Tony Sparano, whose NFL coaching career included a 2014 stint as interim head coach of the Raiders, died unexpectedly Sunday.
Sparano was 56. The cause of death has not been disclosed.
According to Chris Mortenson of ESPN, Sparano and his wife, Jeanette, were about to leave for church when she found him unconscious in their kitchen. She tried CPR, but he could not be revived.
Mortenson reported that Sparano went to a hospital Thursday, complaining of chest pains. Tests were performed and he was released Friday, Mortenson said.
Sparano, who was currently the offensive line coach for the Minnesota Vikings, coached for nine NFL teams in a career that began in 1999 as a Cleveland Browns assistant.
In 2013, Sparano was hired by the Raiders as offensive line coach and assistant head coach under Dennis Allen. When the Raiders started 0-4 in 2014, Sparano took over as head coach. The Raiders went 3-9 under him.
The Raiders released the following statement on their Web site and on Twitter: “The Raiders family was deeply saddened to learn of Tony Sparano’s passing this morning. Tony had a deep passion for football and was embraced by the Raider Nation during his time with the Silver and Black. Tony will be sadly missed by the entire NFL community. Our hearts are with Jeanette and the Sparano family during this difficult time.”
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, a rookie that season, expressed his condolences via Twitter: “(Sparano) Family I am so sorry for your loss. Coach believed in me, trusted me, and stuck with me as a rookie. He would check on my family every HC and QB meeting we would have! He was a great man! I love you coach!”
Other with Raiders connections who expressed “RIP” condolences via Twitter include Donald Penn, Khalil Mack and Charles Woodson.
Sparano was hired after owner Mark Davis fired Allen when the Raiders returned from London following a 38-14 loss to the Dolphins.
At the team facility, Sparano gathered the Raiders near the practice field and buried a football to signify burying the past and starting a new beginning. The Raiders however, lost six more games before beating the Chiefs on Nov. 16.
The Raiders played better under Sparano than they did under Allen — including a 24-13 home win over the 49ers. But some disasters on the road, most notably a 52-0 loss to the St. Louis Rams, hurt his cause.
Sparano often spoke of “Oakland beating Oakland,” which was his way of referring to self-inflicted errors that prevented the Raiders from winning.
Unlike Allen, who dealt only with general manager Reggie McKenzie, Sparano instantly forged a relationship with Davis and was a contender to have his interim label removed until the Raiders’ owner met with Jack Del Rio and decided to change direction.
“Tony was extremely passionate about the game and took great pride in his job as a football coach,” McKenzie said in statement. “I enjoyed working with Tony during his time with the Raiders and everyone who knew him will miss him dearly. My prayers and heartfelt condolences are with the Sparano family at this time.”
Sparano’s only other head coaching experience came with the Miami Dolphins from 2008-11. In his first season, he guided the Dolphins to an 11-5 record and their first playoff berth in seven years.
“Heart broken and lost for words!” former Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline wrote on Twitter. “We lost a great man. Prayers to the Sparano family. So glad I got to see you and tell ya how much you meant to me a month ago. #RIPTony”
After being let go by the Raiders, Sparano moved across the bay to serve as 49ers tight ends coach for one season under Jim Tomsula.
He caught on with the Vikings in 2016, reuniting with head coach Mike Zimmer, with whom he’d been an assistant under Bill Parcells from 2003-06.
“I really can’t believe the news,” Vikings reserve quarterback Kyle Solter said via Twitter. “A great coach and even better person. My condolences go out to the Sparano family. I think I speak for everyone when I say this season is for you!”
Sparano is survived by his wife, three children; sons, Tony and Andrew, daughter, Ryan Leigh; and four grandchildren.
“Our hearts go out to Jeanette and the entire Sparano family as we all mourn the loss of Tony,” Vikings owners Mark and Zygi Wilf said in a statement. “Tony was a passionate and driven individual who cared deeply about his family, and especially enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren. Tony’s presence within the Vikings organization will be deeply missed. We are only thinking of Tony’s family during this incredibly difficult time. We ask that the entire NFL and Vikings family keep the Sparanos in their thoughts.”