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January 7, 2013

The end of the Tino Sunseri era

The final whistle of Saturday's BBVA Compass Bowl wasn't just the official end of the 2012 season for the Pitt football team. It was the end of the Tino Sunseri Era of Pitt football, an era that stretched from Salt Lake City to Birmingham, from the pro-style offense to high-octane and back again.

It was a three-year period in the program's history that drew as much derision as it did praise - and usually more of the former - from fans. And while the fans' derision, criticism, and downright scorn of the last three years had many Pitt targets, no one person seemed to draw more of it than Sunseri.

When Tino Sunseri became Pitt's starting quarterback in 2010, the Panthers were in the midst of quite the momentum wave. Despite a near-miss on a BCS bowl bid, Pitt won 10 games in 2009, capped by the Panthers' first bowl win in seven years.

And the momentum seemed certain to carry over into 2010. Dion Lewis was ready to build on his breakout freshman season, the Panthers had future NFL players at defensive end, offensive line, fullback, wide receiver, and safety, and the success of the previous two seasons - with 19 total wins - was going to push the team over the top.

At the center of it all was Sunseri. A Central Catholic grad with a legacy for a last name, Sunseri had the hype of the press and they hope of the fans when he was Bill Stull's backup in 2009. By all accounts, Sunseri was a more talented quarterback than Stull, who had led Pitt to the 19-7 record in 2008-09. With 2010's returning roster and a winnable Big East, Sunseri would be the final element to build Pitt into a BCS team.

The wave crested on a season-opening trip to Utah, when Sunseri threw an interception in overtime and Pitt lost. That was the first of 19 losses Pitt would suffer with Sunseri as the starting quarterback over the next three years, and it forms a bookend with Saturday's 38-17 trouncing by Ole Miss in Birmingham. Between those two losses Sunseri ran the gamut of college football fortunes

The Utah game in 2010, like Sunseri's legacy, isn't quite as easy to parse as it may seem. Sunseri did throw an interception in overtime, but he also played a key role in Pitt's comeback to force overtime. The Panthers trailed 24-13 with less than eight minutes remaining before Sunseri and Jonathan Baldwin connected for 63 yards on two passes and then hooked up again for a two-point conversion to cut the lead to three points. And when Pitt got the ball back, Sunseri completed 4-of-7 passes for 39 yards to set up a Dan Hutchins field goal.

Yes, Sunseri's first pass of overtime was intercepted and Utah converted that turnover into a game-winning field goal. But Pitt doesn't get to overtime if Sunseri doesn't complete 8-of-13 passes for 127 yards to lead three scoring drives in the fourth quarter.

From the first game of Sunseri's career as a starter, his Pitt legacy was a quandary.

Pitt's descent from the 10-win success of 2009 to back-to-back six-win seasons in 2011 and 2012 wasn't just a product of Sunseri's play. Nor were the successes - sparse as they may have been - over the last three seasons fully to his credit. Tino Sunseri's career at Pitt is more complicated than simple reasoning would indicate.

There are plenty of indicators in his career that point toward mediocrity. And yet there are more than a few points of strength and even, at times, excellence in Sunseri's 39 games as Pitt's starting quarterback. And both the mediocre and the excellent are further deconstructed with a host of qualifiers that are necessary to consider, no matter how much they muddy the perception of his performance.

For instance, it's not difficult to look at Sunseri's 20-19 record as a starter - 17-18 against FBS competition - and declare him to be mediocre. That's an average record for a three-year starter who spent his career in the Big East. But while the current fashion in football commentary is to define a quarterback solely by his team's record, the reality of the sport continues to be far more collective. The cliché that football is the ultimate team sport still rings true, and while a good quarterback is necessary for a team to have success, it is not a guarantee that the team will have success.

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.

Despite that challenge, Sunseri finished his career with arguably his best season. Pitt's record was subpar in 2012, but Sunseri became one of the most efficient passers in the nation. A year after throwing for 2,616 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in a supposedly pass-happy spread offense, Sunseri's senior line of 3,288 yards, 22 touchdowns, and three interceptions marked a statistical improvement that few thought possible. His yardage total ranks as the second-most a Pitt quarterback has ever amassed in a season, and he finished his Pitt career with the third-most passing yards by a Pitt quarterback in school history.

And the quandary of Tino Sunseri continues. He may have only won 20-of-39 games in his career, but he threw for more yards than Tyler Palko, Rod Rutherford, John Congemi, or Bill Stull. He trailed Dan Marino in career passing yardage by just seven yards. He set the Heinz Field record for most passing yards by a quarterback. He had a two-game stretch in 2010 when he threw for 588 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception against Rutgers and Syracuse. He had a two-game stretch in 2011 when he threw for 637 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception against Connecticut and Cincinnati. And he had a three-game stretch in 2012 when he threw for 946 yards, six touchdowns, and one interception against Virginia Tech, Gardner-Webb, and Syracuse.

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.

It's not a stretch to say that Sunseri wasn't great as Pitt's quarterback. But he was tough on the field and took the abuse off the field. He may not have been the most beloved figure in the locker room, but his teammates knew they could count on him to give everything he had each week. He faced the media after wins and losses, and only once did he slip up in his public presentation.

Tino Sunseri's final pass at Pitt was a 16-yard touchdown toss to fellow redshirt senior Mike Shanahan. With necessary timing and perfect touch, the ball slipped over the defender to Shanahan. It was the 12th time Sunseri and Shanahan have connected for a touchdown, and it just might have been the best pass Sunseri threw in his career at Pitt.

A few minutes later, Ole Miss ran out the clock, bringing an end to the 2013 BBVA Compass Bowl, the 2012 season, and the Tino Sunseri Era.

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