Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is a candidate for the vacant Lions head-coaching position. His former coach, Joe Gibbs, says Whisenhunt has what it takes to succeed. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)
Allen Park — Joe Gibbs only coached him for two seasons, but that was long enough for him to know that Ken Whisenhunt’s football intelligence was going to keep him in the game long after his playing days were over.
“When a guy plays for you and he lives with you, you get a real strong feeling of what kind of person he is,” said Gibbs, the Hall of Fame former Washington coach. “Ken is very smart and he’s a people person. As a player, he was one of those guys that worked extremely hard and made the most out of his talent and ability.”
Usually, the quarterback serves as the coach on the field for the offense. In a lot of ways, Whisenhunt, an H-back, served that role for Gibbs.
“The H-back in our system had to do a lot of thinking on the move,” said Gibbs, who coached Whisenhunt from 1989-90. “Very honestly, Ken was very bright when it came to football. He understood everything we were trying to do and he understood what the defenses were trying to do.
“You get that with Ken. And the added thing you get with him, he was a leader. He was somebody the players respected and I think that’s very important.”
It was no surprise to Gibbs that Whisenhunt, presently the offensive coordinator for the Chargers, has had a successful coaching career, nor is it a surprise to him Lions general manager Martin Mayhew — who also played for Gibbs — is considering Whisenhunt as the next head coach in Detroit.
“The advantage you have with Ken is he’s got experience; he’s been to Super Bowls,” Gibbs said. “And I want to emphasize this — you’ve got somebody here that solves one-third of the problem. When you go to hire a coach in the NFL, you want to hire somebody who solves either the offense, defense or special-teams problem. With Ken, you have someone who solves the offensive part of things.”
On top of that, Gibbs said, the contacts and relationships Whisenhunt had built over 17 years of coaching in the NFL will serve him well in addressing the other two-thirds of the equation.
“The most important thing for a coach in a new situation is to be able to hire good people,” Gibbs said. “That was one of the most important things for me. I made sure I surrounded myself with great assistant coaches. Ken has that experience; he’s done that. He’s hired a lot of people and he knows a lot of people.”
Gibbs mentioned Russ Grimm, who is among the coaches Whisenhunt is expected to bring with him wherever he’s hired. Others include Chargers’ quarterback coach and former Lions quarterback Frank Reich, Ravens secondary coach and former Michigan assistant Teryl Austin, and Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler.
“The fact that he knows people in the league and he’s been able to negotiate all the things you’ve got to do as a head coach and get to the Super Bowl — I think that’s a big deal,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs also thinks the experience of getting fired in Arizona after he took the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl in the 2008 season will make him a better head coach the second time around.
“Experience is always a good teacher,” he said. “I think anybody who has gone through that is better for it. I always say it’s like being in the eye of the hurricane.”
The Lions aren’t the only team interested in Whisenhunt. The Titans, Washington and Vikings also are expected to interview him. But Gibbs said he would be hard-pressed to find a situation more favorable than Detroit.
“I would sure think it is (a great opportunity),” Gibbs said. “To be quite truthful, I have always respected the ownership in Detroit. I know people there who work in the organization and I have great respect for them. I think they’ve done a great job.
“Martin Mayhew is a big part of it and looking at that team, there is some very good young talent. They’ve got a quarterback that they can build around. There are a lot of plusses to that job.”
Gibbs dismissed the notion that the franchise’s losing culture could be deterrent for a prospective coach.
“Look at the NFL, (losing) can happen for a long period of time and then it can turn around quickly — look at the Saints,” Gibbs said. “I always tell people, hang on to your tickets. It can turn around and get going in the right direction quickly.”
The Lions are expected to interview Whisenhunt in San Diego this week. By league rules, they can’t officially hire him until after the Chargers’ season is over.
They already have interviewed Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and, according to ESPN’s Ed Werder, will interview recently fired Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak on Friday.