Oakland Raiders join the league in mourning the passing of Tony Sparano

SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 02: Head coach Tony Sparano of the Oakland Raiders watches his team warm up before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on November 2, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 02: Head coach Tony Sparano of the Oakland Raiders watches his team warm up before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on November 2, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images) /

Former Oakland Raiders head coach Tony Sparano died suddenly, leading to an outpouring of condolences from around the league.

In the storied lore of the Oakland Raiders, former head coach Tony Sparano is probably best known for burying a football on the practice field – literally – after taking over for the fired Dennis Allen after the team’s 0-4 start to the 2014 season.

Sparano, the former offensive line coach turned interim head coach, buried the ball to symbolize moving on from the past and making a fresh start for the beleaguered squad that went 8-28 in Allen’s disastrous two season and four game tenure.

Oakland still only went 3-9 to finish out that year with rookie quarterback Derek Carr under center, but – that 52-0 drubbing by the then-St. Louis Rams notwithstanding – they seemed to play a bit better with Sparano at the controls.

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Arguably, it seemed like they played with a little more passion and heart for Sparano than they did for Allen.

Ultimately though, despite a push from some of his players, that renewed vigor wasn’t enough to keep him in his position and have the interim title taken off. Mark Davis became enamored with Jack Del Rio, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Although he didn’t have a tremendous amount of success as a head coach in the league, Sparano remained a very well respected position coach by his peers and was beloved by his players.

So, when we learned on Sunday that Sparano had suddenly, and very unexpectedly passed away at the not-so-ripe age of 56, it was met with an outpouring of grief, as well as love from peers and players around the league.

Check in on Twitter and you’ll see players from Carr, to former receiver Brian Hartline, to Mike Zimmer, to Kyle Solter, to Jake Long, to Erik Walden, to Donald Penn – and the list goes on of players and coaches, expressing ther sadness, as well as their love for Coach Sparano.

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In response to Sparano’s passing, the Raiders released a statement.

"“The Raiders family was deeply saddened to learn of Tony Sparano’s passing this morning. Tony had a deep passion for football and was embraced by the Raider Nation during his time with the Silver and Black. Tony will be sadly missed by the entire NFL community. Our hearts are with Jeanette and the Sparano family during this extremely difficult time.Tony was extremely passionate about the game and took great pride in his job as a football coach. I enjoyed working with Tony during his time with the Raiders and everyone who knew him will miss him dearly. My prayers and heartfelt condolences are with the Sparano family at this time.” – Reggie McKenzie"

An offensive line coach with the Vikings now, it is being reported that Sparano had gone to the hospital on Thursday complaining of chest pains. After a routine series of tests had been conducted, he was sent home.

On Sunday morning, Sparano’s wife Jeanette found him unconscious on the kitchen floor and though she attempted CPR, she could not revive him.

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Sparano has been coaching since he joined his alma mater, New Haven, as the offensive line coach in 1984. He split time between Boston University and New Haven until 1998. In 1999, he got his first shot at the NFL as the Cleveland Browns offensive quality control coach, taking over as the team’s offensive line coach in 2000.

After that, Sparano had stops in Washington, Jacksonville, and Dallas. In 2008, he took over as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, inheriting a team that went 1-15 the previous season.

Perhaps miraculously, Sparano turned things around and led the Dolphins to an 11-5 record and an AFC East championship in that first season. That 11-5 record included a 38-13 drubbing of the New England Patriots and an AFC East title – the only time since 2003 the Patriots haven’t won the division.

And yes, yes, it’s also the year Tom Brady suffered a season ending injury, but New England was still 11-5 on the year – which would have been 12-4 and good enough for the division crown had Sparano not done what very few people have done over the years – outcoached Bill Belichick. At least, for a game.

Sparano joined the Raiders in 2013 as the offensive line coach, succeeding Dennis Allen for those 12 games in 2014.

When he died, he was serving as the offensive line coach for his longtime friend, Mike Zimmer in Minnesota.

Sparano’s love and passion for the game endeared him to his players and earned him respect around the league. He was known as a grinder, a true players coach, and one of the guys. And in a very recent article, as a visionary of sorts.

In an article appeard in USA Today, Sparano was remembered by writer Steven Ruiz as an “unlikely visionary,” stating that many of today’s zone read offensive looks are based, in part, on the Wildcat Sparano made famous.

"“In the years since the Dolphins shocked the Patriots on that September afternoon, we’ve seen NFL teams win Super Bowls using schemes that many believed would never work at the highest level of the game. The Seahawks won a Super Bowl in 2013 with a running game that was buoyed by the zone read and Russell Wilson‘s legs. The Panthers went 15-1 and won the NFC with an offense built around designed runs for Cam Newton paired with a complimentary passing game. The Eagles’ Doug Pederson ran through Belichick’s Patriots in Super Bowl LII with an RPO-heavy attack.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.”"

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Sparano is survived by his wife Jeanette and three children. Not to mention a host of NFL players and fellow coaches who have flooded social media to express their grief.

Yeah, maybe he wasn’t the greatest coach to ever walk a sideline. But, in seeing the tribute being paid by his colleagues and players, both past and present, you can tell he was a good man who will be sorely missed by many. And that’s no small thing.

Rest in peace, Coach Sparano.