Last March, I flew into Indianapolis so I could meet my father, so we could say goodbye to an old friend. That week, the Illinois Fighting Illini were playing in the Big Ten Tournament, and barring a monumental shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates, they were going to lose very early on; they’d lost eight of their last nine, 11 of their last 13, a dead team walking. And after they lost that last game, they were certain to fire head coach Bruce Weber.
It felt important for us to be there. Bruce Weber had taken up a disproportionately high percentage of our conversations over the previous six years. We’d been sad when Bill Self left Illinois; we’d been concerned about this Southern Illinois guy who many feared would be overmatched in the Big Ten; we’d been thrilled when Weber’s strategic skills meshed with the guard play of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head to create the best Illini team of my lifetime; we wept with him as he lost his mother in the midst of that manic, glorious season; we fretted when Weber’s recruiting then faltered; we bemoaned as his teams slowly grew worse and more discordant; we accepted the inevitable as last year’s team imploded. We felt strongly about Bruce Weber, as strongly as we might a family member; we groused about him to each other but instinctively came to his defense when someone from the outside disparaged him.
We knew it was time for Weber to go as we walked to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He’d lost his team, and the fan base had out the pitchforks. We just felt like we owed it to him to see him off, to say that we were there when this story, this part of our life, ended. And we were: On a cold rainy morning, Illinois lost to Iowa 64-61, in front of a sparse weekday crowd. Just a week removed from the most depressing press conference I’d ever seen, Weber raced off the court, separate from his team. Three days later … he was gone.
We moved on, and so did he. My Illini, now coached by John Groce, and Weber’s Kansas State team are a combined 17-1, and both teams are in the Top 25. Everyone’s doing well. I’ll always check on how he’s doing. He meant a lot to us, for a long time. He deserved our goodbye.
I thought about this a lot Sunday while watching that splendid display of organized gridiron activity, when my Arizona Cardinals polished off a 58-0 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. That’s an absurd score for a high school game; NFL games aren’t supposed to end 58-0. The Cardinals are one of the historically worst franchises in sports, and that was the worst loss they’ve ever suffered. After a while, it began to feel surreal. By the end of the third quarter, I was fairly certain the members of the Arizona Cardinals defense were in fact holograms.
A normal person would have shut the game off sometime before the 50th point or so, but I felt obliged to keep watching for the same reason my dad and I felt obliged to make the trip to Indianapolis last year. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, after yesterday’s disaster, is almost certainly to lose his job at the end of the season. It’s a little surprising, actually, he didn’t lose it today. After a 58-0 loss like that, it’s difficult to argue that he doesn’t have it coming. But I’m still pretty sad about it.
You can make a rather strong argument that Ken Whisenhunt is the best Cardinals coach in nearly four decades. I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating: “The previous Cardinals coaches over the previous 30 years before Whisenhunt have been Dennis Green, Dave McGinnis, Vince Tobin, Joe Bugel and Gene Stallings. Those five gentlemen combined for one winning record over those 30 years. ONE. One season with a winning record over THIRTY YEARS. In Whiz’s second season, he reached the Super Bowl. In his five years, he’s had a losing record only once.” I wrote that before the season; now, obviously, there are two losing seasons. (The Cardinals are 4-9 and have lost nine in a row.) But Whisenhunt got the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl, something that I had always considered a mathematical impossibility. He (well, he and Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald) is personally responsible for my happiest moments as an Arizona Cardinals fan.
Does that mean he shouldn’t be fired? I don’t think so. Losing nine in a row, with the ninth loss turning out 58-0, is indefensible. You can’t really make much of a case for a coach there, no matter what he’s done in the past. But I’ve spent the last six years hanging on every word Whisenhunt said, analyzing every decision he made, trying to peek inside his brain to figure out what he was thinking. I’ve railed at him, I’ve blindly trusted him, I’ve allowed him, the way we allow all coaches of our favorites teams, to take up way more of my brain space that anyone every should. Ken Whisenhunt, like Bruce Weber, like Tony La Russa, like Mike D’Antoni, was a daily presence in my life for years. And now he’s about to be gone.
I know that the transitory nature of sports is one of its primary appeals, the basic function being that if you’re upset with your team, just wait: It’ll be full of entirely different people in three years, maybe sooner. The only thing that keeps teams as teams – as something connected throughout decades and generations – are the fans; everything else can change, from players to owners to coaches to uniforms to team names to even cities. But we always relate more to the coach, because he’s the one person whose job we like to imagine ourselves able to do. (Even if there’s absolutely no way we possibly could.) He’s the one we imagine as the custodian of our beloved franchise. He’s the one we listen to. He’s the one we trust, and the one we complain about. Every one of them, even the bad ones, is a part of our lives. It feels important to see them off. It feels important to hang onto them, even once they’re gone. Ken Whisenhunt – a man I’ve never met, a man I have no real desire to meet, a man I couldn’t have less in common with if one of us had wings -- is a part of my life, and even after he’s fired at some point over the next month, he always will be. That’s weird, but what about being a sports fan isn’t?
I promise this is going to be the last time I mention the Arizona Cardinals in this space for a long, long time. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.