Sparano died on July 22, 2018. He was 56 years young. I wanted to do a piece on him for a while but it never seemed like the right time until now. In this trend of first-time head coaches with a few stipulations here and there, Sparano was third in that regard and the second in a row who was offensive-minded. He was a head coach at the college level at his alma mater, New Haven from 1994-1998, but the Dolphins was his first NFL head coaching gig. The reason I am writing about him is because really the Miami Dolphins was his first and only major job until his death and his departure from this franchise was awkward.
He was the Head Coach for the Miami Dolphins from 2008-2011. He was named interim Head Coach for the Oakland Raiders in 2014 when then-Dennis Allen was fired after the Raiders got off to 0-4 start but his career was probably best known with the Dolphins. He was the offensive line coach for the Vikings from 2016-2017 and was going to continue to be a part of the organization until he got sick. Coincidentally, the Dolphins just played the Vikings and his son, Tony Sparano, Jr., is an assistant coach with the Jaguars who the Dolphins are getting ready to play at home this week. If you see him, give him a standing ovation, will you, my fellow Dolphin fans? The family has been through a lot this year.
Here’s what I remember about Tony Sparano. He had a good repertoire with players. I remember players coming over to him all the time, giving him hugs, including Jason Taylor. You know, after Taylor did a short stint with the Jets, he decided to come back and play for him. He was a hard worker. Lost a lot of weight during his time with the Dolphins. I think he possessed some leadership traits as a motivator. He wasn’t an overly, passionate guy. I mean, he had his moments but he had mostly had a demeanor that was calm, cool, and collected. Some Dolphin fans would mock him for his “fist-pumping for field goals” approach. Others before they knew about his medical condition with his eyes would tease him for adopting the “Miami Lifestyle” because he always wore sunglasses even during night games. He had a medical condition that had something to do with sensitivity to light and that’s why he wore shades.
I will be talking a lot more about this inexperience binge of coaches we have been on in more detail in a future article but just want to touch on a few highlights during Sparano’s time in Miami. He is the only coach of the last 5 coaches hired that had a better record on the road then at home. (16-14 overall) In terms of how well he coached in the division, it’s worth noting that he coached the team that swept the 2009 New York Jets who happened to make it all the way to the AFC Championship game that year. In his 7 meetings with the Buffalo Bills, he compiled a 5-2 record against them. Definitely struggled against the Patriots though, as he had a 2-4 record. I promise to go more in detail about this later but that is all I am giving for now.
I figure most Dolphin fans know this story but let me just tell you a little bit about the fall of Tony Sparano in Miami. Steve Ross had just bought the team back in 2008 which was the same time that the Sparano regime was hired by former Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga. Ross didn’t officially become the principal owner until 2009. I guess, he bought half the team in 2008 and then, agreed to pay the other half in 2009 for a total of $1.1 billion. Ross had never been an NFL owner before and he just with his enthusiasm, rubbed people the wrong way. But the bottom line was this: he did not choose this regime; he did not choose Tony Sparano and we can theorize until we are blue in the face why he ultimately ended up gutting it out with these guys as long as he did but he was not shy to make some changes down the road. 2010 rolls around and somewhere in all that, it was leaked out by the media that Ross was holding secret meetings with then-Stanford coach, Jim Harbaugh with former Dolphins GM, Jeff Ireland in an effort to become the new head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Harbaugh, who was looking to take his career to the NFL turned him down because Tony Sparano was still in Ross’s employ. Ross, embarrassed, gave Sparano a contract extension and trying to save face, stated that Sparano was his guy. Basically, he alienated him. Now, Ross has since then, stated that he shouldn’t have handled that the way he did. I hope he had a chance before his death to apologize to Sparano but that is the story with that. It wasn’t fair to Sparano and he really was in a bad situation because I think he was planning to work with Huizenga and sometimes in any job, there is a change that you have no control over and I got to give Sparano props for not taking the easy way out and quit. That is how I choose to remember him and I wish him and his family many blessings.