The sandy shores of Hilton Head don’t attract many NFL coaches with preciously short summers. But the Caribbean or Europe never fit Tony Sparano, a man loyal to family routines.
Sparano needed Jeanette, his wife of 34 years, and their three children — Tony Jr., Andy and daughter Ryan Leigh — with him during the few days away from football, even after the kids had families of their own. Three decades of getaways to the same island off the coast of South Carolina prompted fellow coaches to question Sparano’s downtime decisions.
“People would be like, ‘Well, don’t you want to travel?’ ” Jeanette Sparano said. “And he’d say I just want to be with my wife, my kids and my grandbabies. I’m just going to sit myself in Hilton Head until it’s time to get back here and do what I do.”
A devoted 56-year-old father, masterful Vikings offensive line coach and irreplaceable confidant, Sparano died a year ago from heart disease in his Eden Prairie home. A hole as big as the Northeasterner’s personality was left in the Sparano family and Vikings coaching staff just ahead of a 2018 season that fell far short of Super Bowl expectations.
Coach Mike Zimmer said the loss of Sparano put the team, which missed the playoffs, into a downward spiral.
As the first players report Monday to Vikings training camp, Sparano’s passion and colorful expressions live on. Sparano spent two seasons in Minnesota, and players and coaches still hear echoes of his voice during practices and meetings. But his unlikeliest of football legacies, from elementary school gym teacher to the only Dolphins head coach to take the AFC East from the Patriots dynasty, is just a sliver of how those closest remember him.
“Papa” was what his four grandchildren called the nurturing Sparano, who surprised his own kids with how he melted around the grandkids. Behind a gruff exterior mistaken for a “Sopranos” extra — with the dark sunglasses, gold chain and barrel chest — Sparano was a devoted Catholic who read his Bible by candlelight at 5 a.m. in his Vikings office.
An undeterred morning person, Sparano awoke his children before sunrise with unwelcomed lyrics and dances while beckoning them to sing along. He loved music, movies and whistling. He saw “Motown: The Musical” four times on Broadway in his one season with the New York Jets.
Those memories lead to laughs, making “impossibly hard days” a little easier to handle for the Sparano family, said Tony Jr., the oldest of three children.
“He just had the best way about him,” Tony Jr. said, “the best spirit about him.”
Playing for Tony
Sparano was a 16-year-old wisecracker in West Haven, Conn., with early visions of a coaching career when met Jeanette. She was a 13-year-old freshman when she walked by without hesitation and heard him say, “That’s OK, I’ll just stand here and talk to myself.” He had a way of making her laugh with whispered zingers, only to look astonished when her giggling disrupted a quiet room.
“He’d just shrug,” Jeanette said, “and he’d be like, ‘I don’t know what she’s doing. I can’t take this woman anywhere.’ ”
Their first date was a movie, and movies became a Friday night routine, from 1980s VHS rentals to theaters in the Eden Prairie mall. Sparano secretly loved dance movies. The 2006 teen drama “Step Up,” which Jeanette had to temporarily ban at home, was a favorite.
He often reviewed the date-night movie for his Vikings players. Jeremiah Sirles, now a Buffalo Bills guard, remembered Sparano unleashing a takedown of Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.”
“He’s like, ‘It made no sense. This lady is dating a frog person,’ ” Sirles said. “The way he went about the whole thing had the whole room in tears.”
Early on, Sparano supplemented part-time coaching hours at the University of New Haven with jobs as a gym teacher and basketball coach at nearby elementary schools. Chris Palmer was the first to give Sparano a full-time coaching job — in 1986, leading New Haven’s offensive line — and years later his first NFL job, as quality control coach with Cleveland in 1999.
“He told the truth,” Palmer said. “Kids trusted him, and his offensive line really played hard for him. That would be true in pro football also.”
Hard and soft
Perception of an overly intense Sparano peaked in a 2011 Sporting News poll. During Sparano’s last year with the Dolphins, NFL players voted him second as the coach they’d least like to play for. First was Tom Coughlin, who won the Super Bowl that season with the Giants. Third was Bill Belichick.
“It was great company,” said Andy Sparano, offensive coordinator at Feather River College in Quincy, Calif. “We always joked that the media had this perception of him that was half true and half a creation.”
“Grumpy Tony,” with his mobster look and unmistakable howl heard across practice fields, was just an outer shell. His family and his players knew both sides.
There was the regional qualifier for the 2002 Little League World Series. Before Andy Sparano’s team played at 9 a.m., his father wanted to pitch some batting practice at 5:30 a.m. Andy didn’t want to be there, and Sparano told his son to toughen up, in so many words.
Sparano’s next pitch was sent screaming back at him. Because Sparano hated the protective L screens, Andy’s line drive hit and broke his collarbone.
“That might’ve been the most proud I’ve ever made him,” Andy said.
There was the Dolphins’ 2011 opener against the Patriots. Sparano underwent hernia surgery a week before the game. When stitches split open during the first half, Sparano had the team doctor plug him with gauze at halftime. Nobody knew but coaches and players, Andy Sparano said, “because he was bleeding through his shirt.” He would need another operation after the game.
Former lineman Joe Berger, who played for Sparano on three NFL teams, learned the trick: Ask about his grandchildren. They softened Sparano’s edge.
Players begged Jeanette to bring the grandkids to training camp. It became a running joke. “She could name her price,” Berger said.
Sparano otherwise was a burly ball of fire, rarely willing to hear a player’s excuses.
“You realize what he’s doing is he legitimately wants the best out of you,” Berger said. “You start to really respect that, which is why I went to Miami when I had the opportunity to play for him.”
Sparano was equally demanding as a father, and an unlimited resource. Sparano’s morning ritual included texts or calls to his three kids. Mornings this past year may have been the most trying hours for them. They waited for those messages that never came.
“We’d text constantly,” said Tony Sparano Jr., the Jaguars assistant offensive line coach who wears his father’s gold chain. “There are things that remind you of him everywhere. But the thing that focuses me the most is, I want to make him proud.”
The Vikings’ 2018 season never reached towering expectations, set by a trip to the NFC title game and subsequent addition of quarterback Kirk Cousins. Sparano’s absence is believed in some corners of the organization to be a big reason why a Lombardi chase ended short of the playoffs.
“Quite honestly, the death of Tony Sparano really kind of threw things into a little bit of a downward spiral,” Zimmer said Jan. 3 at his season-ending news conference. “This guy was a type-A personality. He was very innovative in the running game, had a strong voice in that room and had a strong voice with me.”
The week before training camp, Sparano texted Zimmer “all good, see you Monday” after a doctor’s visit for chest pains. He died two days later.
Sparano’s funeral was held at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Wayzata and attended by prominent NFL coaches, from the Saints’ Sean Payton to Rex and Rob Ryan.
Then, the Vikings had an impossible task of moving on, six weeks before the season opener.
“It was a major impact on this organization,” General Manager Rick Spielman said, “not only from a football perspective but who he was as a person.”
Sparano was a confidant to Zimmer and a mentor to first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Aside from masterfully pulling strings for the offensive line, Sparano coordinated a Vikings rushing attack that finished seventh during the 13-win 2017 season.
Last season, the Vikings’ 30th-ranked run game became an untenable problem between Zimmer and DeFilippo. Without Sparano, who had considerable equity with both of them, there to serve as an emissary, the differences turned into a rift that culminated in DeFilippo’s firing in December.
“[Sparano] had been a head coach before,” Zimmer said. “That and he got here early in the mornings, so I’d go sit in his office and we’d talk football. Sometimes it wasn’t football, but a lot of times it was.”
Sparano also held influence in the front office. Spielman often saw Sparano reviewing potential draft picks and free agents, adding gravity to Sparano’s already strong voice in meetings.
“Tony was never afraid to express his opinion and how he felt,” Spielman said. “All his experience and years of knowledge on players and coaching players, what’s fitting in the system and what’s not, those things are invaluable.”
Sparano’s office was left untouched throughout the season.
Books of Tony
Sparano created themes for each game week in 2017, with clues dispersed around the offensive line room. He’d reveal the week’s motivator — like how Nordic Vikings burned their boats before heading into the grandest battles — during Friday’s address.
Bite-size catchphrases were his calling card. A “Game of Thrones” saying, “When the snow falls and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives,” was on the back wall of the O-line room. One-liners were “Tony-isms” — some recognizable, some just wacky. They’re legendary among family and players, who text them to each other now.
“You can’t snow the snowman,” Sirles said. “The classic: I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. He had two raccoons fighting in a wool sock. A horse apiece. A blind dog in a meat house.”
Sirles was the last to keep records, writing down Tony-isms in the back of his notebook and tallying each time he said one. From one NFL team to the next — Sparano coached for nine NFL teams, and logged 34 years of coaching overall — the books of Tony multiplied. There is a catalog in Dallas, where he coached from 2003 to 2007, according to Jeanette.
“Some of my favorite ones aren’t printable,” Andy Sparano said.
Jeanette leaned on one particular saying during this difficult year: “We drive the bus.”
The saying helped her fulfill a promise, one Tony made her swear to after arriving home from their daughter’s wedding. Sparano wanted the whole family, all 12, to go to Disney together this summer. Two weeks before he died, she made the reservations.
Jeanette followed, taking the Sparanos’ healing hearts on their first trips without Tony. They felt his absence at Disney and again at Hilton Head. She knew Tony would want traditions to continue.
To commemorate his life, the Sparano family watched together this summer as they released balloons from a Hilton Head beach.
The balloons faded away. Tony Sparano’s voice has not.
“Every time I think I can’t do this — I can’t do this without him — I would just think, he’s kind of looking at me going, ‘No, nuh-uh, you have to drive the bus.’ I can hear him saying it to me,” Jeanette said. “That’s been really helpful, because I know what he’d want.”