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Amid criticism, Pitt's Sunseri perseveres

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, April 8, 2012

No matter how many miles stand in his way, Sal Sunseri manages to keep close watch on his son's football career.

Through Internet telecasts of Pitt games and daily father-son telephone conversations, Tino Sunseri doesn't fumble a snap without his father knowing.

This spring, however, their talks are different.

Tino Sunseri, the second of four children born to former Pitt athletes Sal (an All-American linebacker) and Roxann (a gymnast), is enjoying football again.

"With (Paul) Chryst coming in, he is extremely excited," said Sal, the defensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee. "He has answers where there weren't answers last year. He is having fun right now. I am finally glad to see the young man smile."

Sal Sunseri has been involved in football most of his life, including seven seasons as defensive line coach of the Carolina Panthers and the past three as assistant head coach/linebackers at national champion Alabama.

He watched last year when former Pitt coach Todd Graham installed a speed-based spread offense that Tino, the quarterback, had trouble running.

"What they were doing wasn't sound," Sal said, speaking from the perspective of a defensive coach. "Those types of players (for a spread) aren't there."

Asked if Graham was trying to pound a round peg into a square hole, Sal said, "Big-time. It was unbelievable."

Sal heard Graham call his son's performance "average" when Tino threw for 419 yards against Connecticut.

"Let me tell you this," Sal said via the phone from Knoxville, Tenn. "I have been in the NFL, the SEC, and I have been around some good players, and when a quarterback throws for that many yards, it's a pretty good thing."

Graham, now coach at Arizona State, declined comment through a university spokesman.

Tino Sunseri stays above the fray. He has had three head coaches, three offensive coordinators and three quarterback coaches at Pitt since 2010, but he doesn't use the program's instability as an excuse.

"Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming," he said, "but you have to be able to buckle up your chinstrap and work each day and handle your business."

Sunseri has started 26 consecutive games at Pitt, and this year he may join an elite group of three-year starting quarterbacks that includes Dan Marino, Alex Van Pelt, John Congemi and Tyler Palko. He said playing in three systems in three years will allow him "to broaden his horizons."

"Each coach brought something different to the table," he said. "Coach (Dave) Wannstedt, he was that guy who brought me in. He believed in me and gave me that scholarship.

"Coach (Frank) Cignetti (Wannstedt's offensive coordinator) is the person I look up to the most because I learned the most I possibly could off him. I went through those growing pains and was able to be in the tribulations of the fire.

"Coach Chryst has brought that quarterback junkie (mindset), making sure there is no stone unturned, making sure if there is a question being asked that you are able to answer it."

Of Graham, he said, "He was good for me. He really was. He pushed me every single day. He said, 'Don't try to be the best at the University of Pittsburgh. Try to be the best in the country.' "

Sunseri, who said he doesn't pay attention to what's printed or broadcast about him, said Graham's "average" comment didn't bother him, admitting he could have played better against UConn.

"When you go back and watch the tape, there are throws that you missed and throws that you made," he said.

Graham continually complained to the media about his quarterback, but Sunseri said Graham never criticized him face to face.

"I was in the shadows about it," he said. "That's the way it should be."

Perhaps Sunseri handles adversity so well because he moved nine times while his father, who has coached in 10 places since 1985, climbed the coaching ladder.

He was the starting quarterback as a freshman and sophomore at Weddington (N.C.) High School but transferred to Central Catholic when Weddington decided to change to a spread offense.

He moved in with his uncle, Gus Sunseri, a Fox Chapel attorney, and helped lead Central to the 2007 PIAA Class AAAA championship.

"Sal wanted to see him graduate from Central, to be at the school and be part of the tradition, to be part of the discipline they instill," said Gus, a Central Catholic graduate like his brother.

Tino, who graduated with honors, carries a 3.0 grade-point average at Pitt while majoring in communications.

"I have to make sure I keep it around 3.0 or my mom and dad will get on me," he said.

Gus said several people have approached him to marvel at how well his nephew handles adversity.

"Tino and I have had long conversations regarding this," Gus said. "Tough times make you stronger, and I truly believe everything happens for a reason. I know he does.

"This is going to help him in so many aspects of his life that transcend football."

Pitt linebacker Joe Trebitz, one of Sunseri's best friends, said, "I don't know how he does it. He doesn't let pressure get to him."

Family helps Sunseri remain grounded. He described family reunions as filled with "love and laughter" and his grandmother cooking "three or four turkeys."

To this day, Tino visits his grandfather, Anthony, in Greenfield twice a week "to be able to sit down and kind of get away from my bad day."

"They are the people who love me and care for me because of who I am," he said, "not what I do."

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