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Two days later, on the Friday before the New England game, Sparano took time off from studying game tape to stop by a reunion of New Haven players at Hugh's Culinary, a catering facility in Oakland Park. About 70 of his former charges showed up to eat curried shrimp, beef tenderloin, and molten lava cake. Sparano and Jeanette stayed for about an hour. Last year, the New Haven alumni met up at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, and then Sparano had a few of them back to his house. It was like old times, except that now, the Sparanos live in a $1.7 million home in the gated Stone Brook Estates. But this year, there would be no afterparty on Friday; things weren't going as well this year for the Dolphins.
For Sparano, going out on a Friday is a luxury. In the offseason, he sees movies with Jeanette. They saw The Boys From Brazil with Gregory Peck on their first date. In season, though, it's rare — the last one was Saw IV in October.
The former New Haven players who attend the yearly dinner are Sparano disciples. Many are converts who initially thought him too conservative or eccentric. One of these is Dave Menard, who played defensive end for Sparano and now lives across the street from his old coach. Menard was a redshirt freshman the year Sparano took over, so he didn't travel with the team for its first loss of the season at Abilene Christian University in Texas. But he recalls that three days after the 27-16 loss, on a Tuesday, the players attended a mandatory four-hour study hall. Sparano walked in a few minutes late and randomly picked out six players, including Menard.
The coach ordered the six to walk outside with him. Sparano chewed gum like he was in a hurry, just as he always does. The players were dressed formally because they planned to hit the bars after study hall. They headed for a grassy hill nearby that was slick with mud.
Sparano then told the six to do up-downs — an exercise in which you jump to the ground, do a pushup, jump back up, jog in place, and repeat. Ten will wear you out; 20 will exhaust you. Sparano ordered them to do 100.
"Some of the guys didn't finish. Some of them threw up," Menard recalls. "Then he told us to go back inside. And we just sat there for the next three hours, covered in sweat and mud. Our clothes were ruined. I was just fuming."
Awhile later, Menard got the point: Every player would buy into Sparano's system or they all would suffer. "He broke me that day," Menard recalls. "I mean, he just broke me."
Other players bought in later, perhaps as a result of other torture. There were the 100-degree-plus days on the dusty practice field. Firefighters would come out and spray their hoses above the players as they worked. After days like that, Menard recalls kids quitting the program by sneaking out in the middle of the night. "We called them night riders. We'd wake up the next day and they'd be gone."
When Sparano talks football, it can seem like his only mood is bad. Mario Didino, who played offensive line at New Haven, recalls one team meeting after a loss when a player was goofing off in the back of the room. The coach stopped for a minute, looked at the kid, and then put his fist through the wall. "The whole place, you could hear a pin drop," Didino says. "I'm a big guy, six-four with spare change, and I was scared after that meeting."
Sparano also showed a softer side at New Haven. When the team played the rival Owls of Southern Connecticut State, Sparano dressed one of his assistant coaches in an owl outfit and sent him up to the roof of a building next to the practice field. He'd show up during practice, hooting around up there, recalls Jesse Showerda, who played quarterback. "You wouldn't know it looking at him in those press conferences, but [Sparano] really does have a sense of humor," Showerda says.
The night before road games, when New Haven was holed up in a hotel, Sparano showed movies to his players, often his favorite: Braveheart. When the team traveled for a game against University of California-Davis, Sparano assembled them the night before in a conference room. The players were expecting a movie, but instead Sparano turned off the lights. He said nothing for five minutes. Nobody talked. Finally, the coach launched into a speech about his favorite themes, which usually included this line: "I want to teach you football, but I also want to teach you to be a better man."
Menard recalls, "I can't imagine anything more inspirational. I'm getting goose bumps right now just talking about it."
At New Haven, Sparano developed his system of conservative play with occasional big gambles. For instance, the coach pulled something new for a playoff game against Edinboro University. It was a simple trap — where an offensive lineman drops back, tricking the defensive linemen into following him. The running back then bolts through the hole. New Haven had never run it before, so breaking it out in a big game was risky. "We ran that play five times, four of them for big gains, and two of them went for touchdowns," Showerda remembers. "That was just Sparano coming up with something to win."