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A Tough But Rewarding Change For Sparano

Posted Dec 9, 2011

Football coaches are creatures of habit, so there is no more daunting of a challenge than to get one to willingly change things up in midstream.

Miami Dolphins Head Coach Tony Sparano did just that this season when he changed everything about the team’s practice regimen after the Denver Broncos game. He didn’t just tweak the schedule or eliminate one drill. He overhauled the entire system and has seen a dramatic turn in results ever since, with his team going 4-2, but it sure wasn’t easy for him.

“It was tough, it was really tough,” said Sparano, who is in his fourth season at the helm in Miami. “I spent some alone time thinking about it, fighting it and mentally talking it over with some of my coaches. I’m fortunate that on my coaching staff I have four ex-players and being able to grab them and have a visit with them about some of this was good. I’m also fortunate that I have a (defensive coordinator) Mike Nolan, who has been a head coach, and a (offensive coordinator) Brian Daboll, who has been with the Belichicks and those guys and you just try to gather information that way.”

Sparano had to have his coaching staff onboard with the changes he was proposing because it directly impacted how they were going to have to coach their positions. From the coordinators’ perspectives, the new schedule and approach to how the practices were going to go was going to force them to implement some of their own changes.

Nolan has been around long enough and with enough different teams that it wasn’t difficult for him to adapt when Sparano presented the new routine to him and Daboll. He described it as a smooth transition but one that was needed all the way around.

“I think everyone welcomed the change. It was difficult on the players, coaches and everybody with the way it was going so a little bit of a change was good,” Nolan said. “I think it got guys fresher and I think one of the key factors is keeping a football team fresh. The teams that do that best I think typically assist their players to play at the highest level. If you keep your team fresh, and that goes for coaches too, I think you’ve got a chance to perform better.”

Changing a philosophy that had worked for him for the better part of three decades at the college and professional ranks certainly was a test for Sparano. He had seen his way lead to the greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history his first year with the Dolphins in 2008 when they went 11-5 a year after going 1-15 and won the AFC East.

Back-to-back 7-9 seasons also started out strong, as Miami was sitting at 7-6 both times and alive in the playoff race. Sparano’s players always have responded positively to him so he had no reason to believe things would be different this time, but it was coming to grips with it himself that proved to be most important.

“I had to check my own ego here and it’s not about what I want to do,” Sparano said. “I’ve always said this, you can’t force a square peg in a round hole here. I think that we had to look and see what was best and at that time with where we were, which was a pretty ugly place to be, we needed to make change. I’m lucky that I have good veteran players and I had several conversations with players like Kevin Burnett, YB (Yeremiah Bell) and (Karlos) Dansby and JT (Jason Taylor) and Jake Long, and in all of that, gathering my facts, this is what we came up with.”

So before unveiling the new plan, which included later practices on Wednesdays to allow the players to sleep in longer and the shifting of weight lifting days as well as less physical practices, Sparano had to feel comfortable with how those veterans felt about it. Once the four captains – Bell, Dansby, Long and Taylor – and the other vets like Burnett were onboard it was time to let the rest of the team in on it.

Sparano was careful to be explicit and detailed to the entire team about how this whole new process was going to work, from a new static stretching routine to the other minor tweaks designed to keep them healthy and fresh. He needed to sell them on the fact that if done correctly by everyone involved, players and coaches alike, better results will be seen in the upcoming games.

“When I presented it to the players I presented it in a sense where I said, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do,’” he said. “ ‘This is what I’m going to do, I’m going to have you fresh for the games, you’re job is to play like you’re fresh and lay it on the line out there. I’ll have you ready to play, we’ll have you fresh, mentally you’ll be ready to go and we’re going to do some of these things.

“‘But in order to do them we’ve got to be efficient in practice if we’re cutting reps out. And if we’re cutting time down or bringing you in later or giving you rest then I need to know that you’re taking care of your bodies and doing those things.’ The players in the locker room were able to do that and commit to that and that has been the biggest part of this.”

In essence, as Sparano put it, he was reaching out to them and reminding them that this was their team and they needed to take ownership. It allowed the players to feel like they were in it all together and to have some fun and return to their Pop Warner days.

Bell, as the longest tenured Dolphin in terms of consecutive years with the team, appreciated that Sparano came to him and the other captains and veterans first. It proved to him what he and the others already knew, which was how badly he wants to win and what he was willing to do.

“As a head coach and as players starting 0-7 was not fun and by changing things the way he did it just showed you how important it was to him,” said Bell, who is one of the vocal leaders on defense. “I just think he was looking for the right mix and trying to find the winning formula and I think he found it. We tried different things and he worked with the captains and it was a process. It wasn’t just one day where everything clicked.”

Bell agreed with Nolan’s take on how the new formula has impacted the health of the team and allowed them to be fresher on game days.

The players also accepted the fact that they needed to change their own habits and had a strong desire to make it happen for Sparano.

“Everybody knows how bad Tony wants to win and how devoted he is. If you don’t know that then you’re a fool,” veteran cornerback Will Allen said. “The dude loves football and he’s devoted everything in his being to winning. I’m sure of that. I’m sure he’s going to exhaust every avenue and if he could come on the field himself, if that was going to change the outcome, he’d do it. I love having him as my coach just because you like to be around a guy that wants to win that bad.”

As for Taylor, who is in his 15th season in the league and 13th with the Dolphins, he has seen it all and been through it all with eight different head coaches. He has said time and again how much he respects Sparano and was easily onboard with the changes.

“He’ll do anything to help this team win,” Taylor said. “Tony, he did change a lot of things about himself and as hard-headed as he is sometimes and stubborn and very focused and determined, he’s willing to change. That’s part of this league. I’ve been in here long enough and seen enough change and the one constant in life is change. If you can’t change then I think you’re going to get passed by and Tony obviously is willing to change. He made a lot of changes and it’s been for the better, obviously. We’re having a lot of fun and playing a lot better.”

Because of the quality of work he was getting out of his players before the Denver game, Sparano wasn’t really surprised how quickly they turned things around.

So in the end, after the team responded so well to the new regimen and went on a tear in the win column, Sparano’s decision was validated. Even in the loss at the New York Giants, his team played hard and led in the fourth quarter and then followed that up with a three-game winning streak. Now it’s easier for Sparano to share what exactly he learned about himself during this time.

“Honestly, I learned two things about myself in this thing,” he said. “One is that change is okay. In other words we are creatures of habit and we all have our own ways and some people will give you the standard line, ‘Stay the course and keep doing it your way.’ When you’re 0-6 and 0-7 you hear from a lot of people and some of them say those things and I appreciate that. That’s good encouragement.

“But nobody knows the Miami Dolphins football team better than I do and I think that I learned that I needed to listen to myself there. And the other thing I learned in this process is that this football team has taught me an awful lot this season. And for that I’m very grateful.”