Elliott Carson was a tight end from Lebanon High when he arrived at Vanderbilt in the summer of 1996.
His position coach was just cutting his own teeth in the profession – Ken Whisenhunt.
The man hired to be the Tennessee Titans’ new head coach earlier this week broke into coaching just blocks from his new office in 1995 when he joined Rod Dowhower’s new staff at Vanderbilt following an eight-year NFL career as a tight end.
Carson was just hoping he could learn from someone who had played in the NFL and possibly duplicate some of those accomplishments.
“He was easy to connect with,” Carson said of Whisenhunt on Wednesday from Minneapolis. “He was strict and demanding, but he was a player’s coach.
“A great teacher having played the position at the highest level.”
Carson only spent his redshirt season under Whisenhunt, who left Vandy when Dowhower was fired and returned to the NFL and started up that coaching ladder.
In the meantime, Carson became a starting tight end under Woody Widenhofer. Perhaps his career highlight was catching a game-winning touchdown pass at Ole Miss as a junior in 1999.
He signed as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals in 2001 and the Titans in ’02. Tennessee allocated him to NFL Europe, where he played for the Scottish Claymores.
Ironically, the two NFL teams Carson signed with are the ones which have now employed Whisenhunt as a head coach. He led the Cardinals to their only Super Bowl, losing a thriller to the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-23 in Feb. 2009.
Of course, all of that was in the distant future when Carson was a freshman redshirt and Whisenhunt a young coach in the fall of 1996.
“Looking back on it now, it’s not a surprise he’s gotten to the highest level,” Carson said.
Following his season with the Claymores, Carson joined the real world. He’s worked for nearly nine years for Patterson Dental, which sells dental equipment. A married father of two daughters, ages 4 and seven months, he’s lived in Minneapolis for just over a year.
But even from afar, he’s watched the success of his alma mater under James Franklin, who left last weekend to take over at Penn State.
“I hate to see the program lose him,” said Carson, just one of many generations of Vanderbilt players who rarely enjoyed on-field winning success. “He was a great coach and developed the program.
“It’s exciting to see the changing in Nashville of the culture… You like to think you helped contribute to that success. I think they’ve gotten the culture running in the right direction.”