FLAGSTAFF AZ - AUGUST 02: Head coach Ken Whisenhunt of the Arizona Cardinals signs autographs following the team training camp at Northern Arizona University Walkup Skydome on August 2 2010 in Flagstaff Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Before Ken Whisenhunt took the Cardinals to the Super Bowl or played tight end for the Falcons, he was called off the bench to lead the Jackets against the best team in the country.
Ken Whisenhunt, the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, will be returning to Atlanta on Sunday. The Augusta native played his college ball at Tech and played his first few NFL seasons for the Falcons.
I remember seeing Whisenhunt's first noteworthy game action at Tech in 1980. I was a rookie police officer working the Notre Dame game.
Late in the 1980 season, Bill Curry's first Yellow Jacket team was having a tough time after losing a lot of talented players. The 1-7 Jackets were on a five-game losing streak, and undefeated Notre Dame came onto Grant Field ranked number one in the country. Third-year starting quarterback Mike Kelley was injured earlier in the week, and Curry had to turn to his third-stringer: freshman walk-on tight end Whisenhunt.
In the official stats, Whisenhunt completed three of five passes. The yardage total is up for discussion: one source gives him 60 yards, the other 29 yards. Yes, Tech has pretty much always been a running team. He also rushed for seven yards. His longest pass was 23 yards, which set up Tech's only score, a field goal. That field goal was possibly the most valuable score of the season.
Whisenhunt became a man on that November afternoon, showing calm and cool leadership. Nothing flashy. He managed the game; hey, he could've thrown five interceptions, after all. As the game unfolded, little by little the Jacket faithful began to realize we were still in the game. Life was breathing into Grant Field. Heading into the fourth quarter, a few began to actually dream of an upset.
With under a minute to go, and sick of being pelted by fish thrown by Tech students, Notre Dame coach Dan Devine had seen enough. Facing fourth down, he chose to punt to preserve a tie and fight the same field position game both teams had fought all afternoon, rather than risk the loss.
The final score was Georgia Tech 3, Notre Dame 3. Everyone always hates a tie, but not on this day. On this day, that tie was absolutely awesome.
That tie also assisted Georgia, who had been ranked number two in the nation. That tie moved the Bulldogs to number one and set up a Sugar Bowl with the same Notre Dame team, after which UGA won the National Championship.
That tie struck a positive nerve that maybe this Curry guy could really coach. That tie gave the Jackets hope for the future. That tie remains cemented in the memory of many old Tech fans, and is permanently linked to a successful pro head coach. When Whisenhunt leads the Cardinals onto the field every Sunday, we like to think his time at Tech had a lot to do with his coaching success.
He finished his career on the Flats as an All-American honorable mention tight end.