From Division II to Dolphins, Sparano's rise impressive

Tony Sparano's wife, Jeanette, plays a major role in the Miami head coach's success. Don Jolovich/ESPN.com

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- It's 10:30 a.m. on a brilliant New England morning in late June, and 10 members of the Sparano family have been at the dining room table for at least two hours.

Ever since they arrived at Ellis Island from Italy in the 1800s, the Sparano men have been preparing lavish breakfasts. Today's spread features four different meats, scrambled eggs and a choice of chocolate chip or banana-nut pancakes.

For generations, important discussions have taken place at this table, which on this day is occupied by Tony Sparano, his parents, his two younger sisters, wife, daughter, two nephews and a niece.

At this table, the title "head coach of the Miami Dolphins" holds little weight, and that's why Sparano is drawn here. The only sign of Sparano's recent promotion is the replica of a Dolphins helmet hanging above the door of the three-bedroom, white frame home that his parents, Tony Jr. (better known as "Poppy") and Marie, share with their daughter Kim's family in East Haven.

In the high-powered world of the NFL, it's rare to run across a man without pretense, but the 46-year-old Sparano might be the exception. As family members take turns telling stories about him, he lowers his head and rubs his temple as if he's in pain.

About three miles west, just off Interstate 91, Sparano grew up in the shadows of one of the world's elite universities. But living within walking distance of the Yale campus didn't put him any closer to privilege.

He shared a green-and-white, three-story row house with both sets of grandparents and his parents in an Irish and Italian neighborhood. Families like Anthony Sparano Sr.'s kept immaculate homes, and they worked and socialized together. The neighborhood has fallen on hard times now, but during Sparano's youth, it was an idyllic setting for a kid who never wanted to come inside.

His father upholstered furniture and his mother worked a sewing machine. Years later, Sparano would help his father land a job in the maintenance department at the University of New Haven, where Tony Jr. retired after 17 years in 2002.

Just down the street, Sparano pitched and played outfield at Amvets Park, where, according to his former coach/dad, he still holds the season home-run record with 17. His mother made pizzas in the concession stand, and the Sparanos closed down the park each evening.

How this former Division II coach went from relative obscurity to the highest level of pro football in less than a decade might seem baffling to anyone but Sparano, who set this goal decades ago.

The Organizer

Tony Sparano hasn't taken much time to admire his cavernous office in Davie, Fla., in part because no one has turned on the lights. In fact, one must adjust one's eyes to see Sparano's shadowy figure behind an enormous mahogany desk.

On the second day of minicamp, he's carved 15 minutes from his precious schedule to discuss one of his least favorite topics: himself. He's had today's practice planned since March -- right down to the number of minutes it will take for the players to walk from the locker room to the practice field.

It's one of the traits Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells noticed right away when he hired Sparano to coach tight ends for the Cowboys in 2003. Sparano had coached the same position on Tom Coughlin's Jacksonville staff in 2002, but he became available when Coughlin was fired.

"Tom told me that Tony was one of the two best assistants he'd ever had," said Parcells, Cowboys head coach from 2003 to 2006. "And it didn't take long to figure out what he was talking about."

Parcells promoted Sparano to offensive line coach following the 2004 season. He had been an offensive line coach at his alma mater, the University of New Haven, and then Boston University before eventually landing a similar role with the Cleveland Browns in 2000. When Sean Payton left Dallas to take the head coaching job in New Orleans after the 2005 season, he wanted Sparano to be his offensive coordinator.

But despite the better title and opportunity to make more money, Parcells blocked the move because he didn't want to lose Sparano. At the time, Sparano was devastated.

He knew how small the window could be for advancement in the league. And Parcells, not a man given to subtlety, didn't exactly soften the blow.

"He told me, 'Sparano, you don't know nothing!' and that was pretty much it," said the new Dolphins coach.

The Little College on the Hill

This wasn't the first major setback in Sparano's coaching career.

Sparano was the offensive line coach at New Haven in 1985 when head coach Larry McElreavy was hired at Columbia. McElreavy chose not to take Sparano to New York with him.

"I remember that very clearly," said Debbie Chin, a highly successful volleyball coach at New Haven who became the athletic director in 1993. "I don't know what Larry may have been thinking, but Tony was absolutely devastated. In disguise, it may have been the best thing that could've happened."

New Haven hired future Cleveland Browns coach Chris Palmer to replace McElreavy, and the athletic director at the time put in a good word for Sparano. Palmer not only retained Sparano, but gave him his first full-time coaching job.

"Chris Palmer didn't know me from Adam," Sparano said. "I owe a great deal of this to him."

Before that, Sparano had been making $2,000 a year as a part-time assistant at the school. His wife, Jeanette, whom he met and started dating when she was 13 (he was 16), worked as a legal assistant and in a dentist's office to make ends meet. According to friends and family members, she's played a huge role in her husband's success. Attractive and more outgoing than her husband, Jeanette is much more comfortable operating behind the scenes.

"Whether she was talking to the president of the United States or the third-string guard's wife, she's going to treat everyone the same," said Pete Rossomando, who played and coached under Sparano at New Haven. "She's just a really, really special woman."

Jeanette says Tony was her first and only boyfriend. They went on their first date 30 years ago -- he took her to see "The Boys From Brazil" with Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier -- and have been going steady since. He arranged to propose to her during a Central Park carriage ride, but she became ill.

As the two drove toward a party on Christmas Eve in 1983, Jeanette was upset about being sick during the holidays and also not having something new to wear. As usual, Sparano had a plan.

"I have something beautiful for you to wear," he said as he slipped an engagement ring on her finger.

When they married a year later, Jeanette remembers her mother saying, "I love him. Don't screw it up!"

In 1988, Sparano followed Palmer to Boston University, where he served as offensive coordinator from 1989 to 1993, when the team went 11-0. When Chin was promoted to athletic director, her first order of business was replacing head football coach Mark Whipple, who later became the quarterbacks coach in Pittsburgh when Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a Super Bowl title.

"I'd just gotten home from the NCAA tournament, and I had to make the most important hire of my professional career," Chin said. "Word got out that Tony was interested, so I said, 'He's my man.'"

Sparano made only subtle changes to the program -- something he regretted almost immediately.

"Tony said he'd never do that again," Rossomando said. "It was his way or the highway."

A defining moment in Sparano's tenure at New Haven came in the fall of 1997. During a one-on-one drill, a talented 6-6, 290-pound offensive tackle had been beaten twice by a defensive lineman. The player became so frustrated that he took off his helmet and swung it at the lineman. The assistant coaches wanted to give the kid another chance, but Sparano wouldn't budge.

" 'We're gonna let this kid go,' " Rossomando recalled Sparano saying. "There was no wavering at all. He thought it was the right thing to do, and it made a huge impression on our players."

The team advanced to the Division II national championship game that season.

The no-nonsense Sparano left nothing to chance when he was at New Haven. When Jeanette forgot to pick up his coaching outfit on the Friday before a road game in New Jersey, he was beside himself. After her suggestion of wearing another outfit was rebuffed, she talked the owner of the cleaners into meeting her at 6:30 on the morning of the game.

Sparano was so detail-oriented that he worried what condiments were being used on sandwiches. If he arrived for a pregame meal and saw what he referred to as "soupy sauces," he would have them removed from the buffet. (Rossomando defined "soupy sauces" as beef stew or beef stroganoff.)

"He's incredibly organized," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said recently. "He's just the type of person who doesn't leave a stone unturned. It was pretty obvious he had some of the characteristics that a head coach needs."

Man Of The House

Sparano takes the same approach at home. During family vacations, he would wake his sons, Tony and Andy, at 7 a.m. for workouts at whatever gym they could find in the area. When they were playing football at Grapevine (Texas) High School, Sparano would sit in the upper right-hand corner of the 9,100-seat stadium, away from all the parents.

"He wanted it to be about us," Tony said. "He was very, very careful never to infringe on our coaches because he knows how tough a job it is."

At least once or twice a game, the boys would locate their father in the stands. If he thought they needed to play with more motor, he would give them a thumbs-up. If Tony was having trouble getting to the quarterback from his nose-tackle position, his father would signal for a swim technique.

After games, he would always say something encouraging. If the boys wanted constructive criticism, they'd knock on his bedroom door later in the evening. In the summers, he brought tapes home of Cowboys offensive linemen Andre Gurode and Larry Allen for his sons to watch.

Tony and Andy now play for the University of Albany, and their younger sister, Ryan, is a talented high school softball player. Before each football game, Sparano sends his sons text messages that say something like "play fast and physical."

It's one of several things that Sparano took from his time with Coughlin and Parcells. They both love inspirational phrases. Parcells had them plastered on the walls of the Cowboys' practice facility, and Coughlin puts them on T-shirts for the Giants.

For years, Sparano recited Vince Lombardi's famous "No. 1" speech in front of his college players. To some, it might be hokey to hear a football coach rant about how a second-place bowl game is a "game for losers," but in Sparano's mind, it's the gospel.

If you've served under Marty Schottenheimer (Redskins), Coughlin and Parcells, it's hard to avoid the "taskmaster" label.

But Sparano, who signed a four-year, $11 million contract with the Dolphins, isn't an easy man to label. When he has moved his family to a new city, one of the first priorities is finding the best ice cream shop. On a recent Saturday night, he led a delegation of Sparanos to Wentworth's Homemade Ice Cream in Hamden, Conn. After quickly finishing off a double scoop of coconut mounds, Sparano entertained his nieces and nephews by using his tongue to tie cherry stems into knots.

You wonder if it's sunk in yet that he's a head coach in the NFL. And you sort of hope it never does.

Matt Mosley covers the NFL for ESPN.com.