MIAMI — Tony Sparano once beat Bill Belichick with the single wing, but wasn’t as old as that made him sound.
Sparano was only 56 when he died unexpectedly Sunday. The Minnesota Vikings announced his death in a statement that did not provide a cause.
He had been the Vikings’ offensive line coach since 2016.
The most memorable moment in Sparano’s 19-year NFL coaching career came in 2008, when he was a rookie head coach with the Miami Dolphins, inheriting a team that had gone 1-15 the previous season. In Week 3 he surprised Belichick with a single wing-style formation that the Dolphins called the wildcat, and they won at New England 38-13.
The wildcat became a fad around the league, and the stunning upset propelled Sparano’s team to 11 wins and the AFC East title. It’s one of two playoff berths for the franchise since 2002.
That was Sparano’s lone winning season, and he was fired in 2011 after going 29-32 in Miami. He was popular with his players, but a dismal home record, declining attendance and a falling-out with general manager Jeff Ireland accelerated his firing by owner Stephen Ross.
Sparano was the Oakland Raiders’ interim head coach in 2014 after the team fired Dennis Allen, and he went 3-9. He also worked as an assistant for the Browns, Redskins, Jaguars, Cowboys and 49ers, and most recently for Vikings coach Mike Zimmer.
“I love Tony Sparano,” Zimmer said in a statement. “He was a great teacher, a grinder of a worker and had a toughness and fighting spirit that showed in our linemen. He was a great husband, father and grandfather and a great friend to me. This is just sinking in for us, but Tony will be sorely missed by all.”
Sparano’s former players also paid tribute.
“Heart broken and lost for words! We lost a great man,” tweeted Brian Hartline, who played receiver for Sparano in Miami.
“Damn I’m at a loss for words,” tweeted Raiders Pro Bowl tackle Donald Penn. “Coach Sparano taught me so much not just about football about life also.”
Sparano played at the University of New Haven where he was a four-year letterman. He was hired as New Haven’s head coach in 1994 and held that position for five seasons. His NFL coaching career began with under Chris Palmer with the Browns in 1999. Sparano was fired along with Palmer following the 2000 season.
In Miami, Sparano lost his first two games before turning to the wildcat. Six times they ran plays from the formation at New England, snapping the ball directly to running back Ronnie Brown, and four of those plays resulted in touchdowns.
“It was like playing hide and go seek, making them guess,” Brown said at the time.
Sparano said the Dolphins began practicing the wildcat during training camp but waited until the Patriots game to spring it.
“This is not something that just came up and we scribbled on the board a couple of days ago,” the coach said.
Defenses soon adjusted, and a sputtering offense in Sparano’s final two seasons at Miami contributed to his firing. But the Dolphins haven’t won at New England since the wildcat game.
“We were saddened to learn of Tony Sparano’s tragic and unexpected passing,” owner Ross said in a statement. “Tony made an indelible impact on our team’s history. His toughness, grit and leadership were evident to everyone who had the chance to coach with or play for him.”