Sparano changes Dolphins' fortunes with dedication, attitude

DAVIE, Fla. -- Tony Sparano has been known to jog around the Miami Dolphins' complex before the sun rises. He once started watching game tape after a Sunday road loss and didn't stop until his Monday morning news conference, appearing out of the film room with a scruffy beard and baggy eyes.

The day after the presidential election, Sparano was asked if he stayed up to watch the outcome. To which he replied, "I've got to be honest. I was watching the Seattle Seahawks," Miami's opponent that week.

"I'm not sure the man ever goes home," Dolphins center Samson Satele said.

The dedication has worked.

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First-year coach Tony Sparano has the Dolphins close to a postseason berth just a season after going 1-15. Find out what Miami needs to do in the playoff scenarios.

The rookie NFL head coach has taken Miami from a 1-15 embarrassment last season to a 9-5 playoff contender tied for the AFC East lead with two games remaining in the regular season. He has stepped out of the shadows of mentor Bill Parcells, the Dolphins' executive vice president of football operations, and made himself a strong contender for Coach of the Year honors.

"I'm not really proud of this," Sparano said, "but so much of me is football 24 hours a day."

His clothes are always a little baggy. His hat is always pulled down tight. And, day or night, he's usually sporting sunglasses. Sparano might not look like an NFL coach, but his formula has helped shape one of the biggest one-year turnarounds in league history.

One year ago this week, the Dolphins had just won their first game of the season after starting 0-13 under then-head coach Cam Cameron. Players seemed to have lost their passion for the game, and Parcells was hired to revamp the proud franchise that had become a complete mess.

"This team was starving from the year before and was really hungry and wanted a change," Dolphins defensive tackle Jason Ferguson said.

That coaching change came with Sparano, a little-known Dallas Cowboys offensive line coach who most people mistakenly associated with the famous mobster on HBO's "The Sopranos."

From the moment Sparano first addressed the team -- a 20-minute, passion-filled speech about how the Dolphins would become winners -- players say things changed.

Satele and right tackle Vernon Carey almost always sit together during team meetings. Under Cameron, Satele admitted the two would be "lolly-gagging" while the coach talked.

They don't get away with that anymore.

"Every time Coach Sparano talks, people listen," Satele said. "We could be messing around, and all of the sudden, he comes in, and it's like a library."

At a recent Dolphins practice, wide receiver Brandon London celebrated an acrobatic catch and thought he had just caught the coach's eye. But Sparano got in London's face and told him to stop acting like a cheerleader.

"He told me to get a pair of pom-poms," London said.

The sense of complacency that Miami players once had is gone.

Sparano, Parcells and general manager Jeff Ireland have constantly cut players and added new parts, shuffling the bottom of the roster to keep the team from becoming too comfortable. Just last Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, one of those players, tight end Joey Haynos, caught a 19-yard touchdown pass. Haynos wasn't added to the Dolphins' roster until mid-November.

"Nobody ever feels like their job is safe," Dolphins defensive end Vonnie Holliday said. "(Sparano) has brought a sense of accountability that was missing from this team. Guys work harder now because they know he's got the right plan to win."

Sparano has gone from an offensive line coach at the University of New Haven to Boston University, with NFL stops in Cleveland, Washington, Jacksonville and Dallas. The only head-coaching job Sparano ever had before this season was at New Haven.

But he has had help.

Sparano admits what many already believed to be true: that Parcells has played a large part in the Dolphins' success, including helping the rookie head coach. But the 67-year-old football czar observes practices from the sideline and games from a skybox, allowing Sparano to develop his own coaching style.

Playing some of the most conservative football in the NFL, Sparano has kept the Dolphins winning. Penalties, turnovers, dropped passes, missed tackles and blown coverages are way down. With just 10 turnovers, Miami has a chance to finish the season with the fewest in NFL history. The Kansas City Chiefs had only 12 turnovers in 1982.

Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington, who was drafted by Parcells in New York in 2000, first met Sparano after being cut by the Jets in August to make room for Brett Favre. The two spoke candidly about faith, family and football, forming an instant connection.

Pennington believes Sparano, while being helped by Parcells, deserves credit for the Dolphins' instant success.

"I think with what Bill Parcells has been able to do throughout the years, maybe more attention has been put on that, and he's well-deserving of that, with what he's been able to do with different organizations, whether as a coach or a general manager," Pennington said. "I think for Coach Sparano, I think maybe he probably likes it like that, where he can just coach ball. That's what coach is all about: just coaching ball, being around the guys and keeping it simple."

While Sparano's job will keep him working around the clock these final two weeks of the regular season, he still enjoys coming to work.

"I love it, I really do," Sparano said. "I love it more when we win, but I love it."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.

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