I see there are articles and discussions on the topic of legacies with this senior class, and one player in particular. Some were probably ready to turn the page by halftime of the BBVA Bowl. Others will want to vent or defend for the next two years.
The one thing of which I feel certain, is that this particular class will be most linked with (blamed on) former coach Dave Wannstedt. I’m hoping it is the last of them. It should be. While there is one more more true Wannstedt classes to graduate, the 2008 and 2009 signing clases that make up this group seem to exemplify the promise and disappointment of the Wannstedt era.
This is really the last group to really feel that the ties to Wannstedt are still there. That draw reference to him.
“We wanted to start with a guy like coach Wannstedt, we believed in coach Wannstedt,” Sunseri said.
“For us to finish with a guy like coach Chryst, we feel like he’s the Dave Wannstedt kind of guy. Coach Chryst obviously is his own person and he brings different attributes to the table, but he’s one of those guys that loves this university, loves the players.”
When the comparisons are to Fraud Graham and Haywood, that can be considered in a positive light.
Yet, you look at the players from the 2008 and 2009 recruiting class and wonder about how many misses. How many failed/stagnated development. And the injuries. By the most important definition, this class goes down as near pure mediocrity. From 2010 to 2012, Pitt went 20-19. Wins and losses define your place in sports. Only if you were such a superlative talent that eclipsed all around you, can you begin to overcome what your team is. Oscar Robertson, Hank Greenberg, Larry Fitzgerald come to mind.
There are the “but” and “what ifs.” Especially for this group. Three head coaches, two interims and a two-week layover of a head coach in the past three seasons is quite the mitigator. And for everything these kids have been through, it can be argued that they were far better at handling the continual upheaval and turmoil around them, than they should be expected.
At the same time there is the fact that this was a group that could never win the close ones. Forget — if it’s possible — for the moment that the Pitt team went 0-13 when trailing at the half over the past three years. This was a group that was 3-10 (2-10 against 1-A teams) over the past three years in games decided by 7 points or less. There is no one reason for all the losses. Not all of it is Sunseri. Not all of it is the O-line, or the coaching, special teams or the defense. It was always something with team. Every other loss had something that made you think, “if only…”
So, yes, I’ll agree with Tino.
“I don’t know what [my legacy] is,” Sunseri said. “It’s whatever people make it. I have no control over that.”
I’ll also agree with this piece to a significant extent that the legacy of Sunseri is not as simple as it seems.
Sunseri may not have always been a strength of the Pitt football team over the last three years, but he was far from being the only weakness and shouldn’t take the full blame for the team’s record since 2010.
And there’s the matter of second-half comebacks. In Sunseri’s three years as a starter, the Panthers never won a game after trailing at halftime. Opponents are 13-0 against Pitt when they had a lead entering the third quarter since 2010. Many have looked at that stat and declared that it is indicative of Sunseri’s inability to lead his team to victory under pressure. It’s true, Sunseri never led Pitt to a second-half comeback. At the same time, Sunseri played a considerable role in giving Pitt the first-half leads it maintained in the 20 victories the Panthers amassed over the last three years.
Sunseri’s legacy would be more favorably viewed by Pitt fans if he had led more comebacks – or even just one – in his career, but the fact that he didn’t should not overshadow the fact that he was a contributing factor in generating the leads that led to victories.
And then there are the coaches. Sunseri played for three head coaches in his three years as the starter (six if you count interim head coaches and unintentional-interim Mike Haywood). Including interim play-callers, he had six offensive coordinators (seven if you count Matt Cavanaugh, who coached Sunseri when he redshirted as a freshman). The middle year of 2011 was doomed from the start, as Sunseri and head coach Todd Graham never saw eye to eye, but with a bit of stability, Sunseri probably could have improved over the years if he had more than one year as a starter with 2010 coordinator Frank Cignetti or 2012 coordinator Joe Rudolph.
Ultimately, Sunseri was a quarterback who needed an offensive coordinator who could understand how to tailor the offense to his skill set. With time, Cignetti likely would have drawn out Sunseri’s strengths, much as Rudolph, head coach Paul Chryst, and quarterback coach Brooks Bollinger did this season. But the instability and seemingly constant transition didn’t work in his favor. Sunseri needed to build on an offense, not learn a new one each year.
There were times when Sunseri had the offense clicking. Times when it looked like he might be able to drive the team down the field. Times when it all came together.
And then there were the other times. The times when he looked rattled and unable to play with the presence of mind that is needed to be a Division I quarterback. The times when he struggled to handle pressure and seemed to miss open receivers. The times when he took too many sacks.
Those are the times fans will remember. Those are the times that will define Pitt football circa 2010-12, the era that will be defined jointly by Tino Sunseri’s quarterback play and Pitt’s coaching carousel.
And it still comes back to winning. Is there one signature win in the three years? One impressive victory over a good team? Even the win over VT this year, quickly was diminished with the evidence of how overrated the Hokies were coming into the game. I can’t think of a one. All I can think of are the ones that could have been.
We saw great growth from Bill Stull in his final year. Just as we saw significant growth from Sunseri in this past year. A big difference was the team around each. Stull had a veteran and stable offensive line to go with an amazing season from Dion Lewis. Sunseri had an injury (and suspension) ravaged O-line the last two years to go with injuries at the RB spot.
The secondary has been better the last couple of years, but you can’t compare the D-lines. The only consistency over the two recent eras: mediocre to poor special teams.
Sunseri was doomed the moment he was anointed the starter by Dave Wannstedt after the 2009 season. At the time, it probably didn’t seem that stupid in Wannstedt’s mind. The fall of 2009 had tons of reports of Sunseri often looking better than Stull in practices. The only competition was Pat Bostick, who Wannstedt clearly did not want to play. And Wannstedt has that old, old school philosophy of picking a QB and sticking with him.
But when you are anointed, you have to show why a coach would make such a leap of faith. Not just with play and practice, but how you lead the team.
Instead Pitt stumbled to a 2-3 record lowlighted by a national TV embarrassment against Miami. Sunseri’s play, to put it politely — stunk. He also had a demeanor on the sidelines of petulance. When you add up bad play on the field with sideline pouting, it’s perception hole from which he never could extract himself.
Then, with chances to still make the season count, Pitt bumbled to a listless 2-2 finish. As much as that season sealed the fate of Wannstedt, it put the perception of Sunseri in place. And unlike Bill Stull, Sunseri never was able to do anything to change it.
For the past three seasons fans (including myself) have wished and at times convinced ourselves that there was another QB on the roster better than Sunseri and ready to play. Even as three different coaching staffs reached the same frustrating conclusion, “Sunseri gives Pitt the best chance to win.” Which may or may not end up on his tombstone.
It not only was difficult to accept, it reached a point where people didn’t care. Declaring that they would rather watch anyone else play back there, even if the outcome would be the same. Rationalize it as building for next year. Anything to get Sunseri off the field.
The best thing you can say about Sunseri is that he was tough. He took an ungodly number shots, sacks and hits over his three years, and kept getting up to take more. He didn’t miss a start. He didn’t get knocked out of games. And off-the-field, he absorbed abuse from all corners. He let it all go.
That hardly outweighs everything else. In the long-term, his legacy and this group of Pitt players will be that of not quite good enough.