Steelers assistant rose with Yellow Jackets
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
It was Bill Curry’s first season as a head coach anywhere, but this was special. This was Georgia Tech. His school. Bobby Dodd’s school. And so it was that one of his assistants came to him and told him of a prospect from Augusta. “He tore up his knee and didn’t play much last season,” he told Curry, “but he looks like he’ll be fine, and he wants to come to Georgia Tech. He wants to be an engineer.”
So he came to Georgia Tech for a visit during winter practice and was standing beside Curry at Rose Bowl Field. After a little while Curry turned to Ken Whisenhunt and said, “Well, what do you think?”
“Well, I guarantee you one thing, I can help you,” Whisenhunt, the prospect, said.
Now, as Curry remembers it, “Nothing arrogant, no bragging, just quiet honesty out of the mouth of a 17-year-old.
“When I look back on it, he was telling me something I didn’t learn until later. I was a brand new head coach and I didn’t realize what I didn’t know. Eventually I found out that you’ll learn more about being a head coach working at a filling station than playing in the NFL.”
Whisenhunt came to Georgia Tech without a scholarship, a walk-on. He had a scholarship offer at UT-Chattanooga, but, as he says now, “I needed an education, I needed to prepare for a profession, for football coaching never entered my mind.”
It turned out to be the profession he wasn’t looking for, and Sunday in the Georgia Dome you will witness Ken Whisenhunt, offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, at work. This is his third season with Bill Cowher, following victory in the greatest game of the year, the Super Bowl, played in Detroit last winter.
But back to the beginning. What sticks in my mind about Ken Whisenhunt after all these years is one of the most memorable games I ever covered. Georgia was playing Florida in Jacksonville the same day, the BIG game. Everybody wanted to be there. Notre Dame, No. 1 in the country, was coming to town to play Georgia Tech, a slaughter in the making. The No. 1 team in the country at Georgia Tech? Somebody had to stay home, so I did.
In practice, Curry had played Whisenhunt all over the lot. “They didn’t know what to do with me,” Ken says now. He had been a quarterback at Richmond Academy.
“We had two quarterbacks, Mike Kelley and Ted Peeples, but a vacuum after that,” Curry said. “We did give Ken a few snaps during the week, just in case.”
“Just in case” arose in the second quarter. Kelley went down. Peeples was already hurting. Curry had no other choice. He turned to Whisenhunt, the freshman. Without scholarship. Never taken a snap in a college game.
“The ball was on our 4-yard line,” Curry said in recall. “I said to him, ‘Be sure of the snap.’ He looked at me with utter calm. ‘Don’t worry, Coach.’ Facing the No. 1 defense in the country and he says, ‘Don’t worry, Coach.’ That’s the thing I remember most about him, his poise.”
So, in went Whisenhunt, not even listed on the flip cards in the press box. Tech got out of that jam alive. “We had to mix in a pass or two,” Ken said, “so I dropped back and threw one. It was a perfect spiral and I thought, ‘Hey, not bad for openers.’ It was so perfect it landed in the stands.”
As the situation played out, Whisenhunt finally completed a pass for 23 yards that set up a 39-yard field goal for Johnny Smith. On into the fourth quarter Tech guarded its precious 3-0 lead with valor. (“Our kids were valiant,” Curry says. “They played their hearts out. They didn’t know how bad we were.”) Nor did Notre Dame.
Finally, with time running low Dan Devine called on his placekicker, Harry Oliver, and Oliver kicked a wobbler 49 yards that barely crossed the bar and Notre Dame got out with a 3-3 tie. Mind you, this was a Georgia Tech team that had beaten Memphis State, the only game it would win. It had no license to be on the same grass with Notre Dame, but with Whisenhunt’s rifle arm completing 3 of 5 passes for 29 yards, had perforated the Irish’s No. 1 record.
The freshman Whisenhunt never threw another pass that season. As the years went on, he found his natural position as a tight end and ranks 14th in receiving yardage at Tech, was drafted in the 12th round by the Falcons, later traded to Washington, then the Jets. Dan Henning introduced him to the position of H-back with the Falcons, and there got good mileage out of him as a blocker and receiver. Whisenhunt looks back now upon three people who gave him the inspiration to move into coaching, a future he had never ever considered: Curry, his strongest influence; Henning, who drafted him and set him off on an NFL career; and Rod Dowhower, who gave him his first job as an assistant at Vanderbilt.
He had his chance to move into head coaching last winter when the Oakland Raiders came knocking. “I had a talk with Al, Mr. Davis,” he said, representing his gentlemanly upbringing. “I was honored, but it wasn’t the time and the place for me. I like it in Pittsburgh, where things are done the right way.”
Oh, I should point out that after the tie at Grant Field, Notre Dame completed an unbeaten season. So did Georgia, after winning the Florida game (remember “run Lindsay, run”), and they met in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. The Bulldogs completed the state’s domination of the Irish. It was only a tie for Georgia Tech, but as sweet as any victory could be for Whisenhunt and friends.