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Checkmate: Bama’s Saban Takes Thompson Back From UT’s Dooley

The SEC can be a pretty wild place on occasion.  But here’s one that’s out of the ordinary even for this conference.

On Friday, Tennessee’s Derek Dooley announced that he had hired Alabama linebackers coach and assistant head coach Sal Sunseri to be his new defensive coordinator at Tennessee.

During his press conference, he said he didn’t view it as grabbing a guy from his old boss (Saban) because of the nature of the job and the title involved.  It was a step up for Sunseri.

“I told Nick when I called him that it is a hard call because it wasn’t about a Tennessee and Alabama deal… And I was really pleased at how professionally he handled it.  And we have a friendship, too.  So that will never get compromised.  It wasn’t about Tennessee taking anything from Alabama.”

Hold that thought.  Ominously, Dooley also offered this up regarding the relief he felt in making an important coordinator hire:

“You catch your breath for about 30 seconds.  And that’s about how long you got at Tennessee before something else is on the way.”

Fast forward from Friday to Sunday evening — a tad longer than 30 seconds — when news broke that Saban and Alabama were hiring Tennessee defensive line coach Lance Thompson as Sunseri’s replacement.  Presto chango, Dooley’s now lost his sixth assistant this offseason and he’s once again got three holes to fill with signing day fast approaching.

One wonders if Saban called Dooley to simply say, “Checkmate.”

You see, Thompson was on Saban’s staff in Tuscaloosa before joining Lane Kiffin in Knoxville in 2009.  When Kiffin left, Thompson was one of three assistants who didn’t head to Southern Cal with him and one of two (along with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney) who remained at Tennessee.

When Thompson left Bama, Saban hired — wait for it — Sunseri to replace him.  So it’s no wonder Thompson wasn’t thrilled about being passed over for the Vols’ defensive coordinator job… for the guy who replaced him with the Tide.  (Now you see why we hinted at Thompson’s potential departure several times last week.)

Thompson had to look at the situation and wonder if he’d just kept his job on Saban’s staff in 2009 if he wouldn’t have been Dooley’s target for D-coordinator this time around.  He’d also have a pair of BCS title rings.

While Sunseri is getting a promotion to move to Knoxville, Thompson appears to be making a lateral shift.  If he’s given Sunseri’s old “assistant head coach” title it would make the move appear to be at least some form of promotion.  (As if going from a troubled staff at struggling Tennessee to a stable staff at national champ Alabama weren’t promotion enough.)

So now, Tennessee is back trying to fill three vacancies on its staff:

Charlie Baggett — retired (replaced by Jay Graham)
Eric Russell — left for Washington State (open)
Justin Wilcox — left for Washington (replaced by Sunseri)
Peter Sirmon — left for Washington (open)
Harry Hiestand — left for Notre Dame (replaced by Sam Pittman)
Lance Thompson — left for Alabama (open)

And that’s not all the shifting.  Offensive coordinator Chaney will move from running backs to quarterbacks next season.  Quarterback coach Darrin Hinshaw will take over Baggett’s old receivers coaching position.  And Graham will handle the running backs spot given up by Chaney.

So Dooley finally has a roster with depth and experience, but heading into what many believe will be a make or break year, the positive possibilities might be offset by turmoil and turnover on his staff.

Meanwhile, Saban is simply plugging holes because who wouldn’t want to get the words “Alabama” and “Saban” on their resume?  Thompson will get his old job back and replace Sunseri.  Jim McElwain’s old offensive coordinator slot remains open, but sources in Tuscaloosa suggest Washington offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is close to being named McElwain’s replacement.

At Alabama, when one door closes, another one opens.  At Tennessee, when one door opens, Dooley has to check to make sure its not a trapdoor beneath his feet.



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