TAMPA, Fla. — Had he taken a different path, Ken Whisenhunt might’ve built twin-span bridges or eight-lane freeways or metropolitan airports by now.
He wound up going in another direction and oversaw a much more improbable project: the construction of a winning NFL team in Arizona.
Sad sacks for so long, the Cardinals — a nomadic franchise that drifted from Chicago to St. Louis to the desert — will try for their first Super Bowl championship Sunday. An old-line power stands in their way, a Pittsburgh Steelers outfit aiming at its record sixth title.
It’s a remarkable ascension by Whisenhunt in only two years. Yet rather than boast or brag, he’ll heed the advice of his old boss, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
“(Cowher) always told me never to reflect while the season is going on, so I’m hesitant to do that,” he said Friday.
Likewise, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin prefers to wait for any celebration.
“When I found out I got the job, I was in Minnesota playing foosball with my sons. I got off the phone, and they were interested in finishing the game, so we did,” he said. “Really, that is the approach I have taken to it.”
By all other accounts, it’s a matchup of contrasts.
Steel City vs. Sun Belt.
Hard-nosed defensive unit vs. wide-open passing game.
Terrible Towels vs. Handi Wipes (it gets awfully hot around Phoenix).
For Whisenhunt, it’s a chance to beat the team that passed him over when he was a Steelers assistant. Looking to hire a head coach, Pittsburgh instead took Tomlin.
Whisenhunt insists he harbors no ill will. He learned long ago at Georgia Tech, enrolled in a major he hoped would have practical applications, how to move on.
“Being a civil engineer … is about finding creative solutions to problems,” he said. “In a lot of things, that’s very similar to football. You’re going to face different defenses, you’re going to face different offenses, and you have to be creative in how you attack them.
“Even though there’s not a lot of mathematical equations in football, there are a lot of problems that you’re going to have to try to solve.”
Maybe that includes finding the right words to say in his final pregame speech. Chances are, he’ll draw on his time working for Cowher, who led the Steelers to the NFL title three years ago.
“When coach Cowher used to stand up and talk, I wrote all of that down,” Whisenhunt said. “I have notebooks with little tabs in there from when he spoke before the championship game, when he spoke before the Super Bowl, when he spoke at the mini-camp meeting, all of those things.
“I’ve been in situations that I’ve learned from, and when we get into this type of situation, I use those things to help me get an idea of what direction I am going.”
Tomlin is taking a different approach. He briefly considered law school after finishing college and, at 36, could become the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl. Cardinals star quarterback Kurt Warner is 37, by the way.
Two days before the biggest game of his life, Tomlin hadn’t prepared his speech. Didn’t intend to, either.
“I make a conscious effort to wing it. I think that’s real. Our guys relate to that,” he said. “It’s that way that I deal with them, for the most part.
“This week has been tougher than most in terms of trying to keep those thoughts out of my mind because there’s a lot to say. But at the same time, I’m intent on (winging it). I’m going to just walk in and communicate with them like I always do. I never prepare for the night-before-the-game speech.”
Tomlin and Whisenhunt were in complete alignment in one area, though: that avoiding last-minute distractions was paramount.