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They went on that year to play in the 1997 Division II college championship game. But 4,000-student New Haven, the smallest school to advance to the playoffs, lost 51-0 to Northern Colorado.
Sparano left in 1999 for the NFL, taking an assistant's job in Cleveland. It was another in a long list of unexpectedly big risks.
The skies were gray when Sparano trotted onto the field at Land Shark Stadium on December 6 for the game against New England. Support for the 5-6 Dolphins was waning, and there seemed to be more blue Patriots jerseys in the crowd of 70,102 than at most games when the Patriots come to town. Sparano, faced with the possibility of a lost season, decided to make what for him was a drastic change: Instead of the usual teal windbreaker, he donned a white jacket with orange trim and Dolphins across his chest in teal.
It didn't fit well and made his squat figure bell-shaped as he trotted the sideline carrying a laminated list of plays. As the game began, Sparano stood near the 30-yard line, away from the pack of players and coaches in the center of the field. Generally, he doesn't interact much with them during the game, but when things go wrong, he shouts to nobody. On this day, things went wrong often, particularly at the beginning of the game.
During the first half, Sparano kept his Dolphins entirely conservative. He ordered a screen pass on third and long. The team's two scoring drives included no wildcat plays, no Hail Mary passes by quarterback Chad Henne, and no double reverses. By halftime, they were down 21-10, and it seemed clear Sparano would need to take risks if he wanted to beat his division rival.
It wasn't the kind of performance expected from a man who for decades has pledged to be more prepared than the other coach. Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano says Sparano will watch every detail of a play in practice, right down to a blocker not even near the ball, until it's run perfectly. "There are certain situations where he's going to take a risk," Fasano says. "But if he does, he knows it's because it works and it can win games."
Sparano joined the Browns in 1999 as the "offensive quality control" coach. It was a nebulous position without much authority, something many former college head coaches — who are often control freaks — might have difficulty accepting. But Menard, who joined the Browns that same year as a free agent, says Sparano embraced it. "People loved him in Cleveland," Menard recalls. "His integrity is everything, and people saw that."
Sparano spent the next eight years mostly in low-level positions in Cleveland, Washington, and Jacksonville. He landed in Dallas in 2003 as offensive line coach, and Cowboys general manager Bill Parcells immediately took a liking to his need for preparation. Sparano gave his players "homework" after each game. "You had to write up every player you were playing against," he says. "I don't care who it was. If the guy was coming out of the stands, you needed to know it, and you needed to put it on that card and tell me what his strengths and weakness are, then go back and fill in that card at the end of the ball game and tell me how he played you and you played him."
In 2008, the Dolphins brought in Parcells to run football operations, and he quickly hired Sparano to take over a team that had won just a game under head-coach bust Cam Cameron.
In the third contest of the season against the Patriots, Sparano's team surprised New England by running plays from the wildcat. Running back Ronnie Brown lined up where a quarterback usually stands. Williams lined up as a receiver, and so did quarterback Chad Pennington. Usually Brown ran straight up the middle, but sometimes he handed off to Williams, and occasionally he dropped back to pass. Brown scored four times from the wildcat against the confused Patriots defense, three running and one passing. It was the first time the wildcat had been used that frequently in the NFL, and it helped the Dolphins to a 38-13 upset that sparked an 11-5 season.
The Dolphins capped it all off with a win over the Jets to end the regular season atop the division. They were the first team in the NFL to go from a one-win season to the playoffs. The Dolphins went down 20-3 to Baltimore in the first round, but Sparano missed being named coach of the year by only one vote — quite a feat for a guy who, just a decade earlier, was at lowly Division II New Haven.
Fans loved him that year, and so did the players. His team talks about how he can hear a ball drop in practice while he's in the middle of another conversation and how he uses few words to get his point across. Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell puts it this way: "He's got that Italian demeanor about him. He's fiery and right to the point."
This year, fans have had fewer reasons to love him. Going into the New England game, the Dolphins had an outside chance of making the playoffs. Losing would likely end any hopes.