When Pitt played Connecticut last season at Heinz Field, quarterback Tino Sunseri passed for 419 yards -- the fourth-highest total in Pitt history -- in a 35-20 win. "Average," coach Todd Graham called the performance. It was a terrible thing to say about a college player, although the despicable Graham spent his only season at Pitt belittling Sunseri for not being a better fit in his -- I swore I wouldn't write this nonsense again -- speed-speed-speed, high-octane offense.
This is relevant this morning for a couple of reasons. One, Pitt plays at Connecticut tonight, badly needing a win after kicking away the game Saturday in triple overtime at Notre Dame. And two, Sunseri spent the week on the other side of the belittling, insinuating that kicker Kevin Harper lost the Notre Dame game by missing a 33-yard field goal in the second overtime.
Sunseri, of all people, should have known better. What he did to Harper was inexcusable, especially as an alleged team leader.
Sunseri needs to enroll in a class in the Roethlisberger Quarterback School of Blame. All quarterbacks would be wise to do it. The Steelers offensive line could allow seven sacks and Ben Roethlisberger will say the big fellas played great and he should have gotten rid of the ball quicker. The Steelers defense could give up 21 fourth-quarter points in a 45-41 loss and Roethlisberger will say he and the offense should have scored another touchdown. If Roethlisberger has said it once, he's said it dozens of times during his career: "Put this loss on me. I need to play better. I'm sorry I let down my teammates, my coaches and the fans."
Roethlisberger gets it.
The quarterback always takes the blame, fair or not.
Mark Malone didn't get that when he played for the Steelers. Neither did Kordell Stewart, who often would say after losses, "It's not just me out there." He was right, of course. Football is the ultimate team game. But you don't say that publicly. It's one reason Stewart never got a fair shake here despite leading the Steelers to two AFC championship games.
Sunseri's comments about Harper were widely criticized, locally by, among many, his coach Paul Chryst, and even nationally. It didn't matter that Sunseri quickly tried to backtrack. The damage was done. It was the last thing he needed at this late stage of his Pitt career. He already was the most maligned athlete in school history for reasons I can't completely understand. He isn't the best quarterback to play at Pitt. Not even close. But he isn't the worst, either.
Who knows how much better he would have been if he hadn't had to play for three head coaches -- not counting Michael "We Hardly Knew You" Haywood and two interims -- and a variety of offensive coordinators?
Sunseri, a fifth-year senior, is no kid. He will be 24 next month. He has been around a long time. Maybe that's a big part of the problem. He has been the quarterback for three years in a program that has largely underachieved. There's a palpable feeling among Pitt fans that a new quarterback is needed for the team to have a chance to be a big winner.
Certainly, Sunseri knows how painful it feels to be ridiculed. That's what made his assessment of Harper after the Notre Dame game so indefensible. Graham buried Sunseri last season, at one point saying of the team's quarterback situation, "This is what we have to work with."
I'm not sure how Graham went home and slept that night. It's one thing for criticism to come from outside the program. It's something much more hurtful when it comes from the coach.
That isn't to say that Sunseri hasn't made big mistakes at the worst times in Pitt losses. The Cincinnati game this season comes to mind. He held on to the ball too long at the end of the first half, allowing the clock to run out and denying Harper a chance to kick a field goal. Then, there was the Syracuse game. Sunseri took an intentional-grounding penalty and a sack, costing Harper a chance to win the game with a late field goal.
I don't remember Harper or any of the other Pitt players saying after those games, "We lost because Tino cracked under the pressure." They knew better than to do that. They were good teammates.
This is a big game tonight for Pitt. OK, relatively speaking.
Pitt needs two wins in its final three games to go 6-6 and become eligible for a third-rate bowl. That, at least, would be something for a team that started the season with a humiliating home loss to Youngstown State.
I'm tempted to say tonight also is a big game for Sunseri after the events of the week, but it's probably too late for that. He could throw for 419 yards again and it won't change his legacy at Pitt.
Sadly, he could lead the team to three wins in a row and another in a bowl and it won't change how he is remembered here.roncook
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.