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Tony Sparano’s loyalty, character make NY Jets players feel like loved ones


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At a red light on a quiet street in Branford, Conn., Jeanette Chieppo stared at the only boyfriend she ever had.

He sat behind the wheel of a blue Chevrolet Caprice Classic, two weeks removed from one of the eight knee operations he would have in his life, without revealing plans for the marriage proposal that had been derailed. Jeanette, still exhausted from an emergency appendectomy days earlier, would later learn from friends of his idea to go on a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride in New York. Six years after Tony Sparano III asked out a cute high school freshman to the movies and an ice cream parlor, he put his foot on the brake and turned off the radio. It was Christmas Eve.

"The suave guy that I am," he says now, "I pulled the ring out."

Their journey through eight cities in 27 years began at a stoplight on a Saturday afternoon, eight miles from their hometown of New Haven, in the middle of running errands for Jeanette's grandmother.

"It was perfect," she says.

Before Sparano, 50, was hired as the Jets' offensive coordinator to resurrect a wayward offense with a wayward young quarterback, he built a career that began at a Division II school on fierce loyalty and integrity, pillars that buoy him each day. His hard exterior, his friends and family insist, belies an honesty that never made him cut corners to get ahead. The old-school disciplinarian, the Everyman who sounds like a Queens cab driver, is a prolific texter and lover of all things Eminem. He has a quick wit. "He's hilarious," his son, Andy, says with a laugh.

"The things he says are so powerful," says Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who cultivated a close bond with his former coach. "He's like a philosopher."

His 5-month-old grandson, Anthony Michael Jr., brings out his soft side. Murphy, the family cat, brings out his ornery side.

"He certainly doesn't run around our house with a whistle and bark orders," Jeanette says.

Sparano's three-decade long adventure with his wife and three children that wound from West Haven, Conn., to Boston to Cleveland to Washington, D.C., to Jacksonville to Dallas and Miami has reached a familiar place. As a kid, Sparano sat on the lap of his father, Anthony Jr., pointing out players on his old man's favorite Giants teams: Gifford, Huff, Robustelli, Tittle, McElhenny.

"It's so funny when the Northeast gets a rap of being unfriendly," Jeanette says. "We appreciate the realness. What you see is what you get. I think it's the best way to be. We grew up like this. I think they'll get him."



* * *

Just before midnight on Oct. 12, 2009, Rex Ryan shook Sparano's hand, turned to Jets vice president of security Steve Yarnell and expressed his feelings about the Dolphins' then- head coach: "I don't like this dude."

Sparano's team had just carved up Ryan's defense for 413 yards, including a back-breaking 2-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation with 10 seconds left to beat the Jets, 31-27, on a Monday night in Miami. Inside the Jets locker room, Ryan was fuming. Sparano, wearing his trademark sunglasses at night, had just beaten Ryan at his own game: Tough, physical, no-nonsense football.

"I was pissed," Ryan remembered. "I'm like, ‘I'm going to kick that dude's a$$ next time.'"

Ryan's respect and appreciation for Sparano grew that night. When the Dolphins fired Sparano after Week 14 last season, the Jets head coach knew that he'd be lucky to have him on his staff. When the team parted ways with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer after the season, Sparano was the only external candidate Ryan considered for the job. "After he became available," Ryan admitted, "I'm like, ‘Oh, hell, yeah… that's my guy."

The Jets first interviewed offensive line coach Bill Callahan for the vacant position before Ryan, general manager Mike Tannenbaum and owner Woody Johnson flew down in the team's private jet to a small airport near Sparano's home in Hilton Head, S.C. The four of them holed up in a small room at the airport for the next six hours. The meticulous Sparano laid out his philosophies to the Jets' brass, detailing everything from his core philosophies to the way he calls formations. Ryan was in heaven. Sparano's offensive approach mirrored Ryan's defensive approach.

Ten years earlier, Tom Coughlin felt the same way about Sparano during an interview when he was looking for a tight ends coach for the Jaguars.

"We had an opportunity to see the depth of the detail that he had," Coughlin says. "I can remember the exact play we had him demonstrate to us. He did a great job of that. I knew the type of coach that he was."

When the Jaguars fired their coaching staff a year later, new Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells leaned on Coughlin's recommendation to bring Sparano aboard. "Tom Coughlin told me that he was one of the two best assistant coaches that he'd ever had," says Parcells, who later hired Sparano to be Dolphins head coach in 2008. "I have a high regard for Tom and that was enough for me."

Tannenbaum, whose football philosophies were shaped by Parcells, consulted his mentor, who praised Sparano.

Sparano's attention to detail and organizational skills were nothing new. "He kept a clean room. He sure did," his father says. "Everything was in order."

"I'm stickler for the details," the coach says. "If (a pattern is) supposed to be run at 18 yards, I need it run at 18 — not 16. If not, sometimes bad things happen."

The details matter in every facet of his life. On vacations, Sparano's wife and children tease him for his manila folder filled with family activities. "If you say you want to go golfing," Andy says, "he's got four courses ready

to go. It's amazing. He's got a million ideas and ways for us to spend time together."

Sparano, who lived in four cities during a four-year stretch at the turn of the millennium, covets every moment with his family. His itinerant lifestyle drew the five of them closer. When the coach found a new job in a new city, his kids always insisted that they wanted to follow him even when it meant losing a few friends along the way. His oldest son, Anthony Michael, a coaching intern for the Jets, attended three high schools. Nothing was more important to any of them than staying together.

"You know, to be honest," Sparano says, softly, "My family has gone through an awful lot in the last calendar year."

* * *

Anthony Joseph Sparano Jr. poured brass at his father's foundry before driving a liquor truck for 16 years. His son helped him get a maintenance job at the University of New Haven after he was hired as a part-time coach at his alma mater. He worked at the school for 17 more years.

The father and mother, Marie, instilled a work ethic in their only son that never waned. How else could you explain why Tony Sparano put in a full day's work on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011?

Two years removed from an AFC East title and the greatest turnaround in NFL history, Sparano sat behind his mahogany desk, his fate resting in a man 3,000 miles away. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, a Michigan Man, had become infatuated with Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, a Michigan alum.

Sparano was 11-5 in his first season after inheriting a 1-15 team, but back-to-back 7-9 campaigns tempted Ross to look for a replacement. Sparano was under contract for one more season, unaware that the owner and GM Jeff Ireland had made the cross-country trip the night before to look for a new coach.

There was an air of inevitability at Dolphins headquarters. Some coaches began to pack boxes. Sparano, who went for his daily half-hour walk at 2:30 p.m., did not.

"He was hurt," Marshall says. "He handled it like a pro. He handled it like a man. When something like that happens to you, sometimes it's easy for us to get upset and get frustrated and lash out in the things we say or the things we do, but Coach continued with business as usual."

After Harbaugh spurned Ross' offer to make him the highest paid coach in the league, the owner gave Sparano a mea culpa extension. Their relationship, however, was never the same again. The rift between the owner and coach was never truly repaired. Sparano's family and players marveled at his ability to weather the public embarrassment.

"Him being the head coach of the Miami Dolphins was an incredible experience," said Andy Sparano, the offensive line coach at RPI in upstate New York. "We loved it. We were so proud of him to get to where he was, but that didn't define us as a family."

It didn't define the man, either. Even after the Dolphins began last season 0-7, Sparano never lost his players. They never quit on him.

When Ross fired Saprano after a 4-9 start, Sparano took the high road. Bitterness never anchored him.

"He'll just do the right thing," Jeanette says. "It shouldn't be that weird. But it sort of is. I admire him so much for that."

* * *

They sat in the dark office together, the no-nonsense coach and mercurial wide receiver, talking about everything from literature to real estate.

The lights are never on in Sparano's office. When he was 17, he burned both of his eyes when a French fry machine exploded in his face while he was working the overnight shift at a fast food restaurant. He wore patches over both eyes for a few weeks, but his left eye suffered more damage, a burned retina that has made him eternally sensitive to light. He suffered bouts with migraines for years before realizing that sunglasses — even at night — were his elixir. His eye tears if he's exposed to light for too long.

So, Sparano has always conducted his business in the dark. "They think I'm a bat," he cracks.

For Marshall, who played for Sparano in Miami for two years, the coach's impact has been life changing. Marshall was stabbed last year and later revealed that he suffered from borderline personality personality disorder. Sparano became a source of strength.

The coach was hard on his star wideout in practice, but he cultivated a relationship with Marshall that remains as strong today as it has ever been.

"We talked about a book we both were reading," Marshall says about his frequent visits to the dark office. "We talked about football. We talked about ex-players. We talked about life. We talked about what it is to be a husband, a man."

"He embraces you and loves you no matter what. He's a true leader," Marshall adds. "What really made me fall in love with Coach is just the type of man he is: His love for his family and his loyalty."

The loud disciplinarian has bonded with players half his age thanks, in part, to his daughter, Ryan, who taught him the art of text messaging a few years ago. He's already started to develop a bond with Mark Sanchez and Dustin Keller that way. Sanchez has visited Sparano's house a couple times to hang out socially with the family too.

"He's an old-school guy who had to learn how to connect with guys like us growing up in this technology era where you can instantly say something to somebody without ever speaking," Sanchez says. "Number one, it probably blew his mind. But he's not afraid to do it. If this is going to help him communicate, he'll do it. If it's a wire and two soup cans, he'll do it. That's the kind of guy he is. He'll get it done."

"I want them to see that side of me," Sparano admits. "Because there's the other side of me when I have to demand and I have to get results. I want them to know that he's just not this guy all the time. He's this other guy sometimes, you know, that can joke and kid with them and have a good time. There's a time and a place for both."

* * *

Ryan Sparano received the call two years ago from a man in a state of confusion. Eminem's album, "Recovery," had been released on iTunes that morning, but her father didn't have the first clue as to how to download it. The coach's iPod was already filled with everything from Rascal Flatts to Mary J. Blige. "He doesn't like to listen to Lady Gaga with me," Ryan, 19, says. "That's one thing he won't budge on."

After a quick phone tutorial, Sparano, a quick study, figured it out. The music buoyed him when he went through warrior workouts with Dolphins trainers to lose weight after his eighth knee surgery. Sparano beat the sun to his workouts, pounding tires with sledgehammers and running steps in a weighted vest. Once 285 pounds, he now maintains a weight of 210-215.

As with most things in his life, Sparano created a plan and executed it. His plan for the Jets is to re-establish the run-first identity that they lost sight of last season. He insists there will be explosive wrinkles too.

Jeanette hopes he'll deviate from the plan off the field. Her dream: Sky diving.

Sparano has a fear of heights, but his wife still holds out hope.

His daughter knows better.

"I can't even get my dad to go on the Ferris wheel with me at Toys R Us in the city," Ryan says. "So, no… he will NOT jump out of a plane."

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