Miami Dolphins' Tony Sparano is a conservative coach who takes huge risks

Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano stomped off the team plane at 10 o'clock the night of November 29. The round-faced 48-year-old was still wearing the clothes he requires every game day: white cap, white long-sleeved T-shirt, green windbreaker, and pleated khaki pants. Six hours before, the team had lost to the pitiful Buffalo Bills, and it was time for Sparano to begin beating himself up.

The coach planned to follow his usual routine after a loss and head straight to his office to review game tape. But Jeanette, his wife of 25 years who was also on the plane, persuaded him to drop off his bags at home. Then he drove seven miles across town to the Dolphins' training facility, where he sequestered himself in his dark office, a place he rarely allows outsiders. He plopped his stout frame in front of the TV set, which was illuminated by the game tape playing as if on a loop.

The coach had one particularly dreadful play to analyze. It had happened during the opening drive, when Miami appeared ready to score. The offense had lined up in the wildcat formation, meaning there was no quarterback in the backfield. Running back Ricky Williams took the hike and ran to his right. Williams had been running well, but this time he heaved the ball right into the hands of a Buffalo player in the end zone. That throw had cost the Dolphins a touchdown and perhaps the game.

Jeanette (right) signed off on Tony's giving up a high-paying job for his first gig in coaching.
Doug Murray/Icon SMI
Jeanette (right) signed off on Tony's giving up a high-paying job for his first gig in coaching.
Bill Parcells (right) took Sparano with him from Dallas to Miami.
James D. Smith/Icon SMI
Bill Parcells (right) took Sparano with him from Dallas to Miami.

Sparano watched the play over and over all through the night.

At his news conference the next day, it was hard to say whether he was angry; he often looks incensed. His mouth curved downward, bringing his thick mustache with it, and his eyes carried a distinct feeling of disappointment. He strode to the podium without saying a word, avoiding eye contact with the two dozen reporters and cameramen. When his glasses slipped down his nose, he pushed them up in the middle with his thumb and forefinger.

Then he talked about the need to succeed on "momentum plays," like the Williams one.

As for the team, he said it was time to regroup. "I'll explain to them where we are right now... what we have in front of us... and how we're going to go about doing it."

Afterward, it was back to the game tape. Sparano didn't allow Jeanette to deliver any food that day. He ate her chicken cutlet — his favorite dish — only when he finally arrived home around 10 o'clock Tuesday night.

He dozed and then returned to his dark office again at 3:30 Wednesday morning. By Wednesday afternoon, Jeanette figured Sparano had slept just three hours in two days. "I don't know how he does it," she says, "but as far as I can tell, he doesn't sleep most of the season."

It's no surprise Sparano fixated on that one play during the week leading up to the December 6 game against New England. He's an obsessive-compulsive who relies on routines. When things don't go as planned, it consumes him.

Though Sparano is a conservative coach, he has also been known to take huge risks. Take, for instance, the time two decades ago when he gave up a high-paying job to earn pennies an hour at his first football gig. Then there was last year, when he introduced the wildcat and nailed the hated Patriots.

But life as a pro coach is precarious. It's unclear how long he'll continue in the role of Dolphins head man. As he prepared for that Patriots game two weeks ago, he faced the real possibility that his second season would be a failure — and a loss would likely have meant missing the playoffs. The question was whether he would go against his instincts and take big risks.

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It's Wednesday, four days before the Dolphins' shootout with the Patriots, and Jeanette hasn't seen her husband for more than a half-hour since the team returned from Buffalo. She has just returned from handing out presents at a children's hospital with the wives of players and coaches. She stands in the training facility's lobby, surrounded by trophy cases filled with Dan Marino footballs, a Bob Griese jersey, and the division championship banner her husband won last year.

As she tells the receptionist about the event at the hospital, Tony strides down the stairwell that wraps along the west wall. He's headed to his near-daily news conference, an event he abhors. He's already bitter from the Buffalo loss; now he has to deal with a horde of reporters. She waves, bending only the tops of her fingers; he nods without saying a word.

For Jeanette, it has always been this way during the season. Unlike Tony, she regularly wears a wide grin. She has a bob of chestnut hair that's shorter in the back and a motherly way that's both coddling and confident. She's pretty enough that a couple of kids at the hospital asked if she was a cheerleader.

The Sparanos grew up together in West Haven, Connecticut, a working-class suburb of rundown New Haven. They began dating when she was 13 and he was 16. He played center for the high school football team but stopped growing at five-foot-ten, so his options for college ball were limited. His fallback plan was to become a cop, so he enrolled as a criminology major at the University of New Haven, a third-tier football program. Despite being undersize, Sparano started as a freshman.

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