KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley knew he wanted his new defensive coordinator to be someone who understands what it's like to coach in the Southeastern Conference.
Sal Sunseri certainly meets that requirement.
Sunseri, whom Dooley hired Friday, has spent the past three seasons as the assistant head coach and linebackers coach at rival Alabama — winning two national championships. Sunseri replaces Justin Wilcox, who left Jan. 2 for Washington.
"It didn't mean we weren't going to go in (another) direction, but we preferred somebody who'd been in these wars, Dooley said. They know the kind of players that we have in this league. They know the kind of scrutiny and exposure that you're going to get in this league. They know the stage and they love it."
With Sunseri's help, the Alabama defense has been among the top in the nation in recent years and finished top in total defense and scoring defense this season en route to the national title. His 2011 linebacker corps included AP all-American Don't'a Hightower and second team all-American Courtney Upshaw.
"Sal is an outstanding coach and really did an excellent job with each and every responsibility he had while he was here at the University of Alabama," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. "Although we hate to see Sal go, we understand this is an opportunity for him to grow in this profession and take on the role of defensive coordinator."
Dooley and Sunseri worked together at LSU in 2000 under Saban, though Dooley said he first became aware of Sunseri in the 1982 Sugar Bowl. Sunseri was an all-American linebacker for Pittsburgh in that game, and Dooley was there to watch his father, Georgia coach Vince Dooley.
Dooley said he took the opportunity of hiring a new coordinator as a chance to make the Vols defense more multiple, incorporating a 3-4 defense and more pressure into Tennessee's more traditional 4-3 scheme.
"I'm so excited he wanted to be a part of Tennessee," he said. "He's an outstanding football coach. He's an outstanding recruiter. He has great energy. He is an awesome human being. I think he'll be a really good fit for us."
Sunseri said in a statement that he was excited to work with Dooley, who he said "knows what it takes to build an elite program."
"I am fired up to work with all of the young talent on the defensive side of the ball, and I can't wait to get up to Knoxville and coach them," Sunseri said.
A young Tennessee squad struggled in its second season under Dooley, who was tasked with rebuilding the program after back-to-back coaching transitions. Five assistants have left Tennessee since a 10-7 loss at Kentucky ended the Vols' season, and Dooley has hired running backs coach Jay Graham and offensive line coach Sam Pittman in addition to Sunseri.
Before joining Alabama's staff, Sunseri spent seven years as an assistant for the NFL Carolina Panthers. He most recently was a defensive coordinator at Alabama A&M from 1998-1999. His 27-year career has included stops at Michigan State, LSU, Louisville, Illinois State, Iowa Wesleyan and his alma mater Pittsburgh, where he played as a linebacker from 1978-1981.Comment on this story
His younger son, Vinnie, is a freshman defensive back at Alabama, and his older son Tino, is the starting quarterback at Pittsburgh. Vinnie Sunseri said he would remain at Alabama, where he has an opportunity to replace three-time all-American safety Mark Barron.
"I love my dad. This is a great opportunity, and I'm really happy for him," Vinnie Sunseri said. "In terms of my status, the University of Alabama is the place for me, and that is what my heart and my mind tells me. This is my home and there is no place else I'd rather be. I'll root for him every day of the year except for the third Saturday in October."