Long-Time NFL Assistant Coach Tony Sparano Dies

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Tony Sparano, who among his coaching stops with nine NFL teams served as the New York Jets' offensive coordinator in 2012, died unexpectedly today. He was 56.

The Minnesota Vikings announced Sparano's passing in a statement. He had been the Vikes' offensive line coach since 2016. The team didn't announce a cause of death but ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter tweeted today that Sparano had chest pains Thursday.

Sparano came to the pros out of New Haven and Boston U. He served on staffs with Cleveland, Washington, Jacksonville and Dallas, hired by Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells. After Parcells became the Dolphins' vice president in charge of football operations, he hired Sparano as Miami's head coach. The 'Fins, who were 1-15 in '07, "moved the hyphen" for an 11-5 season and the AFC East title in Sparano's first year at the helm with Chad Pennington as his QB.

As the Dolphins' head coach, Sparano was responsible for the popularity of the Wildcat offense. He sprang it on the Patriots at New England in Week 3 of the '08 season. RB Ronnie Brown took the direct snap on six plays that game and scored four touchdowns in the Dolphins' 38-13 win.

Sparano's 'Fins also ran Brown and Ricky Williams out of the 'Cat against the Jets, winning five of seven games in those four seasons, and four of six against Rex Ryan's Jets from 2009-11. Current Jets head coach Todd Bowles was Sparano's assistant head coach and secondary coach from 2008-11 and replaced him as interim head coach for the final three games of Miami's '11 season.

Ryan was intrigued enough to bring Sparano on board as his offensive coordinator for 2012.

"That ground-and-pound philosophy that we talked about, we are definitely like-minded people, like-minded coaches, and we believe in running the football and protecting the quarterback. He's a tough guy, an East Coast guy," Ryan said that January when the Jets announced his hiring. "His teams were always built. It was going to be a slugfest, we knew it going in. A well-prepared team, tough-minded. It was physical football and I always admired that about Tony."

"Being physical doesn't mean you're going to run the ball 55 times a game," Sparano said. "It means you're going to protect the quarterback, the attitude of the receivers and their approach. It also comes from the quarterback. I like a physical mentality. We'll be explosive, we'll be able to get it downfield, do all those things. But I learned a lesson a long time ago about how you win and lose in this league. You've got to have some element of running the football."

"Being physical doesn't mean you're going to run the ball 55 times a game," Sparano said. "It means you're going to protect the quarterback, the attitude of the receivers and their approach. It also comes from the quarterback. I like a physical mentality. We'll be explosive, we'll be able to get it downfield, do all those things. But I learned a lesson a long time ago about how you win and lose in this league. You've got to have some element of running the football."

"Tony's a fiery Italian and he loves football. He's what we call a football head," said Pennington, who went from the Jets to the Dolphins in 2008 and ran Sparano's Miami offenses for three seasons before he retired as a player. "He enjoys it. I think he enjoys being around the players. He enjoys that part of the game. He certainly understands it's not just about the X's and O's."

Sparano's Jets offense in 2012 ran the ball well with Shonn Greene (1,063 rushing yards) and then-rookie Bilal Powell (437 yards) and ran some Wildcat with the Tim Tebow experiment that year. But the offense finished 30th overall, 30th passing and 28th scoring and Sparano moved on to Oakland (interim head coach for 12 games in 2014) and San Francisco before going to Minnesota.

Sparano's son, Anthony Jr., was a coaching intern with the Jets in 2012-13 and an offensive assistant in '14 before moving on to Buffalo and Jacksonville.

Sparano is survived by his wife, Jeannette, two sons, a daughter and four grandchildren.

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