Tony Sparano briefly put the Dolphins back on the map

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 25: Head coach Tony Sparano of the Miami Dolphins argues a call against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 25: Head coach Tony Sparano of the Miami Dolphins argues a call against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images) /

In his first season as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Tony Sparano took Miami from worst to first with an AFC East division crown.

Tragedy struck throughout the NFL today with the news of Tony Sparano passing away at the early age of 56. Initial reports do not give an official cause of death, but that Sparano had complained of chest pains this past Thursday, admitting himself into the hospital, but the doctors released him on Friday. He was found unconscious by his wife Sunday morning in the kitchen of their home.

Sparano was currently serving time as the Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach. Vikings owners Mark and Zygi Wilf issued a statement on Sparano’s passing:

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross also issued a statement on Sparano’s passing:

Prior to his tenure with the Vikings, Sparano did spend some time with the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, even serving as Oakland’s interim head coach in 2014. But most people remember Sparano for his time he spent in South Florida as the Dolphins head coach.

In 2008, Bill Parcells hired Sparano to a four-year deal to become the new head coach. Sparano took over a team that went 1-15 under Cam Cameron, who served just the one season as Miami’s head coach. Sparano and the Dolphins were given little chance to do anything for 2008, and projected to win 3-4 games all season long.

Sparano wanted none of it, however, and brought an energy to the team that they had not seen in quite a long time. In August, Miami made a key free agent signing in Chad Pennington after the Jets had run Pennington out of town in favor of Brett Favre. Pennington was far from elite, but he was much better than what the Dolphins had at the time between Chad Henne and John Beck.

With the likes of 2008 #1 overall pick, Jake Long, protecting the blindside of Pennington, and Ronnie Brown in the backfield, Sparano knew he had a team already that could surprise some people. In Week 1 of the regular season, the Dolphins fell just short of upsetting Favre and the Jets at home. In Week 2, Miami was blown out by the Cardinals in Arizona by a score of 31-10.

The following week, the Dolphins had a date with the Patriots in Foxborough. Fresh off of their near perfect season that fell short to the Giants in the Super Bowl, many predicted a blowout was imminent. They would be correct, but not in the way they foresaw.

Related Story: Former Dolphins coach Tony Sparano passes away

Getting the idea from his quarterbacks coach at the time, David Lee, Sparano decided that this game would be the perfect opportunity to introduce the Wildcat offense. The tricky formation confused the Patriots defense all afternoon, and totally blindsided Bill Belichick and his staff. When the clock struck zero, the Dolphins found themselves on top 38-13, shocking the entire league.

It was, and probably has been, one of the few times where Belichick’s team had been both outplayed and out coached. Ask any Dolphins fan today, who hasn’t had much to celebrate in the 21st century, what their favorite game was in the past 15-20 years, and that game would undoubtedly be somewhere atop the list.

The win sparked Miami to turn their season around as they would go on to finish with an 11-5 record, and an AFC East crown. The ten win turn around tied an NFL record. For starting quarterback, Pennington, it was even sweeter as the Dolphins defeated his former team to clinch the division title in the season finale. The Baltimore Ravens were too much for Miami in the Wild Card round, but it was undoubtedly a successful season in the minds of all Dolphins fans.

Sparano fell just short of winning the AP Coach of the Year in 2008. In the span of one season, he had put the Dolphins back into contention, and expectations were once again high in South Florida.

Unfortunately, Sparano was unsuccessful in getting Miami back to the playoffs during his tenure as head coach. The success of the Wildcat offense was short-lived as teams quickly caught on after that year in adjusting how to defend it. After a pair of 7-9 seasons in 2009 and 2010, Sparano quickly felt himself on the hot seat. He had been awarded a two-year extension in January 2011, but Miami started off that season 0-7.

After a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 14, Sparano was fired. His tenure ended as a disappointment, but the energy that he brought back to the team in 2008 would never be forgotten. The division title is the only one that Miami has held since 2000, and the only one that the Patriots have not claimed since 2002.

Overall, Sparano was a great person taken too early. Players loved to play for him as they fed off of his energy, and he was just a very kind person to be around. He’ll always be remembered in the Dolphin community. To reiterate Ross’ statement, our thoughts are with his wife, Jeanette, and the rest of the Sparano family at this time.

Rest In Peace, Tony.