Whisenhunt returns to where it all began

Ken Whisenhunt (center) said his comfort level with GM Ruston Webster (left) and president Tommy Smith was a big factor in his decision to join the Titans.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It had been nearly two decades, but Ken Whisenhunt finally returned to coach in the city where he got his coaching start.

It was 1995, and the nine-year NFL tight end had just finished getting a degree in civil engineering at Georgia Tech, where he had played a decade earlier. Working in the private sector, Whisenhunt got a call from then-Vanderbilt coach Rod Dowhower about coming here to coach tight ends and special teams on his first Commodores staff.

Now, fast forward 19 years, and Whisenhunt was introduced Tuesday as head coach of the Tennessee Titans. After being interviewed Friday by Titans general manager Ruston Webster in San Diego, where he was coaching a first season as offensive coordinator for the Chargers, the former Arizona Cardinals head coach accepted Monday a similar position with the Titans.

Whisenhunt couldn’t help but stroll down memory lane. He acknowledged Dowhower, the former Indianapolis Colts head coach and NFL and college coaching veteran, for affording him the opportunity to enter a profession that has served him well. 

"First of all, I would like to thank Rod, because he gave me my start," Whisenhunt said at the press conference today announcing him as the franchise’s 17th head coach. "And certainly, Vanderbilt University did the same thing. I am grateful for that. 

"It’s kind of ironic that I get a chance to come back to where it all started for me. But when you’re a former player, and you’re trying to decide what you are going to do in your life after football, to get a chance to coach college football was unique."

Whisenhunt hopes his tenure with the Titans lasts much longer than Dowhower and staff did at Vanderbilt. After two seasons, they were fired following consecutive 2-9 seasons. 

But it put Whisenhunt on a coaching path that eventually landed him the Cardinals’ head coaching job from 2007-12 and a NFC Championship and Super Bowl berth during the 2008 season. That followed a six-year coaching stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers that included being offensive coordinator from 2004-06.

Whisenhunt also was considered for coaching vacancies in Cleveland and Detroit, which reportedly had a plane ready Monday to fly him to Detroit. But in the end, he said it was the comfort level he had with Webster and new Titans president and CEO Tommy Smith that pushed his decision Tennessee’s way.

Because of league rules, he couldn’t be offered a job until the Chargers were eliminated from the playoffs. They lost at Denver on Sunday in the divisional round of the playoffs.

"The thing that was difficult was the timing," Whisenhunt said of his decision to join the Titans, "just because it was an emotional time of losing a tough game on Sunday and struggling to get where we were. So, there’s a lot of things going through your mind.

"Detroit and Cleveland, both are great organizations. But what I really think what it came down to was, you have to feel comfortable about the direction that you’re going and who you are doing that with. And that’s not to say anything about any other organization."

In the end, though, it was the fit and vision Whisenhunt felt comfortable the most from his conversations with Webster.

"I think one of the things I have learned in my time in the NFL," Whisenhunt said, "is that chemistry is an important part of this. And when you feel like you have that chemistry and you are excited about it, that plays a big part of it."

While introducing Whisenhunt, Webster echoed the same sentiments.

"This has been, I wouldn’t say a long process, it’s happened fast," Webster said of hiring Whisenhunt nine days after firing Munchak. "It’s been fast and furious. But a lot of work has been put into the past few weeks. 

"And we are excited for where it’s going. I think that Ken is an excellent fit for the Tennessee Titans. I am glad he felt the same way we did about that."

Whisenhunt was non-committal Tuesday on the future of Titans starting quarterback Jake Locker, or any other Titans player or staff member, for that matter.

Locker, the team’s 2011 first-round and No. 8 overall draft pick, is scheduled to return for a fourth season in 2014. He has been injury prone, missing nine games last season with two separate injuries, but he looked impressive in guiding the team to a 3-1 start.

"That’s going to be a big thing over the next weeks and months," Whisenhunt said, "as far evaluating our players and how they fit in. The one thing I will say is, I liked Jake coming out (of college). 

"One of the things we have done a good job where I have been, is putting them in the position to be successful."

Whisenhunt is known for his work with quarterbacks, including Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during his first two seasons in the league. Pittsburgh would eventually win the Super Bowl to conclude the 2005 season. 

This past season, he played a key role, along with Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, in the resurgence of quarterback Philip Rivers. In guiding the Chargers to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, he passed for 4,478  yards (second only to his 4,710 in 2010) and 32 touchdowns (second only to his 34 in 2008) and equaling a career-best 105.5 rating.

While at Arizona, Whisenhunt coached probable future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner from 2007-09. After that, the Cardinals tried to develop several quarterbacks, including first-round draft pick Matt Leinert, but never could achieve the level to where Whisenhunt and Warner took the team.

"I thought (Whisenhunt) did a great job with us at Arizona," said Warner, who finished a 12-year career with 32,334 passing yards and 208 touchdowns. "He brought honesty, integrity and consistency in his approach. It was enormous for us because we hadn’t won. 

"He convinced us that we could win, that he had a plan and it will work. His biggest challenge was to convince us that we could do it."

As for staff, Tampa Bay Bucs quarterbacks coach John McNulty is a leading candidate for offensive coordinator. He worked under Whisenhunt at Arizona, coaching receivers (2009-11) and quarterbacks (2012). 

Whisenhunt said he wanted to feature a balanced offense. Whether running back Chris Johnson returns is to be determined, especially considering he is due to make $8 million the next two seasons and $7 million in 2016.

"I think we are going to be versatile offensively," Whisenhunt said. "We’ll have a number of different personnel packages. I think we’ll have some uptempo components with it. 

"A lot of it is going to be dependent upon our personnel and what they can handle. We are going to push them. That’s where you have success, when you do that."

Defensively, he has previously been in favor of a 3-4 alignment, but is not wed to that but rather a hybrid that also features some 4-3 looks.

"Defensively, there’s a misconception about the 3-4 and the 4-3," Whisenhunt said. "Seventy percent of this game is in sub-defense, which is four down, three down, you are using both components when you do that.

"I know this, as an offensive coach, when you are preparing for a 4-3 and a 3-4, it’s very difficult. You have to have elements of both of them."

Whisenhunt replaces former Titans head coach Mike Munchak, who was fired after three seasons, including going 7-9 in 2013 and 22-26 overall. After going a promising 9-7 in Munchak’s debut 2011 season, the Titans slumped to 6-10 in 2012.

"Ken is an outstanding offensive coach," Webster said of Whisenhunt, "but also an outstanding head coach. He has a background with several successful franchises. We look for a new day and creating a new culture with the Tennessee Titans."