When you are the starting quarterback for two-plus seasons on a team that largely underachieves, your performance is going to be scrutinized, analyzed and criticized. So it has been for Pitt's Tino Sunseri, the most maligned athlete in school history. It's been so bad at times for him that the criticism has gone beyond the performance level and become personal. Many people still insist the only reason he plays is because his father, Sal, was an All-American linebacker at Pitt in the early 1980s.
Do you think I could make up something so stupid?
Sunseri's old man doesn't have that kind of clout. Coach Dave Wannstedt started Tino Sunseri and Todd Graham started him and new coach Paul Chryst is starting him because Pitt has no one better. Often, Sunseri hasn't been good enough to win games. But Saturday, he was plenty good enough in Pitt's surprisingly easy, 35-17 win against No. 13 Virginia Tech at Heinz Field.
Sunseri has had other good games. He threw for four touchdowns and three touchdowns in consecutive wins against Syracuse and Rutgers in 2010 while playing for Wannstedt. He passed for 419 yards in a win against Connecticut last season under Graham, who did him no favors with the fan base when he described the performance as "average." But this was Sunseri's best game, coming after he wasn't very good in losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati. He threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception. He limped badly for most of the fourth quarter because of a right shin or ankle injury that left him on crutches after the game, yet he still managed to throw a clinching, 6-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Shanahan with 5 1/2 minutes left.
"Tino has a lot of confidence in himself," said Pitt special-teamer Joe Trebitz, Sunseri's roommate for four years and one of his closest friends. "Obviously, the coaches and his teammates have confidence in him."
Trebitz says he hears all the negative talk about Sunseri. "I can't believe a lot of it. I really can't." But Trebitz said Sunseri shrugs it all off if he hears it. "We don't talk about it at all. He keeps everything to himself. I think he uses it as motivation. All he cares about is getting better, whether it's watching extra tape or doing extra weight room or throwing extra routes with the receivers."
Sunseri would have to be an idiot not to know what has been said about him. And he's no idiot. It was bad last season, not just from fans and media, but from the despicable Graham, who also said unconscionably about him, "This is what we have to work with." That prompted Wannstedt to tell TribLive Radio, "If [Sunseri] was my son, he would be gone. I would pull him out of there and transfer him. ... In the NFL, you [criticize] a guy who is making $10 million a year. You throw him under the bus and try to run him out of town. But not a 20-, 18-, 19-year-old college kid who had other places to go."
The criticism came in waves again this season after Sunseri missed a couple of deep throws in the loss to Youngstown State and held on to the ball too long at the end of the first half in the loss at Cincinnati, costing Pitt a field goal. He was in no mood Saturday to discuss any of it, his treatment at Pitt or if he regretted not following through on his original commitment to attend Louisville. "I just do my job," he said, tersely. Pressed a second time on the subject, he repeated, "I just do my job."
I'm guessing Sunseri has heard his critics.
Sunseri patiently answered questions about the strong game played by the Pitt offense, including 254 rushing yards, 157 by freshman Rushel Shell, who looked really good. "The player of the game is those guys up front," Sunseri said of the offensive linemen. He also talked about, arguably, his biggest pass of the game, a 13-yard back-shoulder completion to Shanahan on fourth-and-3 at the Virginia Tech 28 midway through the fourth quarter with Pitt leading, 28-17. "[Shanahan] is one of the people you build trust with over time. We've been through that situation many times in practice."
But Sunseri turned sullen again when asked about his leg injury. "I'm fine." He didn't so much as crack a smile at the suggestion he was taking a hockey player's mentality of not acknowledging an injury even though he was on crutches. "I'm fine."
Moments later, Sunseri escaped the postgame interrogation and went to watch Tennessee play Florida on television. His father is Tennessee's defensive coordinator. He figured that was safe, that no one would suggest on the broadcast that he had his spot at Pitt because of his dad.
"I've heard people say that, too," Trebitz said. "I can't believe it. Don't they realize they're talking about a young adult who's just trying to have fun playing a game he's loved since he was 5 years old?"
Sunseri had plenty of fun Saturday on the Heinz Field lawn. Good for him.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.