coaching accolade to be a winner once more today.

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


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