The outpouring of heartfelt condolences from players old and young, active and retired, who played under Tony Sparano at any point during his two-decade coaching career in the NFL says everything you need to know.
The Vikings offensive line coach, who died suddenly Sunday morning at the age of 56, was as hard-nosed as the position he spent most of his life playing and coaching. But at every stop from quality control assistant to NFL head coach, he formed special relationships with the players he coached. While he might not be your prototypical players’ coach, but “he is beloved by everybody that plays for him,” was how one of his former linemen, Ross Tucker, once described him.
Sparano died just days before reporting to what would have been his 20th NFL training camp. ESPN reported that Sparano was about to leave for church with his wife, Jeanette, when she found him unconscious in their kitchen; he’d complained of chest pains late last week and went to the hospital to have tests, but he was released on Friday. The Vikings put out a statement, noting Sparano’s deep love for his family.
Sparano reached the top of the coaching ladder as the Dolphins head coach from 2008–11, where he worked under Bill Parcells, his foremost coaching mentor. In his first season with Miami, Sparano turned around a team that had won one game the previous year to division champions, the only coach not named Bill Belichick to win the AFC East in the last 15 years. Sparano also stepped in as the Raiders’ interim head coach in 2014.
No matter where his coaching career took him—a winding road that started as the offensive line coach at the University of New Haven, where he had been a four-year letterman at center—his family was the one constant. During Sparano’s one-year stint as the Jets offensive coordinator in 2012, he got to know his quarterback, Mark Sanchez, over dinners prepared by Jeanette. Their daughter, Ryan, taught him how to text so that he could communicate with his players. And both of their sons followed in dad’s footsteps: Tony Jr., is an assistant tight ends coach for the Jaguars, and Andrew is the offensive coordinator/offensive line coach at Feather River JC in California. Sparano leaves behind four grandchildren.
During Sparano’s stint with the Cowboys from 2003–07, he had a habit of standing 15 yards behind a play on the practice field. When the offensive linemen would open up holes just like he’d drawn it up, he’d grin and begin clapping. “Atta baby, ehhh!” He took great satisfaction in a good run game, and even greater satisfaction in helping put his players in a position to succeed.
Sparano faced many tumultuous situations in his coaching career—big personalities in Dallas, an 0-7 start to his final season in Miami and taking over as the Oakland interim head coach four games into the 2014 season. But his straightforward, no-nonsense demeanor was a stabilizing force in each locker room. Like a parent, he was hard on his players when he had to be, but always made sure they knew how much he cared.
“Coach believed in me, trusted me, and stuck with me as a rookie,” Raiders QB Derek Carr wrote on Twitter. “He would check on my family every HC and QB meeting we would have.” Former Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater also posted:
Sparano’s most distinctive attributes might have been his thick New England accent, or the dark sunglasses he wore even indoors as the result of a cooking accident while working at a fast-food restaurant as a teen. But the way he treated his players was his most important and significant attribute as a coach—and he will be remembered by that after his passing.