Tempe, Ariz. Ken Whisenhunt seemed to be a logical successor to Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh when the job came open two years ago. If not him, then certainly Russ Grimm.
Both Steelers assistants were passed over in favor of outsider Mike Tomlin, and Whisenhunt came to Arizona, bringing Grimm with him as associate head coach and offensive line coach.
Now Whisenhunt’s upstart Cardinals are facing the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
After Arizona beat Philadelphia, 32-25, for the NFC championship Sunday, Whisenhunt was rooting for Pittsburgh to beat Baltimore for the AFC crown.
“How could it be any different?” Whisenhunt said Monday. “When we actually won the game, how could it not be the Pittsburgh Steelers? That’s what I expected. It’s just a shame that you guys don’t have any story lines.”
The Arizona-Pittsburgh coaching connection will be a Super Bowl subplot for the next two weeks leading up to the Feb. 1 game in Tampa.
“It’s going to be emotional for us,” Pittsburgh offensive tackle Max Starks said. “Those are the coaches I won my last Super Bowl with.”
Whisenhunt was an assistant to Cowher for six years, the last three as offensive coordinator. He called the shots for young Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers’ 2005 drive to the Super Bowl championship. Grimm also had been on Cowher’s staff for six seasons, the last three as assistant head coach as well as offensive line coach.
Whisenhunt was interviewed for the vacant job in Atlanta, then found out about Cowher’s resignation. The Steelers gave him an interview, but that was as far as it went. Grimm got two interviews in Pittsburgh and there was an erroneous report that he had been offered the job.
Instead, Tomlin wowed owner Dan Rooney and team president Art Rooney II during two long interviews.
Well before Tomlin was hired in Pittsburgh, Whisenhunt accepted the Cardinals job and insisted on Monday that he has no hard feelings.
“Why would I have any hard feelings?” he said. “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 said he’s grateful to the Rooney family for the opportunity he was given as an assistant coach there.
“There is obviously a strong place in my heart for a lot of the people, coaches, players, and obviously Mr. Rooney, with that organization,” he said. “A big part of why I am here is because of my opportunity to work with that team.”
Whisenhunt praised the influence of Grimm, who was an all-pro lineman 11 of his 20 seasons with the Washington Redskins and was Whisenhunt’s teammate there.
“He is an outstanding football coach, one that I have a tremendous amount of history with, both as a player and a coach,” Whisenhunt said. “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, especially with what he has done with our offensive line.”
Both coaches brought an attitude adjustment for a Cardinals’ franchise that before this season had a winning record only once since 1984 and had two playoff victories in its entire history.
“There is a toughness in the way they prepare, the way they coach,” said third-string quarterback Brian St. Pierre, who came with Whisenhunt from Pittsburgh. “They’re just upfront and honest and you know where you stand with them. They don’t mince words. It is what it is with them. You really appreciate that as a player.”
That toughness even applies to the spread-out Arizona offense.
“I think that’s the mentality they have tried to instill in us from day one,” quarterback Kurt Warner said. “I know a lot of people when you think of that mentality, you think two tight ends, two backs, 3 yards and a cloud of dust, but I think we have shaped that toughness around what we do well.”
The Steelers influence is easily apparent.
“I think he (Whisenhunt) brought a piece of them here,” fullback Terrell Smith said. “Now we are going against them. Last year we played them and it was a good game (Arizona won 21-14). This will be a good game. If anyone knows how to beat them, I know he does.”
The Cardinals have today and Wednesday off before returning to practice on Thursday. They also will have Sunday off before leaving for Tampa on Monday.