No cause of death has been released. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that he had chest pains on Thursday. He was kept overnight for testing and sent home. Schefter reported Sparano’s wife, Jeannette, found him unconscious as they were preparing to leave for church.
Vikings owners Mark and Zygi Wilf issued a statement.
“Our hearts go out to Jeanette and the entire Sparano family as we all mourn the loss of Tony. Tony was a passionate and driven individual who cared deeply about his family, especially enjoyed spending time with his children and grandchildren,” the statement read. “Tony’s presence within the Vikings organization will be missed. We are only thinking of Tony’s family during his difficult time. We ask that the entire NFL and Vikings family keep the Sparanos in their thoughts.”
Anthony Joseph Sparano III was born Oct. 7, 1961 in West Haven, Conn. He was a four-year letterman at center (1978-81) for the University of New Haven, a Division II college in West Haven. He graduated in 1984 with a degree in criminal justice.
Sparano’s coaching career began at his alma mater, serving four seasons as the offensive line coach (1984-87) before moving on to Division I-AA (now known as FCS) Boston University. He spent a season as the Terriers’ offensive line coach (1988) before his promotion to offensive coordinator.
Sparano was Boston University’s offensive coordinator for five seasons (1989-93) before he returned to become the head coach at New Haven. The Chargers had two Division II playoff appearances in his five seasons (1994-98) as head coach.
In 1997, New Haven was the highest scoring team in Division II with an average of 42.8 points per game. The Chargers’ defense was second in D-II surrendering only 11.6 points per game. That season, New Haven lost to Northern Colorado in the Division II Championship Game. New Haven had a record of 41-14-1 under Sparano.
Sparano’s NFL career began in 1999 when the Cleveland Browns returned to the league after a four-year hiatus. He spent two seasons with the Browns as an offensive quality control coach and an offensive line coach. Sparano was part of the Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars coaching staff as a tight ends coach in 2001 and 2002 respectively.
His first big break came when Bill Parcells hired him in 2003 to be a tight ends coach with the Dallas Cowboys. After his stint as a tight ends coach, Sparano was named Cowboys offensive line coach and running game coordinator. He was promoted to Cowboys assistant head coach in 2007.
Sparano’s first NFL head coaching position came when Parcells (then Miami Dolphins executive vice president of football operations) hired him to succeed Cam Cameron in 2008. He took over a team that was 1-15 in 2007, leading them an 11-5 season and the AFC East title in 2008 (one of three times in the 21st century where the AFC East wasn’t won by the New England Patriots).
The stars all fell into alignment for Sparano and the Dolphins in 2008. Tom Brady was lost for the season in the first regular season game. Brett Favre signed with the New York Jets, who released Chad Pennington. The Dolphins promptly signed Pennington for his strong, accurate arm but the real success came with the implementation of the Wildcat offense.
In the Wildcat offense, the ball is snapped to a player besides the quarterback. With the 2008 Dolphins, that player was usually running back Ronnie Brown. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick grudgingly admitted Sparano “outcoached” him in a 38-13 loss after Miami implemented the Wildcat following their two losses to open the season. The Dolphins defeated Favre and the Jets in the regular season finale to secure the division crown. Pennington became the only player in NFL history to win the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award twice (he previously won in 2006 with the Jets).
The Dolphins’ success using the Wildcat formation led to other teams attempting to adopt their own version of it without much success.
Sparano became the only head coach in NFL history who led a team to a division title after a one-win season. He is one of only two coaches whose team had a 10-game turnaround from the previous season (the other is the elder Jim Mora, whose Indianapolis Colts won three games in 1998 and 13 games in 1999).
Unfortunately for Sparano, the Dolphins went 7-9 in 2009 and 2010. His future with the Dolphins was in doubt entering the 2011 season. The rumors increased when Dolphins owner Stephen Ross flew across the country to meet with then-Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh. Media outlets also reported Ross spoke to two former head coaches turned broadcasters who were linked to every NFL head coaching vacancy at the time: Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden. In spite of the rumors, Sparano signed a two-year extension.
The Dolphins started 2011 with a record of 4-9. He was fired hours after the Dolphins were dismantled 26-10 by the Philadelphia Eagles with three games remaining. Sparano received $9 million in his contract buyout. His record as Dolphins head coach was 29-32 (0-1 postseason). He joined the Jets as offensive coordinator in 2012 but lasted just one season because the offense was ranked 30th overall.
Sparano was hired by the Oakland Raiders in 2013 as an assistant head coach and offensive line coach. He was named interim head coach when Dennis Allen was fired after an 0-4 start in 2014. Sparano didn’t fare much better, going 3-9 in the Raiders’ remaining games and was let go at season’s end. He then moved on to the San Francisco 49ers, spending the 2015 season as a tight ends coach before joining the Vikings in 2016.
Besides his wife, Sparano is survived by sons Tony and Andrew; daughter Ryan Leigh, and four grandchildren.
– Curtis Rawls is a Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage and covers the NFL, the New York Giants, and the NBA. Please like and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Twitter. Curtis can be followed on Twitter @CuRawls203.