Sept. 7, 2004
by Simit Shah
It’s just a single line on the page 299 of the Georgia Tech football media guide buried amid a sea of names and numbers, but it speaks volumes.
Whisenhunt, Kenneth 1980-81-82-83-84
That’s right, Ken Whisenhunt was a five-time football letterman, the only one in school history. It’s a unique achievement, but perfectly befitting a man of unique talent and heart.
His story begins in Augusta, Georgia, at Richmond Academy, where he was a two-way star on the gridiron.
“I was a pretty highly recruited junior in Augusta,” he said. “I hurt my knee going into my senior year, and all the scholarship interest dried up pretty quick. I had a couple of offers from smaller schools like UT-Chattanooga.”
With the chances at earning a full ride at a Division-I school nearly non-existent, Whisenhunt was encouraged by his high school coach to attend a spring practice at Georgia Tech. Bill Curry had just assumed the reins of the program, and the first-year head coach was willing to entertain the possibility of letting Whisenhunt join the team as a non-scholarship player.
“When I walked out onto the practice field, he treated me like I was the most highly-prized recruit,” Whisenhunt recalled. “He took the time to talk with me and eat with me. That made me feel real special, and at that point I said, `This is where I want to be.’ That’s when I decided to walk on at Georgia Tech.”
Twenty-four years later, Curry also remembers that spring 1980 meeting.
“We stood there for a while, and we had this conversation,” said Curry, now an analyst for ESPN. “Our interest in him was very sincere.
“When it was all over, I was very anxious to know what he was thinking. He had gotten quiet while watching practice, walking around the field watching the offense, defense and special teams. I came back to him and said, `Well, son, what do you think?’
“He said, `I’ll tell you this, coach. If I decide to come here, I can sure help you guys.’ It was true, and I thought that we had to have him,” remembered Curry, laughing.
Most walk-ons are relegated to third or fourth-string duty, and Whisenhunt was no different. However, his ability to play a multitude of positions allowed the coaching staff to plug him into the thinnest areas on the depth chart.
The 1980 campaign was an unmitigated disaster, as the Jackets were off to their worst start since 1934. In the season’s eighth week, Whisenhunt saw his first game action at wide receiver in a loss to Duke.
With a 1-7 record, the Jackets faced a visit from Notre Dame, ranked number one in the nation.
“I remember that week of practice, I was on the field running some plays with the offense,” Whisenhunt said. “This was on a Wednesday. Coach Curry gave me the play. I ran to the huddle and looked for the quarterback, because at that time they ran the play in with the receivers.
“I looked in the huddle, and there was no quarterback. I looked back over to the sideline, and Coach Curry yelled, `You’re the quarterback!’ So I had taken just a few snaps. They had maybe 10 plays in the gameplan that were emergency plays in case I had to go in there.”
“He was all the way down the depth chart,” noted Curry. “We didn’t want to play him, since we really wanted to redshirt him.”
That plan went out the window quickly on gameday. In the first quarter, starting quarterback Mike Kelley and backup Ted Peoples both went down with injuries. There was nowhere else to turn.
“Coach (Rip) Scherer came up to me and said, `Ken, you’re going in next series at quarterback.’ I said, `What?’ He told me that Ted’s knee was hurt,” recalled Whisenhunt. “I remember that Notre Dame kicked the ball, and it rolled to a stop at about our four-yard line. That was my first snap. I was scared to death.”
Despite his fear, Whisenhunt hid it well from Curry.
“I have this very vivid image of this true freshman standing there with me, and we’re giving him the play,” Curry related. “Notre Dame is on the field, with their imposing defense ranked number one in the nation.
“I remember his face. He looked totally unconcerned. He said, `Just give me the play.’ He turned and ran on the field like he had been doing it all his life. When he took the first snap, there was no hesitation. Had he made one big mistake, it would have prevented us from doing what we did that day, which was unbelievable.”
“My first pass was a little out to the left,” Whisenhunt said. “It came off my hand, and it was a perfect spiral. I remember thinking, `Man, that was a good spiral.’ It ended up going about five rows into the stands.”
Once his jitters were in check, Whisenhunt was able to lead the Jackets on a scoring drive that resulted in Tech’s lone field goal of the day.
“The biggest play was another sprint out. I remember seeing Jeff Keisler up the seam. My read wasn’t supposed to go to him, but I threw it. I think it was about a 30-yard gain. That was a big play–freshman-to-freshman.”
That play set up a 39-yard Johnny Smith field goal in the second quarter. The Fighting Irish would later tie the game with fourth quarter field goal, and the contest ended 3-3, marking one of the great games in Tech history.
“That was the natural Ken Whisen-hunt–leadership with a commanding presence–that stands out in my memory,” said Curry.
Needless to say, Whisenhunt was on scholarship the following quarter. He continued to be a jack-of-all-trades for the Jackets the next few seasons.
“We lined him up everywhere except offensive and defensive line,” according to Curry.
His size and stature finally settled him in at tight end, where he earned all-ACC honors. Following the 1983 season, the NCAA modified redshirting rules, allowing Whisenhunt to return for the fifth season due to injuries his freshman year.
He finished his career with 82 catches for 1,264 yards, and still ranks 14th and 13th, respectively, in Tech history in those categories.
The Atlanta Falcons made Whisenhunt their 12th-round selection in the 1984 NFL draft, and he went on to play nine professional seasons for the Falcons, Redskins and Jets.
“What most people don’t realize is that you don’t have to be highly-touted, have great size or world-class speed,” said Curry about playing professionally. “You have to have all the intangibles. Ken had that toughness, audacity and leadership. The NFL is desperate for people like that.”
Following his retirement from the NFL, Whisenhunt contemplated his future. He had earned an Civil Engineering degree from Tech, but football was still in his blood.
“During the course of my career, I had a number of coaches that told me that I’d make a good coach,” he said. “I never paid much attention to it. When I was finished, I took a year off and pretty much did nothing. I was in the process of figuring out what to do next when Rod Dowhower, who was an assistant at Atlanta and Washington, took the head job at Vanderbilt. I called him, and he offered me a job.”
“I was shocked,” Curry said of Whisenhunt’s decision. “I told him, `I really thought you were smarter than this. I was so glad that you were going to be an engineer, and now you’ve gone into coaching. I can’t believe it. You’ve got this beautiful family, and here you are coaching ball, working a hundred hours a week. That’s just the stuff I told you guys not to do.’
“In fact, Bobby Dodd told me not to do it for the same reason. Coach Dodd looked me in the eye and said, `That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.’ And I said something like that to Whisenhunt, but he didn’t pay attention.”
Whisenhunt’s rise within the coaching ranks has been quick. After two seasons at Vanderbilt, he joined the Ravens before moving on to the Browns and Jets. In 2001, he joined the Steelers staff, earning a promotion to offensive coordinator this past January.
As offensive coordinator for the Steelers, Whisenhunt holds the same title that current head coach Chan Gailey held in the mid-90’s.
“All the guys on the staff worked with Chan, and they all speak highly of him,” said Whisenhunt. “I met him last year. He came by the Steelers’ office, so we got a chance to talk. He’s a good man, and I’m pulling for him to win a lot of games.”
While his schedule makes it difficult, Whisenhunt tries to catch the Jackets on television when possible, and he spoke at a Pittsburgh Tech alumni club meeting last spring. His father-in-law, John O’Neill, was a longtime athletic association administrator, so Whisenhunt’s ties to Tech run deep and his place in the school’s history is permanently etched.
“He means an awful lot to Georgia Tech,” Curry said. “He was one of the guys without whom the football program simply would not have been resurrected. I have the utmost respect for him.”