Whisenhunt, who is San Diego’s offensive coordinator, is allowed to interview with teams for a head-coaching job the next few days, but no deal can be made official until after the Chargers’ season ends per NFL rules.
San Diego, which once was 5-7 before a late-season surge (sort of the opposite of how the Lions’ season went, leading to Schwartz’s firing), advanced to the next round and plays at Denver next Sunday.
Whisenhunt, 51, is considered a heavy favorite to get the Detroit job. Call him the leader at the turn, a golf term that is appropriate in his case.
"Whiz," as he’s called, is a golf fanatic. He grew up in Augusta, Ga., and used to help work the scoreboard on the 18th hole during the Masters tournament when he was a teenager.
His golf highlights include shooting an even-par 72 on the Masters course six years ago with an eagle on the par-4 11th hole. He got serious about pursing a golf career when his football playing days ended, and participated in the 1994 U.S. Mid-Amateur before deciding to get into coaching.
The Lions aren’t the only ones with interest in him. Tennessee, Minnesota and Washington also have reportedly requested interviews.
"I’m honored I’m mentioned," Whisenhunt said last week during his weekly news conference with reporters in San Diego.
You’re so focused that you don’t pay a lot of attention to it.
Ken Whisenhunt on interview rumors
It’s an awkward time because his focus has to be on preparing the Chargers for this opportunity. They’re two more upsets away from getting to the Super Bowl.
But there’s a lot on the line for him personally with these upcoming interviews, one of which will be with Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, his former teammate more than two decades ago with the Washington Redskins.
Whisenhunt has to be careful what he says right now.
"You’re so focused that you don’t pay a lot of attention to it," he said of the rumors.
The recent success of the Chargers, who have won five straight, has only helped bolster Whisenhunt’s reputation.
"This has been great from a standpoint of getting a chance to work with these players and this staff," he said of going back to being a coordinator. "I’m very thankful for that opportunity.
"I think one of the most important aspects of this job is being able to try to do things to fit your personnel. We’re not regimented into this is what we do and this is all we do. We’re always looking to expand."
From all indications, Whisenhunt to the Lions appears to be the most likely scenario.
The club, however, did interview Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell last week and plans to meet with Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden (Jon’s brother), possibly Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, too.
Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio also makes sense because of his head-coaching experience in Jacksonville (two playoff appearances in nine years) and as the interim earlier this season for the Broncos.
None of them, including Whisenhunt, are the high-profile "home run" choice that Detroit fans probably want to try to push this team over the top and into the Super Bowl for the first time.
But Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay) and Bill O’Brien (Houston) already are taken; Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy apparently aren’t getting back into coaching, at least not now; and Vince Lombardi isn’t alive.
The fact is there are no sure things out of the group that was available this year, including Smith and O’Brien.
You can make arguments about college coaches such as Stanford’s David Shaw, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Baylor’s Art Briles, but they are risks. Just because Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly made the quick transition from college to the NFL doesn’t mean others can do the same.
The Lions took a shot on a coordinator with no head-coaching experience last time and they had to let Schwartz learn on the job before everything crumbled around him at the end of this season as Detroit lost six of its last seven after starting 6-3.
They have a roster that seems ready to win now. What they need is a coach who has proven he can get the job done at the highest level.
Whisenhunt has done that. He’s taken a team to the Super Bowl, but he’s failed, too. He was 18-30 in his final three years as Arizona’s head coach before getting fired a year ago.
Nevertheless, out of the candidates who are out there, his background probably best fits what the Lions need.
He’s a former college quarterback/tight end at Georgia Tech, where he received a civil engineering degree, and was a 12th-round draft pick in 1985 by the Atlanta Falcons.
Whisenhunt played nine years in the NFL with the Falcons, Redskins and New York Jets. He appeared in 74 games and made 62 catches for 601 yards and six touchdowns.
After giving golf a try, he got started in coaching as the special teams/tight ends coach at Vanderbilt in 1995. He moved on to the NFL and was a tight ends coach for six years and a special-teams coach for one season before becoming the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in 2004.
Whisenhunt helped develop Ben Roethlisberger during the quarterback’s first three years in the league and earned a Super Bowl ring when the Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL at Ford Field in Detroit eight years ago.
That run turned Whisenhunt into one of the NFL’s top coaching prospects and landed him in Arizona. He teamed up with quarterback Kurt Warner to take the Cardinals to the Super Bowl during the 2008 season.
A year later, Warner retired and the Cardinals fell apart. They lost nine straight games in 2012 (before beating the Lions) to leave Whistenhunt with an overall record of 45-51 in six years. Major problems at quarterback and on the offensive line were the primary reasons for the downfall.
Whisenhunt interviewed for some other head-coaching jobs a year ago after the Cardinals dumped him but he ended up as the offensive coordinator in San Diego, where he helped quarterback Philip Rivers rebound from a poor season.