He had aspirations to play in the NFL but soon surrendered. "There was a point where he had to say, 'Well, I'm not getting taller,' " Jeanette recalls. "And right there, he decided he wanted to be a coach."

Even that plan derailed during his freshman year at New Haven. His grandmother fell ill, so Tony's parents agreed to move closer to her home in Port Orange, near Daytona. The 20-year-old couldn't afford a college dorm, so he moved with them. Soon, he took a job as a line cook at the Days Inn near the speedway and enrolled at the University of Central Florida, a 65-mile drive from his parents' new home. He saved up to return to New Haven for the next football season, but by that summer, it was clear he wouldn't have enough to pay for a dorm. He might have tried to walk on to the Central Florida football program, but it was too far from his home. His playing days seemed over, but he still didn't give up.

"I always felt, one way or another, football was my calling," Sparano recalls of that period. "It was about somebody taking a chance on me."

Ricky Williams didn't throw the ball against New England, and that relatively conservative play-calling gave Sparano something to celebrate with his linemen.
Michael McElroy
Ricky Williams didn't throw the ball against New England, and that relatively conservative play-calling gave Sparano something to celebrate with his linemen.
Michael McElroy

That somebody was Jeanette's mom, who agreed to an odd arrangement — her family would put Tony up until he saved enough to move into a dorm. Back in New Haven, he took one job with a moving company and another at a 7-Eleven. After spending a year at his girlfriend's house, he moved on campus.

On Christmas Eve in 1983, Tony and Jeanette were driving to a holiday party when she complained about not having anything nice to wear. He pulled out a ring and told her: "I have something beautiful to wear." They married a year later.

During Sparano's last year at New Haven, a security company offered him a $22,000-per-year job. "At the time, that was all the money in the world for us," Jeanette recalls. He also got an offer to return to New Haven as a part-time graduate assistant for the football program — it would pay $1,100 that first season.

"When we talked about coaching, he became animated and excited," she says. "I couldn't see him doing anything else, but it really was jumping into the deep end." To pay the bills, she took jobs in a law office and as a receptionist for a dentist. Tony worked as a gym teacher for $70 a day.

The Sparanos scraped by for ten years. They have three kids, Tony, now 23, Andrew, who's 20, and a 17-year-old daughter, Ryan. All of them were born during those lean years. Jeanette says: "My kids tell me now that they didn't know how broke we were, and I can't believe it. Because we were broke."

Sparano, speaking to New Times in the training facility lobby after his news conference, says he never regretted turning down the security job. "There was never a time that I second-guessed that decision," he says.

The Sparanos' home became a gathering spot for players. Robert Thompson played for New Haven in the late '80s. Then Sparano hired him as an assistant coach, and Thompson often stopped by for dinner. Jeanette was already taking on her role as team matron. "I told her, 'Jeanette, any time you're cooking chicken parm, I'm coming,' " Thompson recalls. "And when we'd see Tony outside football, he was a different guy. Funny and personable."

In 1994, Sparano landed the New Haven head coaching job. Early on, he developed an obsessive attention to detail. Debbie Chin, athletic director at New Haven, hired the coach and quickly noticed his quirks, like how he'd recite storied coach Vince Lombardi's "Number One" speech to his players every year. When Sparano was hired by the Dolphins, Chin watched his televised speech and noticed him push his glasses up with his thumb and forefinger. "I thought, 'Oh my God, you're still doing it the same way.' Same old Tony."

It was during the New Haven era on the Friday before a Saturday game in New Jersey that Sparano realized his regular outfit was still at the dry cleaner's. He refused to wear anything else, so Jeanette drove back to Connecticut. She met the owner of the cleaner at 6:30 the next morning and then drove back, five hours roundtrip, and managed to arrive with it just before the game.

Jeanette rolled her eyes while telling that story at the Dolphins training facility. About the same time not far away, Tony Sparano was explaining to reporters why practice lasted longer than scheduled that day. He said he wanted to make sure the team could get a play right, even if it meant staying late — something that rarely happens to Sparano's Dolphins.

Not long after taking the job last year, he timed how long it takes to walk from the practice field to the locker room, so that every minute is accounted for. "To be honest with you," he said, "practice ran over about six minutes."

As the news conference ended, Jeanette stepped outside with the other wives. Sparano left the news conference and headed back upstairs, just missing her.

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