It only took Tony Sparano 24 years to become an overnight sensation.
“I take my time,” he said once, his climb complete. “But I try to get it right.”
He toiled in coaching anonymity at the University of New Haven and Boston University and then as an assistant with four NFL teams before getting his big break in Miami in 2008. And his first season leading a team as a pro head coach was the proverbial dream come true. He took over a Dolphins team that had gone 1-15 under one-year blunder Cam Cameron and led it to an 11-5 season and AFC East title. OK, yes, that was partly thanks to Tom Brady’s season-erasing injury for New England, but Sparano had paid enough dues by then to have earned the break.
Astonishingly, though, despite leading a 10-win turnaround that tied an all-time league record, Sparano was not named NFL Coach of the Year, losing by one vote to Atlanta’s Mike Smith.
Privately, it crushed him. Shocked him. Hurt him. But he wouldn’t let on.
“I still can’t believe it, but you can’t write that,” I remember him telling me the next summer. “I don’t want it to take anything away from Mike. It isn’t about me, anyway.”
I share that now because it reveals a bit of the character of the man we just lost.
Sparano died suddenly and unexpectedly on Sunday at age 56 at his home in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, days from opening Vikings training camp for his third season as offensive-line coach.
He had complained of chest pains three days earlier and been checked at a hospital and released. He was at the kitchen table. He and Jeanette were about to leave for church when he collapsed. She attempted CPR as she called 911. He leaves behind his wife, two sons, a daughter, and four grandchildren.
He brings with him the admiration of all who knew him as the no-nonsense bulldog of a coach noted for wearing sunglasses indoors or at night — not to look cool, but because a hot-oil explosion as a teenager working at a fast-food restaurant nearly blinded him and forever left his eyes extra sensitive to light.
“He was a grinder of a worker,” said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer.
That’s high praise in the NFL. Grinder. He was blue collar, not pedigreed. His break in Miami was an anomaly. He wasn’t meant to be at a podium trying to be glib for the cameras. He was most at home as the behind-the-scenes guy working with his blockers or tight ends. After his 2008-11 stint in Miami (fired with three games left in the ‘11 season), Sparano never was a head coach again except for an interim stint with Oakland in 2014. But he always worked. This would have been his 20th consecutive NFL season.
Sparano coached 61 games with Miami. Only Don Shula, Dave Wannstedt, and Jimmy Johnson coached more.
He was best-known for the 2008 rookie-season turnaround led by the Wildcat formation that became (briefly) an NFL thing.
Later, he was known for the way he was treated toward the end of his Dolphins tenure. It was not owner Stephen Ross’ finest hour.
After the 2010 season, Ross and then-GM Jeff Ireland flew across country to woo Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh, also reaching out to Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher — while their sitting coach, Sparano, twisted in the wind. Sparano would be given the olive branch of a contract extension only to be fired 13 games into the next season.
He could have blasted his treatment toward the end. Instead, he thanked the Dolphins for the opportunity, moved on, and crawled back into the comfortable anonymity of an assistant’s life.
Sparano used to joke about having heard every reference possible to how his name was so similar to that of Tony Soprano, the popular television character of the time. The name, and those sunglasses, made him memorable. So did the work ethic of a good-guy grinder.
He once explained the sunglasses by saying, “Bright light causes my eyes to start running, tearing and crying.”
His passing has caused the same reaction in others as they come to grips with the loss.