Jim Harbaugh and Tony Sparano: A Tale of Two Head Coaches

Adam WaldmanContributor IJanuary 6, 2011

JACKSONVILLE, FL - AUGUST 21:  Head coach Tony Sparano of the Miami Dolphins watches the action during a preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on August 21, 2010 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Tony Sparano’s path to becoming an NFL head coach was long and winding. His coaching career started in 1984 as an offensive line coach at the University of New Haven.

In 1994, after a five-year stint at Boston University, Sparano returned to the University of New Haven to become a head coach for the first time.

The following year, the Cleveland Browns made Sparano the offensive quality control coach. While it may not sound like a glamorous position, it was quite a jump from the University of New Haven to the NFL. He stayed in that position for a year, and was then elevated to offensive line coach of the Browns.

In 2001, Sparano was hired as the tight ends coach for the Washington Redskins. The following year, he held the same position for Jacksonville Jaguars.

In 2003, when Sparano was hand-picked by Bill Parcells to be the tight ends coach of the Dallas Cowboys, he started to make a name for himself. After moving around every year or so, Sparano was finally able to plant some roots.

Parcells eventually made him the offensive line coach, and then elevated him to offensive coordinator with play-calling duties in 2006.

Tony Sparano stayed on after Bill Parcells and the Cowboys parted ways, but lost his play-calling duties to newly hired offensive coordinator, Jason Garrett. 

In 2008, Bill Parcells was named Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Miami Dolphins, and his top choice for head coach was none other than Tony Sparano.  It may not have been the type of hire that grabs headlines, but it didn’t matter to Sparano. He’s more of a no-nonsense, lunch pail kind of guy anyway.

The Dolphins were coming off of a 1-15 season, so there was nowhere to go but “up” for Sparano. In his first season, he took the Dolphins from 1-15 to 11-5 and an AFC East division title. 

His season was so successful that he came in second place in the Coach of the Year voting, narrowly being edged out by Mike Smith of the Falcons.

By all accounts, Tony Sparano was living the dream. But NFL dreams usually don’t last forever. Unfortunately for Sparano, he is currently being rudely awakened from the dream. 

The Dolphins have followed up their improbable 11-5 season with two consecutive 7-9 seasons. With Parcells no longer in power in Miami, Sparano no longer has anyone in the organization fighting to protect his job. 

Miami Dolphins management is treating Sparano with absolutely no respect. It clearly does not want him to be the head coach anymore, but has inexplicably kept him around. 

The Dolphins are openly courting high-profile coaching candidates for the position, and Sparano seems to be nothing more than their fallback plan if they can’t land the “big fish” (no pun intended).

First they pursued Bill Cowher, who “accidentally” let it be known that he was interested in coaching the Dolphins. The details are still not clear, but apparently, Bill Cowher is looking for more power than the Dolphins are willing to give. 

With Cowher out of the picture, at least for the time being, the Dolphins have turned their attention towards the hottest coaching candidate in the country, Jim Harbaugh.

Rumor has it that Dolphins owner Steven Ross is on his way out the west coast to try to lure Harbaugh to Miami.

Harbaugh has had an incredible run at Stanford, and it is understandable why the Dolphins are interested in hiring him. But they are not alone.

Right now, the world is Jim Harbaugh’s oyster. The leverage that he currently has is going to allow him to cash in with whichever team he chooses.

Because of his strong ties to the west coast, the Niners would seem to be in an ideal position to land Harbaugh. If not, then there is always the chance that he feels a pull to return to his alma mater to coach the Michigan Wolverines.

With no ties to the Miami area, Steven Ross cannot use heartstrings to reel in Harbaugh, so he is going to be relying on the purse strings instead.

It is reported that Ross is willing to go as high as $8 million per year to land Harbaugh.

Meanwhile, Tony Sparano’s life is in a holding pattern as Miami publicly seeks his replacement. 

At this point, the Dolphins had better hope that they land Harbaugh, and that he is as good as advertised. His rumored salary would make it almost impossible to fire him if things don’t work out. 

The way that the Dolphins have treated Tony Sparano during this public wooing of high-profile coaching candidates is deplorable. It’s hard to imagine that the Dolphins will be very successful if Sparano ends up back with the team because of the damage that has been done during this search. 

The Dolphins were once one of the premier organizations in football. However, it is doubtful that they will be viewed that way by coaching candidates in the future as long as the team is being managed by the current regime.


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