Tony Sparano, whose first season as Miami Dolphins head coach turned into one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NFL history, died on Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings announced.
Sparano was 56.
The Vikings didn’t announce a cause of death, but ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter Tweeted Sunday afternoon that Sparano had chest pains Thursday but doctors released him from the hospital Friday after running some tests. Sparano and wife Jeannette Sparano were leaving for church, Schefter reports, when she found him unconscious.
He’s survived by Jeannette Sparano and adult children Anthony Sparano, Andrew Sparano and Ryan Leigh Sparano.
Sparano bookended offensive tackle Jake Long’s NFL career. He was Long’s first NFL head coach after the Dolphins made Long the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and was Minnesota’s offensive line coach when Long’s career ended with four Vikings games in 2016.
“I am at such a loss for words and beyond saddened to hear about the passing of Coach Sparano,” Long Tweeted. “He meant so much to me. I respected the way he coached, the way he loved football and how he approached the game. Most of all, I respected the way he loved his family so much and how good of a father he was.
“He was the first to believe in me in the NFL, the first to give me my shot, the only one who always stood by me through thick and thin throughout my career and the last one to believe in me my last year in the league. He taught me so much and I am so grateful for him. I’m humbled and honored to have known him and played for him. I love you coach. RIP.”
Sparano coached the Dallas Cowboys offensive line before Bill Parcells brought him to the Dolphins in January 2008 after Parcells’ hiring as vice president in charge of football operations. In Sparano’s only previous head coaching job, he’d gone 41-14-4 in five seasons at his alma mater, NCAA Division II New Haven.
Never would Sparano’s NFL coaching life be more gilded than that first season with the Dolphins. The AFC East’s quarterback situation worked out perfectly for the Dolphins -- the Jets signed Brett Favre and cut veteran quarterback Chad Pennington, who the Dolphins scooped up like a game-saving fumble. New England lost Tom Brady for the season in the first game.
Pennington led an offense historically light on turnovers that got spiced up when Sparano OK’d usage of the “Wildcat” formation, with running back Ronnie Brown taking the snap. A Wildcat-based 38-13 upset blowout of New England (after which Patriots coach Bill Belichick declared he got “outcoached,”) started a stunning reversal after an 0-2 start. The Dolphins beat the Jets on the season’s final Sunday to win the AFC East with an 11-5 record just one season after going 1-15. It’s still the only season, 2003 to present, that New England didn’t win the division.
The Dolphins only playoff appearance in the 14-season span from 2002-2015 lasted only the length of 27-9 home playoff beating by Baltimore. The rest of Sparano’s time with the Dolphins, the team suffered from the causal infections of mediocrity — draft pick failures, ineffective quarterback play, injuries, questionable personnel moves and in-game strategy.
Critics of Sparano’s overall in-game conservatism ridiculed that he’d give a celebratory fist pump even to field goals in an NFL increasingly dominated by high-scoring offenses. He defended his approach in a voice lightly roughed up and accented by his Connecticut roots and behind omnipresent sunglasses. He wore them even indoors as protection for eyes damaged by a work accident during his teen years.
The Dolphins finished 7-9 in 2009 and 2010. Though the 2010 team bungled its playoff chances with late season home losses to Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit, Sparano got a two-year contract extension after Dolphins management bungled the offseason.
Team owner Stephen Ross unintentionally humiliated Sparano with an indiscreet search for a new head coach while Sparano still had the job. After a pair of 7-9s, nobody saw the extension as anything but makeup jewelry.
The Dolphins ate that extension when they fired Sparano during the 2011 season. The team was 4-9.
Sparano bounced from the Jets (offensive coordinator) to Oakland (assistant head coach and offensive line coach) to San Francisco (tight ends coach) to Minnesota. He’d be Oakland’s interim coach in 2014 after the Raiders fired Dennis Allen.