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.
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.
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.
He had aspirations to play in the NFL but soon surrendered. "There was a point where he had to say, 'Well, I'm not getting taller,'" Jeanette recalls. "And right there, he decided he wanted to be a coach."
Even that plan derailed during his freshman year at New Haven. His grandmother fell ill, so Tony's parents agreed to move closer to her home in Port Orange, near Daytona. The 20-year-old couldn't afford a college dorm, so he moved with them. Soon he took a job as a line cook at the Days Inn near the speedway and enrolled at the University of Central Florida, a 65-mile drive from his parents' new home. He saved up to return to New Haven for the next football season, but by that summer, it was clear he wouldn't have enough to pay for a dorm. He might have tried to walk on to the Central Florida football program, but it was too far from his home. His playing days seemed over, but he still didn't give up.
"I always felt, one way or another, football was my calling," Sparano recalls of that period. "It was about somebody taking a chance on me."
That somebody was Jeanette's mom, who agreed to an odd arrangement: Her family would put Tony up until he saved enough to move into a dorm. Back in New Haven, he took one job with a moving company and another at a 7-Eleven store. After spending a year at his girlfriend's house, he moved on campus.
On Christmas Eve 1983, Tony and Jeanette were driving to a holiday party when she complained about not having anything nice to wear. He pulled out a ring and told her: "I have something beautiful to wear." They married a year later.
During Sparano's last year at New Haven, a security company offered him a $22,000-per-year job. "At the time, that was all the money in the world for us," Jeanette recalls. He also got an offer to return to New Haven as a part-time graduate assistant for the football program — it would pay $1,100 the first season.
"When we talked about coaching, he became animated and excited," she says. "I couldn't see him doing anything else, but it really was jumping into the deep end." To pay the bills, she took jobs in a law office and as a receptionist for a dentist. Tony worked as a gym teacher for $70 a day.
The Sparanos scraped by for ten years. They have three kids: Tony, now 23, Andrew, who's 20, and a 17-year-old daughter, Ryan. All of them were born during those lean years. Jeanette says, "My kids tell me now that they didn't know how broke we were, and I can't believe it. Because we were broke."
Sparano, speaking to New Times in the training facility lobby after his news conference, says he never regretted turning down the security job. "There was never a time that I second-guessed that decision," he says.
The Sparanos' home became a gathering spot for players. Robert Thompson played for New Haven in the late '80s. Then Sparano hired him as an assistant coach, and Thompson often stopped by for dinner. Jeanette was already taking on her role as team matron. "I told her: 'Jeanette, anytime you're cooking chicken parm, I'm coming,'" Thompson recalls. "And when we'd see Tony outside football, he was a different guy — funny and personable."
In 1994, Sparano landed the New Haven head coaching job. Early on, he developed an obsessive attention to detail. Debbie Chin, athletic director at New Haven, hired the coach and quickly noticed his quirks, such as how he'd recite storied coach Vince Lombardi's "Number One" speech to his players every year. When Sparano was hired by the Dolphins, Chin watched his televised speech and noticed him push his glasses up with his thumb and forefinger. "I thought, Oh my God, you're still doing it the same way. Same old Tony."
It was during the New Haven era on the Friday before a Saturday game in New Jersey when Sparano realized his regular outfit was still at the dry cleaner's. He refused to wear anything else, so Jeanette drove back to Connecticut. She met the owner of the cleaner at 6:30 the next morning and then drove back, five hours roundtrip, and arrived with it just before the game.
Jeanette rolled her eyes while telling that story at the Dolphins training facility. About the same time not far away, Tony Sparano was explaining to reporters why practice lasted longer than scheduled that day. He said he wanted to make sure the team could get a play right, even if it meant staying late — something that rarely happens to Sparano's Dolphins.
Not long after taking the job last year, he timed how long it takes to walk from the practice field to the locker room so that every minute is accounted for. "To be honest with you," he said, "practice ran over about six minutes."
As the news conference ended, Jeanette stepped outside with the other wives. Sparano left the news conference and headed back upstairs, just missing her.
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."
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.
In the locker room at halftime, Sparano had a simple message about finishing the job. It's a common theme. "He always says for us to play as if we're 17 again," says rookie cornerback Sean Smith. "Just go out like you did when you were a kid and have fun."
At the beginning of the second half, the Dolphins were six yards from the end zone when quarterback Chad Henne called a time-out. Sparano charged onto the field. He slapped his playlist and yelled at Henne: "What the fuck are you doing?"
On the next play, the Dolphins looked ready to run the ball. But Henne dropped back, and receiver Greg Camarillo sneaked across the field into the corner of the end zone with nobody around. Unfortunately the pass fell short.
Sparano put his hands on his hips and turned away, a look of disgust covering his face. He ordered a field goal; still, the Dolphins remained down, 21-13.
The Dolphins had a chance to close in with about three minutes left in the third quarter. Again, there was no risk-taking. Henne dropped back, unloaded, and hit receiver Brian Hartline. The Dolphins scored: 21-19.
Sparano then took one of those crazy risks. He sent the offense back out to go for two. The coach had figured something out: The Patriots had been leaving the left side of the end zone open. So he sent tight end Anthony Fasano there again. Henne aimed for him, but linemen got a hand on the ball, which bounced near no one.
Tom Brady was about to get the ball back with plenty of time left to effectively end the Dolphins' season and destroy Sparano's second year.
But neither team scored for much of the fourth quarter. With about three minutes left in the game, the Dolphins got a chance. Henne connected on a trio of long passes, and the Dolphins found themselves on the Patriots' 28-yard line — nearly close enough for a field goal that would have put them up by a point.
During a time-out, Sparano went over to talk to Henne. Take no chances was the message. Three running plays followed, and then kicker Dan Carpenter nailed a 41-yard field goal that gave the team a 22-21 lead.
With about a minute left and no time-outs, Brady threw the first ball to his running back waiting near the sideline for 11 yards. On the next play, Brady dropped back again. The Dolphins blitzed, and defensive end Jason Taylor snuck up behind Brady. He grabbed the quarterback by the ankles. Brady made one last desperate throw — his season too might be on the line. The pass floated. The Dolphins' Channing Crowder easily grabbed it.
Conservative Sparano had won. His decisions to avoid the wildcat offense and run down the clock near the end of the game suddenly looked brilliant.
At his postgame news conference, Sparano walked up to the podium wearing sunglasses and the white windbreaker. He looked just as disgruntled as ever and said simply: "Whaddaya got?"
In the back of the room, Jeanette stood next to her daughter Ryan and son Tony. Jeanette looked giddy, smiling widely and clenching her hands in front of her face.
The media pool of about 40, characteristically afraid of Sparano, mostly asked him about the game.
"I think the big push this week was just the amount of passion it takes," he responded. "We knew we were in the hump. We had to come out here, and we had to win a big ball game, and we did. We'll see where this thing goes."
Sparano also talked about salvaging a season. "We know that you are only as good as your last at bat," he said. "We just got a good one."
He then turned to leave, and his sunglasses slid down his nose. He used his thumb and forefinger to push them back up.
A week later, the Dolphins pulled out another close win, over Jacksonville. Sparano's team largely skipped risky plays, and the wildcat offense was never employed in the 14-10 victory.
The following morning, this past Monday, Sparano met the press looking a bit haggard. Without his regular baseball hat, it was clear his hair had thinned considerably in his second year as coach. But the Dolphins are 7-6 now, with a decent shot at the playoffs.
Sparano answered questions somewhat more pleasantly than usual. Asked about the playoffs, he answered quickly. "There's too much football left for a lot of teams. There's still three games left for everybody," he said. "You really are in this little bunker right now. That's kind of where you need to be. You need to live here right now."
Afterward, Sparano headed back upstairs, likely to study the tapes in his dark office, where he'll spend most of his time for the next few weeks.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.