Disney couldn’t script it better than this. Ken Whisenhunt (Arizona) and Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) are a part of the new wave of NFL coaches. Both are men with experience in the league and me who worked their way through the coaching ranks. Both former coordinators and considered “smart” hires by their respective franchises.
The defensive coach, Mike Tomlin, who oddly enough owns a school record 20 career touchdown catches as a wide receiver/tight end at the College of William and Mary, is the youngest coach to ever lead a team to a Super Bowl (age 36). He coached at five colleges between 1995-2000 before making the jump to the NFL in 2001 as defensive back coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he learned the intricacies of the vaunted Tampa 2 scheme from Tony Dungy, Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, and Monte Kiffin. As an NFL coach, no defense Tomlin has been a part of has ever been ranked lower than eighth overall. That impressive résumé led him to become the Steelers third coach in history and the youngest they had ever hired. Oddly enough, Pittsburgh employs very little of the Tampa 2 scheme is evidenced in the Steelers defensive style, relying on the 3-4 zone blitz schemes of Dick LeBeau to attack the opposition. Many were surprised that Tomlin retained this style when he took over the Steelers, but it is a decision that has added credit to his pedigree as a head coach, a delegator of authority to the experience of his assistants and the ability to work with the talent on the field. The Steelers have twice won their division with Tomlin at the helm and making a Super Bowl trip at such an early part of what is sure to be a long career (if you look at Steelers history) certainly gives fans of Pittsburgh confidence in the future. However, his successor, Bill Cowher, went to the Super Bowl (XXX) in his fourth year and had to wait ten long years to make another. In the modern era of the NFL with parity rich and rampant, Tomlin surely wants to strike while the iron is hot and before he has to rebuild the team due to either salary cap restrictions or retirements.
Ken Whisenhunt’s path to Arizona started as a tight end (the position he played) coach at Baltimore, New York Jets, and eventually with the Steelers (there was a year as special teams coach with Cleveland Browns in the midst of that). He took over for Mike Mularkey as the offensive coordinator in 2004 inheriting a veteran backfield and was there for the drafting of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It was Whisenhunt who built the scheme that won Super Bowl XL, including the only wide-receiver touchdown pass ever in the Super Bowl, executed flawlessly by Antwan Randel-El and Hines Ward (both former college quarterbacks). Whisenhunt’s tactics as an offensive coach are primarily tied to the guys up front. In his early days in the NFL, he was known for turning average tight ends into exceptional blockers. The run sets up deep throws down the field by his quarterbacks. When he took over the Arizona Cardinals in 2007, he inherited some young talent surrounded by a few veterans, the most important of which was quarterback Kurt Warner whom Whisenhunt has relied on not only to mentor young Matt Leinart, the former Southern California standout, but to direct a high-flying aerial assault with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. The work of the Cardinals coaches through this playoff run is nothing less than remarkable. A team not known for defense or much of a running game has demonstrated strength in both of those aspects of the game since finishing the year 9-7 (and 4-4 down the stretch). The Cardinals are, for the most part, young and hungry which leads one to think this may not be the last trip through the playoffs for Whisenhunt.
If Pittsburgh wins, it will be a testament to the Rooney ownership and management of a widely successful franchise. Tomlin, a minority coach, is a testament to the so-named Rooney Rule and even his own body of work is indicative of how smart he is.
Whisenhunt is exactly what a franchise like the Cardinals, perennial losers until this year, needs. If they pull off what was once thought impossible, Whisenhunt will be in high demand from other, more established franchises. The Cardinals will no doubt make it worth his while to stay and with the current crop of stars mostly under the age of 30 on that roster, it will be tempting for him to remain and build a winner in the desert with Arizona.
While not the sexiest matchup for a Super Bowl, this game’s story of two first-time head coaches – one defying the odds of youth and the other the odds of history – all to win the most coveted prize in professional football.
Come to think of it, this sounds like a Disney work.