When Tony Sparano was hired, the only thing I knew about him as a fan was the corny spoof on his name sounding like Tony Soprano on ESPN Countdown.
At the time he was a little known coach of America’s team-the Dallas Cowboys.
Not only was Sparano little known, he happened to be coaching with Bill Parcells after coaching at New Haven.
Sparano, however, while cutting his teeth with the Cowboys as an offensive line coach happened to be hand picked by a gentleman Dolphins fans would prefer to forget-Jeff Ireland-then an Assistant in the scouting department for the Cowboys.
Here was Tony Sparano and while Miami beat reporters wanted to know his backstory, fans wondered openly if he was just another “yes man” spun in the web of Bill Parcells, football czar of the Dolphins.
Enter week 3 of the 2008 season, Dolphins and Patriots and the birth of the Wildcat.
Despite some painful losses to start the season, the Sparano Dolphins were big and tough and Chad Pennington looked like the real QB the Dolphins were seeking.
However, it was former Dolphin coach Nick Saban who had drafted a running back out of Auburn named Ronnie Brown. Until this point, the role for Brown was always catching passes out of the backfield and going on some long runs, but this time, he led the offense as a QB in the WildCat-an offense predicated on a running back running the ball on a draw play-direct snap or throwing a pass.
Credit goes to quarterbacks coach David Lee for concocting the plan with Sparano on the team flight after a tough road loss.
Sparano’s willingness to gamble and work on executing the unexpected for the Patriots paid off in a major way and saved the Dolphins season to the tune of 38-13 over the hated (Tom Brady-less) Patriots.
More importantly the Dolphins supplanted predictions in going from a 1-15 season with Cam Cameron to 11-5, winning the division, and making the playoffs-the pinnacle of Coach Sparano’s career.
After the big road win in Foxboro, Sparano with tears in his eyes said one thing that stuck with me as a fan that meant the world-A Dolphins beat reporter asked him if these guys are your guys-he said with conviction in his Hartford accent-“All of these guys are my guys.”
At that point, Sparano and his football team rolled and had an answer for every defensive lapse with the WildCat which lasted into the early part of the 2009 season where it became halted for good.
Sparano, as a man was clearly not buying into the too -famous to-care role. Directly after the Dolphins had succumbed a tough playoff loss to Joe Flacco and the Ravens in front of a packed house at Dolphin Stadium, Sparano walked out of his office and greeted fans waiting across from the parking lot adjacent to the practice facility-Sparano walked out and thanked them.
Until his final days, Sparano will always be remembered for his spark as a coach that wherever he went -those guys on the 53 were always his guys. He demonstrated positivity and no challenge was too big and no task too large.
Sparano was often the fall guy after Dolphins losses and while the Dolphins couldn’t always shine offensively, he always took pride in getting the Dolphins playing better week in and week out.
Tony Sparano, we wish you prayers up to your entire family who I’m sure you know will always love you more than the game itself.
Thank you Tony.
Peace to you Tony.
Photo credit: Palm Beach Post