Tony Sparano only got a chance to be an NFL head coach for a brief time. Yet, he accomplished an impressive feat with the Miami Dolphins that has yet to be matched. And despite eventually losing his job, Sparano stuck around the NFL as a valuable assistant coach.
However, the Minnesota Vikings and the football community experienced tragedy in 2018 when the 56-year-old suddenly died while getting ready for church. While he may be gone, Tony Sparano left behind a legacy as a highly-respected coach by his players and his peers. Here’s his story.
Tony Sparano made magic in his first year with the Miami Dolphins
Tony Sparano dedicated his life to the game of football. The Connecticut native starred at Division II University of New Haven before embarking on his coaching career. After grinding away at the college level, he worked his way up the NFL food chain, where he eventually became the assistant head coach and offensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys.
As one of Bill Parcells’ trusted pupils, the no-nonsense coach got his first crack at a head coaching gig when the Dolphins brought him on board in 2008. Sparano faced a tall task in turning around a team that went 1-15 the year prior.
Without a franchise-caliber quarterback on the roster, Sparano and his staff unveiled the Wildcat offense. The new-look formation relied heavily on Miami’s talented running back duo of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Defenses struggled to adjust to the creative scheme.
In particular, the proudest moment of Sparano’s coaching career came in just his third game as a head coach. Facing Bill Belichick and the typically well-prepared Patriots, the Dolphins shredded their AFC East rival to the tune of 38 points on 216 rushing yards.
Though many will point to Tom Brady’s absence as a contributing factor, the Dolphins still won the AFC East for the first time since 2000. Though Tony Sparano’s team fell in the first round of the playoffs, that 2008 Dolphins squad remains the only team to steal the division crown from the Patriots since 2002.
Sparano still stuck around the NFL after getting fired
An 11-5 season and division title should have set Tony Sparano up for future success. Unfortunately, the Wildcat offense couldn’t make up for some of the team’s deficiencies. The Dolphins posted back-to-back 7-9 records before getting off to an ugly 4-9 start in 2011. Miami fired Sparano after a Week 14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Despite losing his head coaching job, that didn’t stop the football lifer from landing on his feet. In fact, he didn’t have to leave the AFC East at all. Sparano spent one year as the offensive coordinator for the New York Jets. The following year, he became the assistant head coach and offensive line coach for the Oakland Raiders.
Once Dennis Allen got axed as head coach, Sparano got promoted to interim head coach. Unfortunately, the Raiders went just 3-9 under his watch, which put Sparano back on the job market. Following a one-year stint as the tight ends coach for the San Francisco 49ers, he latched on with the Vikings as Mike Zimmer’s offensive line coach.
It turned out to be the last job Sparano would ever have.
Vikings offensive line coach tragically died while getting ready for church
Everything appeared to be heading in the right direction for Tony Sparano from a career standpoint. The Vikings went from an 8-8 team to a 13-3 juggernaut by his second season in Minnesota. Even after getting walloped in the NFC Championship, the Vikings entered the summer of 2018 with plenty of optimism about the future of the franchise.
Then tragedy struck.
Just days after being hospitalized for chest pains, Sparano died on July 22 in his home in Eden Prairie, Minn. The hospital had released him after conducting tests, yet the veteran NFL coach never lived to see his 57th birthday.
According to ESPN, Sparano’s wife, Jeanette, found him unconscious that morning as the family prepared to leave for church. She could not revive her husband. The Hennepin (Minn.) County Medical Examiner determined Sparano died due to arteriosclerotic heart disease.
After his death, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross released a statement that said, “Tony made an indelible impact on our team’s history and his toughness, grit and leadership were evident to everyone who had the chance to coach with or play for him. On behalf of the entire Dolphins organization, we extend our most heartfelt condolences to his wife Jeanette and the entire Sparano family.”