When you’re winning, everybody wants a piece of what you’ve got. If there’s a downside to winning 2 national championships in 3 seasons, this is it:
On Friday, the University of Tennessee announced the hiring of Alabama outside linebackers coach Sal Sunseri as it’s new defensive coordinator.
The fiery Sunseri made a splash immediately upon his arrival in Tuscaloosa in 2009 and received a great deal of credit for bringing a nasty edge to that season’s BCS championship-winning defense. He also distinguished himself on the recruiting trail during his time with the Crimson Tide, taking lead recruiter responsibilities for big name prospects such as Phillip Sims, Trey DePriest, and the Kouandjio brothers, just to name a few. It’s easy to see why he became such a desirable commodity on the coaching carousel.
I think in every Alabama fan’s imaginary line of succession, the ideal was always for Sunseri to hang around long enough so that he could take over as DC when Kirby Smart inevitably moved on to a head coaching job. (But with Smart lingering around longer than most would have expected, the odds of retaining him diminished on a yearly basis, even with his son, Vinnie, on the team. Mal Moore’s checkbook can only sate one’s desire for career advancement for so long.) Needless to say, this loss has been deeply felt by the Bama fanbase, and it leaves a big hole to fill on the coaching staff.
So what does this move mean for Tennessee and Alabama moving forward?
First and foremost for the Volunteer defense, they’re in for a major attitude adjustment. Sunseri is a fireball on the football field. On a coaching staff full of yellers, his voice was unmistakable above the commotion at Tide practices. His personality could fill Neyland Stadium all by itself. I think he’ll eventually bring that same edge his Bama defenses had to Tennessee. (“Eventually” being the key word there, but more on that in a second…)
Vols coach Derek Dooley has played coy about what schematic changes he’s aiming to implement, but if you read between the lines of the “multiple” defense he’s talking about, it’s clear: He’s bringing in Sunseri to run Alabama’s 3-4 defense. And can you blame him? I’m honestly surprised every head coach with a DC opening isn’t raiding Bama’s defensive staff and saying, “More of that, please.” To bring it even closer to home, Tennessee’s East division rival, Georgia, finally began to see the fruits of their own switch to a 3-4 defense under Todd Grantham this season.
The real question is this: Will Dooley be around long enough for the switch to the 3-4 to pay off? There are reasons more teams aren’t switching to a 3-4 set. Namely, it’s a pretty big transition that takes time. Both Georgia and Alabama struggled in their first years running the system (2010 and 2007, respectively) before taking big leaps forward in year two. But most of the chatter surrounding Dooley at Tennessee is that if he doesn’t show significant progress in 2012, he’s done for. So I think this represents a pretty big gamble on his part.
Less so for Sunseri. Sure, he’s giving up a cushy gig at Alabama for what could be a one-year tour of duty in Knoxville, but reports indicate he got a multi-year deal with guaranteed money (estimated somewhere around $2 million). He’s essentially been given a golden parachute that will keep him from having to slum it at a lower-tier job to pay the bills if the Dooley regime is out next year. And who knows? Maybe Alabama will be looking for a new DC by then anyway.
As for the Crimson Tide, the biggest problem this creates comes in the near term. As mentioned earlier, Sunseri was a big game hunter on the recruiting trail, and this season, his top target was the nation’s #1 defensive lineman, Eddie Goldman. Most prognosticators believe the competition for Goldman is down to Bama and Florida State. Losing Sunseri less than a month before Signing Day is a substantial blow to the Tide’s odds of landing the big man.
Beyond that, I’d say Nick Saban has a fairly strong track record for hiring quality assistants that can teach his scheme and recruit. So I don’t think Alabama fans have too much to worry about. The most interesting development on the Tide's end of things thus far is the speculation that Tennessee's Lance Thompson is the current favorite to fill Sunseri's old job. That would be interesting on multiple levels. More on that as it develops.