Dooley talks about new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri
More than a decade later, a relationship forged during one year still stuck in Derek Dooley's mind.
That by itself certainly wasn't enough to convince the Tennessee football coach that Sal Sunseri was the right guy to fill a vacancy on his staff.
But that shared experience together at LSU in 2000 definitely helped, and on Friday the two officially resumed working together with Dooley hiring his old colleague to become the new defensive coordinator for the Vols after three seasons as Alabama's assistant head coach for defense/outside linebackers coach.
"That (year) was very important, because when you're on a staff together, you develop a pretty close relationship — either good or bad," Dooley said during an afternoon news conference. "We had a great relationship, and I had an awesome year with Sal. That was important, knowing that you had a guy in your staff room that is going to be bunkered in and going to be ready to go for you.
"That played a big part of it, I know what Sal's about, I know what his character is, I've seen him coach, and so there's a lot less risk."
Familiarity with Sunseri eliminated some of the gamble for Dooley as he set out to hire a replacement for Justin Wilcox, who left earlier this month for the same position at Washington. And that extended to the boss they shared at LSU in Nick Saban, the same guy Dooley worked for with the Miami Dolphins and Sunseri helped lead to a pair of national championships with the Crimson Tide.
But that was just part of the evaluation process with Sunseri, a 27-year coaching veteran who doesn't have extensive experience as a play-caller but boasts an impressive résumé from his time in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers and is a widely respected recruiter.
While working with the Panthers, Sunseri's defensive lines sent three different players to the Pro Bowl. During his stint at Alabama, three different linebackers were named finalists for the Butkus Award, with Rolando McClain claiming the trophy in 2009. And in 2011, Sunseri picked up some hardware of his own, with 247sports.com naming him the recruiter of the year.
Ultimately, everything added up for Dooley. And with the 52-year-old Sunseri apparently ready to take on another challenge with a talented but young UT roster, it appeared to be a perfect fit for a both sides — with a program source not authorized to speak publicly confirming a three-year deal worth a total of $2.4 million that locked it in.
"I think all coaches are like that at some point," Dooley said. "If you have aspirations of being a head coach, at some point you have to go out there and stick it out there and do it on your own. I know Sal, ever since we were together in 2000, his next step he wanted was to be a coordinator at a high level. To his credit, he didn't want to just rush into it.
"He was in there grinding with (former Panthers coach John) Fox for seven years, and then when he got an opportunity to go with Nick, he viewed it as another way to grow professionally. Some coaches want to get the title, and that's good and a lot of times it works. But other coaches want to learn and grow so that when they do get the title, they're ready to go."
After the Crimson Tide put the finishing touches on a second national title with Sunseri on staff on Monday with a shutout of LSU, the time to make that jump arrived.
And a familiar face with a desire for the aggressive, versatile defense that Sunseri will install was there to offer a soft spot to land.
"I think Sal wants to coach at this level and probably would rather have an impact at this level than being at a different part of the country or different league," Dooley said. "I think the SEC and the NFL is appealing to Sal Sunseri as an assistant. I just think the appeal of the NFL kept him there and then going back (to college) with Nick knowing he could go compete for a national championship and a SEC championship at a program like Alabama.
"I think he's got the same sort of thinking about coming to Tennessee."