January 9, 2014 at 7:05 am

John Niyo

Ken Whisenhunt is notesworthy candidate for Lions coaching job

Ken Whisenhunt, right, currently offensive coordinator of the Chargers, is acknowledged as an attractive coaching candidate. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

Allen Park — When the Lions finally sit down with Ken Whisenhunt for a formal job interview — likely today in San Diego, where he’s busy preparing for a divisional playoff game as the Chargers offensive coordinator — they’ll undoubtedly cover all the relevant football topics.

They’ll talk about Matthew Stafford’s development, and about the prospective coach’s plans for his staff. They’ll talk about his view of the Lions roster and management’s analysis of the team’s salary-cap future. They’ll talk about offensive game plans and defensive philosophy, and maybe even discuss when it’s the right time to try a fake field goal.

But at some point, I bet they’ll end up talking about his notebooks, too. And something Whisenhunt talked about years ago, when he had his Cardinals team — yes, those Cardinals, who were so much like your Lions — in the Super Bowl.

Ask Whisenhunt about it — and we did that week in Tampa, Fla., as he prepared to face his former team, the Steelers, in Super Bowl XLIII — and he’ll tell you he learned something half a lifetime ago from Jeff Van Note, a teammate of his with the Falcons.

Van Note, who played 18 seasons as an offensive lineman, was a guy who “took notes in every meeting he was in,” Whisenhunt said. And that’s a habit the former tight end quietly made his own, even after his nine-year career was over.

As a young assistant on Bill Cowher’s staff in Pittsburgh, Whisenhunt didn’t just listen to his boss every day.

“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.”

And he’d often return to those notebooks as his career progressed, from position coach to coordinator and finally to the top job in Arizona, where in 2007 he inherited a roster with some bona fide talent but very little history of success.

Sounds familiar, I know. And as everyone tries to read the tea leaves with this latest Lions coaching search, so does this from Whisenhunt as he tried to explain how he’d helped the Bidwill family finally reach the Promised Land.

“The biggest thing,” he said, “is getting your players and your team to believe in what you are doing.”

Reasons to believe

Five years later, here was Lions general manager Martin Mayhew last week, lamenting another late-season collapse by a team that failed — repeatedly — to get out of its own way. And when asked what the missing ingredient was, when asked what he’d be searching for this time as he interviewed possible successors to Jim Schwartz in Detroit, the GM said, “We have to find somebody that can bring that belief that we’re going to get over the hump.”

By the end, and probably well before that, there certainly were signs Schwartz might not be that guy. And signs that ownership knew it, even though the contract they’d handed him after the Lions made the playoffs in 2011 suggested otherwise.

But whether you believe in the guys doing the hiring — most Lions fans don’t, and who can blame them? — I do believe the guy they’ve targeted all along is the one they’ll sit down with in San Diego.

The guy with a degree in civil engineering who has made a career of rebuilding bridges, not burning them. The guy who helped harness Ben Roethlisberger and rejuvenate Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers. The guy who has tried and succeeded and failed — which can be a good thing if you learn from it — at the closest comparison to the job the Lions are looking to fill.

(How close? Well, Bill Bidwell’s career record as owner the day he finally watched his team play in a Super Bowl was 229-339-4; William Clay Ford Sr.’s record during that same span was 229-340-3.)

The help wanted ad reads differently than the one they posted in 2009, when the Lions brought in several assistants and settled on the one they felt was smart enough to understand the challenge of rebuilding from the ground up and brash enough to think he could handle it.

It’s that last part that ultimately led to Schwartz’s failure here: His arrogance was his undoing, and arguably his team’s as well. But it’s the first part that is factoring into the front-office thinking now.

Taking the lead

At this point, of the handful of candidates that either have interviewed or are scheduled to interview for the Lions job, only Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden lacks prior head-coaching experience in the NFL. And all but recently-fired Titans coach Mike Munchak have hands-on experience working closely with quarterbacks.

Do any of them have what it really takes? That’s what these face-to-face meetings are about. Yes, the Lions brass wants to hear the candidates’ ideas for maximizing Stafford’s potential — Jim Caldwell’s interview included breaking down film with the quarterback — and for building on the gains they’ve made in other areas, particularly in the trenches.

But as Mayhew said last week, “It’s bigger than Xs and Os, it’s bigger than scheme. It’s bigger than that. This guy has to be a leader and has to be able to lead our team.”

And if you’ve watched Whisenhunt work, and listened to him speak — and taken note of it, as the Lions surely have already — I think you’ve got your answer.

Whether it’s the right one or not, time will tell. But I suppose it’s worth noting that the last time Detroit had anything to do with a Super Bowl — in 2006 when the Steelers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at Ford Field — Whisenhunt was there, too.

And in the weeks leading up to that triumph, as Cowher kept coaxing more from that wild-card Pittsburgh team, convincing them to believe in him and themselves, one of his coordinators wasn’t just listening. He was learning, too.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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