Wiedmer: Sunseri hire a win for UT Vols

Wiedmer: Sunseri hire a win for UT Vols

January 14th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Maybe it was just the wording. But when ESPN.com headlined its story on the University of Tennessee's new defensive coordinator -- "Vols hire Sunseri away from Alabama" -- it felt like the UT football program had finally gotten the better of the Crimson Tide for the first time since 2006, the year before Nick Saban took over Houndstooth Heaven.

Away ... from ... Alabama.

As in ... UT coach Derek Dooley artfully lured his old friend Sal Sunseri away from both men's ultimate coaching mentor with a better deal.

As in ... the chance to run the Big Orange defense was somehow more attractive to the Tide's linebacker coach than working with his kid Vinnie for the next three years.

As in ... with this guy on board, the Volunteers may finally know more about the Tide than vice versa for the first time since Phillip Fulmer was winning nine out of 10 against Bama from 1995 through 2004.

Money almost certainly played a large role. No offense to the Vols' storied tradition or the foundation Dooley may be building as he enters his third season, but when a father turns down a chance to coach his son, he's probably been offered a financial deal he can't refuse.

Given the reports of a three-year contract worth $800,000 annually, Sunseri really had no choice but to sign on the dotted line.

But for new UT athletic director Dave Hart to approve of such money -- remember, Hart came to the Vols from the Capstone, his alma mater -- he must believe Sunseri can be special.

In fact, the following words from Dooley may have been the most telling quote in Friday's news conference:

"I do want to mention that Dave Hart has just been a tremendous resource for me here, especially when you hire a D-coordinator. These are complex hires. There are a lot of things involved. It's obviously a very important hire for any program. He's been very supportive in helping me through the process."

Beyond that, regardless of the consternation displayed by some members of the Big Orange Nation over the time it took Dooley to replace Justin Wilcox after UT's former defensive coordinator left for Washington in late December, this could be an improvement, despite the Vols' defense ranking 28th nationally last fall.

Certainly, Bama was brilliant along the line, at linebacker and in the secondary this past season, so it wasn't just Sunseri's work with the Tide's all-star backers that led to Bama's second national title in three years with Sunseri on the sideline.

In fact, no matter who's coaching Bama by position, the defense belongs to Saban, so to believe the Red Elephants can't replace Sunseri is folly. Every defensive coach with the Tide can be replaced as long as Saint Nick's running the show.

But linebacker also is where UT may be best for next season as long as Herman Lathers, A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt and Co. all return healthy and happy.

There's also this, and it's almost as impressive as Sunseri's connection to Saban. Before he came to Bama, Sunseri worked seven years for John Fox during Fox's time with the NFL's Carolina Panthers.

As Dooley noted of Fox, now the head coach with the Denver Tebows, um, Broncos: "Right now, [he's] probably playing better defense than anybody in the NFL."

Lastly, Dooley said: "Everywhere [Sunseri] goes, his players perform. One of the reasons I went after Sal was because I felt like we needed to be a little more multiple and we needed to be a little more aggressive ... Sal brings that."

Conspiracy theorists already are speculating that Dooley's let the fox loose in the henhouse -- that this is all part of an elaborate plan to bring Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to UT as head coach if Dooley can't quickly turn it around.

And maybe it will all end up that way. But this feels different. It feels smart. It feels right. It feels like for the first time in years, the Vols are taking on the nation's best head-on, determined to quickly rise from Least to Beast in the SEC East.

Given all he owes Saban, and Hart's powerful past with Bama, Dooley was certainly smart to note: "It wasn't about Tennessee taking anything from Alabama."

But for the first time in a long time, it sure felt like it. And for the Big Orange Nation, that has to feel good.