Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano, who spent one season as Jets offensive coordinator during the Rex Ryan era, died early Sunday morning, the Vikings announced. He was 56.
Sparano was a Vikings assistant for the past two seasons after being hired by the team in January 2016.
“I love Tony Sparano,” Vikings head coach Mike 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 NFL coaching career started in 1999 with the Browns. He was also an assistant coach with the Redskins, Jaguars and Cowboys before his first head coaching job. He was hired by the Dolphins in January 2008 and spent four seasons as their head coach, compiling a 29-32 record, including a playoff appearance in his first season when the Dolphins won the AFC East with an 11-5 record. Sparano was fired by the Dolphins in December 2011 with the team’s record at 4-9.
Ryan hired Sparano as his offensive coordinator in January 2012, looking to improve an offense that ranked 25th overall in the 2011 season. Ryan had said at the time of the hiring that he and Sparano were “like-minded” coaches. The Jets, however, finished 6-10 in 2012 and Ryan fired Sparano — along with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine — in January 2013.
Sparano served as the Raiders’ assistant head coach and offensive line coach in 2013-14. He was the Raiders’ interim head coach for 12 games in 2014, going 3-9.
He moved to the 49ers next, serving as tight ends coach in 2015. He coached his final two seasons in Minnesota.
“You will truly be missed by your loved ones, the guys you coached and the ones you’ve impacted over the years coach Sparano,” current Jets quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was with the Vikings when Sparano was the offensive line coach, said in a tweet from his verified Twitter account. “Calm, cool and always wearing your shades no matter how dark the room was. Thank you for caring about the us as individuals and not just athletes.”
Giants head coach Pat Shurmur was the Vikings’ offensive coordinator before coming to New York.
“I worked with Tony for the past two years in Minnesota,” Shurmur said in a statement. “We both showed up at the same time. We were the new guys. We quickly became friends and it didn’t take long for me to realize and respect what a good person and good coach he was. Our thoughts and prayers are with Jeanette and the kids. What a tremendous coach and an even better person. I’m proud to have been his friend.”
Sparano is survived by his wife, Jeanette, his two sons, Tony and Andrew, his daughter, Ryan Leigh, and four grandchildren, according to the Vikings.