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October 19, 2012His devilish tongue is famous, known to undress a player quickly for doing a drill incorrectly or using the wrong technique. For three seasons, Sal Sunseri's voice may have been the most recognizable at the University of Alabama practice fields - at worst case just as distinguishable as Nick Saban's.
Everyone knows the fiery, combustible Sunseri, a tough, Italian-blooded man's man. Rough around the edges, loose lipped and sarcastic, Sunseri is the definitive "what you see is what you get."
There is another side, however, to the 53-year-old devoted husband and father of four. Usually reserved for behind closed doors with family and friends, the gruff Sunseri showed his softer side this week.
He caught many off guard with his vulnerability and unrestrained emotion when speaking earlier this week about facing his youngest son, Alabama strong safety Vinnie Sunseri, but not those who know and love him. It didn't surprise them at all.
"He's probably one of the most loving and caring people I've ever been around," said Sunseri's oldest son, Tino Sunseri, a senior quarterback at Pittsburgh. "He gets it from my grandfather, and you can tell it's passed down. He loves us truly with all of his heart. Anything that he could possibly do for us he'll do. He's probably one of the more unselfish people I've ever been around. He doesn't ask for anything. The only thing he asks for is for your eyes and ears whenever he's talking to you, and making sure you're listening and just doing what you're told to do. That's the only thing he asks. He never wants anything in particular.
"The only thing he wants to do is hang around his family. He's a family person first and is 100 percent for us. Whenever we're succeeding, he's the happiest man on Earth. Whenever we're having a little bit of trouble, he wants to be the first person that comes and sees you and makes sure that you understand how much he loves you and cares about you and anything that he can do for you he will. That's what people don't get to see. I think it's also special because the only people that get to see it every day is us."
Sal Sunseri grew up in the city of Pittsburgh and was a standout linebacker at Central Catholic High School, smack dab in the middle between the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.
When the time came, he chose to stay at home and attend the University of Pittsburgh.
"I was a home-grown kid," Sunseri said. "It was natural to play at Pitt. It was home."
After a stellar career for the Panthers that included being a three-year starter, a team captain and an All-American his senior season in 1981, Sunseri was drafted by, naturally, the Pittsburgh Steelers. He suffered what turned out to be a career-ending injury during training camp of his rookie season. He attempted a comeback in 1983, but it wasn't to be.
He spent 1984 as a volunteer assistant coach at, where else, Pittsburgh, and was brought onto the Panthers staff as a full-time defensive line coach in 1985. He coached at Pittsburgh through the 1992 season and then hit the road, leading a nomadic life and tugging his family along with him at each juncture. The life of an assistant coach.
Sunseri married a former Pitt gymnast, Roxann Evans, and together they had four children - Jaclyn (25), Tino (23), Vinnie (20) and Ashlyn (18). The family made stops at Iowa Wesleyan, Illinois State, Louisville, Alabama A&M, LSU, Michigan State and Carolina (NFL) before his caravan landed in Tuscaloosa.
Vinnie and Tino, growing up in a football household, naturally fell in love with the game. Part of that love stemmed from the man they wanted to be.
"I'm very truly blessed to have the father I do. I think the best thing about him is that he's always a dad first and a football coach second," Tino Sunseri said. "He knows when to be a football coach and when to be a dad. The football coach's kids that we were, me and Vinnie were always around him trying to learn as much information as we could. Whether it was going out in the backyard and trying to do it, or watching it on TV, we tried to pick his brain as much as we could because we wanted to be the best possible players we could.
"I can remember sitting around the kitchen table and everybody else that were my friends would be watching TV shows and I would be sitting around the laptop with him when he was with the Carolina Panthers looking at defenses. He was showing me the ins and outs of his defense and what they were trying to do that week against the (New Orleans) Saints or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I tried to pick his brain as much as I could."
While Tino began his collegiate career as a quarterback at Pittsburgh, Sal and the family settled down in Tuscaloosa. It was here that Sal won his first championship and then a second.
Vinnie, an All-State linebacker and defensive player of the year at Northridge High School, had his choice from a list of schools, including the family's old stomping grounds - Pitt.
Sal remained hands-off during Vinnie's recruitment. Well, at least, for the most part.
One night in 2010 in the family kitchen, Sal walked up to Vinnie and casually thumped his 2009 national championship ring against the counter, the glare of the ring bouncing around the room from the overhead light.
Looking at his youngest son with the slyest of smirks Sal offered up, 'How's this look on my finger?' Vinnie committed to UA not long after, but truth be told it wasn't the flashy jewelry that put Alabama over the top. He most likely would have chosen a school at wherever his father was.
"The reason why I did come here was because my family was here," Vinnie Sunseri said. "I was never able to be with my dad because he was always out recruiting and coaching other players. That's one of the reasons I came here."
As it is, assistant football coaches don't stay put for long. After three successful seasons in Tuscaloosa during which the Crimson Tide went 36-4, the opportunity to be Tennessee's defensive coordinator presented itself. Sal Sunseri couldn't turn it down even though it meant leaving Vinnie behind for another in-conference foe.
It was an interesting summer for the Sunseri clan.
"I think we were a little bit torn," Tino Sunseri said. "My dad had been there for three years and had a lot of success, won two national championships under Coach Saban. Vinnie came in and obviously that was a huge part of choosing Alabama was being able to see my dad every day. Growing up, we didn't have that luxury of seeing my dad every day. He was in the office so much preparing each week.
"We wanted to spend as much time with each other as we could knowing that at some point Vinnie was going to be at Alabama and my dad was going to be up in Tennessee. There was no bragging rights or talking in that sense. More or less, we knew we needed to cherish the time we were able to spend with each other because when the season starts we hardly get to see anybody."
The magnitude of that decision didn't fully register for both Sal and Vinnie until this week - the Third Saturday in October and arguably the conference's best historical series.
"It is just tough. I mean, I never thought I'd have to go against my father," Vinnie Sunseri said. "And I never realized how tough it'd be until this point right now."
The patriarch of the family said the same thing in an out-of-character emotional moment earlier this week.
"It's going to be hard Saturday night when that kid walks on the field and he hugs me," a choked-up Sal Sunseri said.
The rest of the family just wants the game to be over with. Sal suggested Roxann may not even go to the game. She has traveled all over the country watching her husband and two sons play this season, and that's not to mention watching Ashlyn play volleyball for Tennessee.
"My wife's been in Pittsburgh, in Tuscaloosa, she went to Dallas," Sal Sunseri said. "It's hard for her, too. She's trying to be a wife and a mother. She's trying to be strong. She's trying to be supportive both ways."
Tino, who plays at Buffalo at 2:30, said that most of the family wants the same thing.
"I'm rooting for both of them to have as much success as they can."
Reach Aaron Suttles at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0229.