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Former NFL head coach Tony Sparano dead at 56

The man who brought the Wildcat to the NFL is remembered by players, coaches and fans

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Buffalo Bills v Miami Dolphins Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano died unexpectedly on Sunday at his home in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. The cause of death is not yet known, but reports say Sparano was hospitalized after complaining of chest pains on Thursday. He was released on Friday after undergoing tests. He was 56.

Sparano was beginning his 20th season as an NFL coach. As new head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2008, he took the team to an 11-5 record after it had finished 1-15 the previous season, thereby becoming the only team besides the New England Patriots to win the AFC East during the last 15 seasons, and only the second to improve a team’s record by ten wins.

He also served as interim head coach of the Oakland Raiders at the end of the 2014 season, and as an assistant coach with the Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers.

He began his coaching career as offensive line coach at the University of New Haven, his alma mater. After a stint at Boston University - where he rose to offensive coordinator - he returned to New Haven as head coach, compiling a 41-14-1 record, and appearing in the NCAA Division II championship game in 1997.

He is survived by his wife Jeannette and three children.

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was asked about Sparano’s death during his first press conference at Chiefs training camp on Sunday, but said he had planned to bring it up anyway. “Tony was a friend, heck of a coach, and a great man. I am very sorry to hear what went on. My prayers are with his family.”

Reid’s admiration for Sparano is not surprising. Like Reid, Sparano was widely regarded as a player’s coach - as evidenced by reactions from some of his current and former players:

Speaking at training camp on Tuesday, Chiefs backup quarterback Chad Henne - who was drafted by the Dolphins during Sparano’s first season there - said, “He was a great mentor to me. I owe a lot to him for drafting me. We built a great relationship. [He has a] great family; Tony Jr. was with me in Jacksonville last year. I have great memories of him, and enjoyed my time with him.”

Sparano also became known as the godfather of the Wildcat in the NFL. While other NFL offenses had previously used Wildcat formations - and it had been Miami quarterbacks coach David Lee who had suggested it after using it at Arkansas - Sparano used it to great effect in the Dolphins 2008 season, most notably in their 38-13 victory over the Patriots at Foxboro.

In an article published yesterday, USA Today’s Stephen Ruiz called Sparano “an unlikely visionary,” and notes that while the Wildcat itself isn’t often utilized by NFL teams today, Sparano’s use of it proved that college concepts could indeed work at the NFL level. Ruiz suggested that without Sparano’s successful use of the Wildcat, it’s possible that NFL teams - including the Chiefs - would not be using offensive concepts like zone reads and RPOs today.

Does all of this happen without the Wildcat? Probably, yes. That’s just the nature of evolution. But there’s no denying that Sparano’s willingness to give the Wildcat a chance - and the success that Dolphins team had with it - hastened the process.

Sparano isn’t going to the Hall of Fame. He won’t be remembered as one of the great coaches in NFL history. History will look back at him as a mediocre head coach with a 32-41 record, but you cannot tell the story of the today’s NFL offenses without mentioning his name.

Rest in peace, Coach Sparano.

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