Tony Sparano is to the Minnesota Vikings offensive line what Mike Zimmer is to the defensive backs – demanding, detail-oriented and holding his players accountable.
Sparano was hired as the Vikings’ offensive line coach after Zimmer sent former position coach Jeff Davidson packing following a turbulent 2015 season on the offensive line. Davidson lost two starters before the season began, and Sparano knows that played a part in the struggles last year, but yet …
“I don’t believe a lot in excuses. I don’t believe in making them one way or another,” Sparano said. “I demand a lot from them. I think my experiences have been in this league when you demand a lot from them, they’ll give it to you. What I’ve seen out here has not disappointed me.”
That’s exactly the way Zimmer approached the defense, and the defensive backs in particular, when he was hired in 2014. Two years later, Zimmer said fixing the offensive line was his top priority for 2016. Hiring Sparano was the start of that reparation process.
When Sparano took the job, he knew exactly what the expectations were. Zimmer demands a lot of his defensive players and Sparano expects the same from his offensive linemen. Sparano and Zimmer worked together in Dallas and found their coaching styles to be similar.
That goes for on the practice field and in the classroom, where both coaches believe in teaching, holding players accountable and making sure they know what is expected of them. Sparano admitted his style may have been a jolt to the offensive linemen initially.
“Listen, everybody has a different way of doing things. My way has just been the same way for a long time and Zim happens to know that way and it kind of jives with Zim,” Sparano said. “I sensed early on that they figure out that, ‘Look, it’s going to be no-nonsense and there’s not going to be any places to hide. He’s going to call on us to answer questions. I’m not going to be able sit in the back of the room and fly kind of under the radar. He’s going to place a lot of demands on us and challenge us.’”
From the time players reported to offseason conditioning and started learning from and about Sparano, it’s been clear to them that Sparano wants it his way. Free agent guard Alex Boone got a small taste of what Sparano is about when they were in San Francisco together last year – Boone as the starting left guard and Sparano as the tight ends coach.
“Tony is a great guy and what I love about him is he’s always Tony; never anything different. He’s always Tony. He’s never any different. He’s always very calm,” Boone said. “In San Francisco some things were going on during games, kind of hectic, and Tony was always Tony. He was great to talk to and he kind of took the edge off a little bit and he’s very understanding when you talk to him on the sideline. He never freaked out or panicked, so I always really like him a lot, but we always kind of got after each other.”
The friendly barbs are part of the process – “How much of a relationship can you really have with a tight end coach?” – Boone joked, referring to him and Sparano in San Fran, but the business of coaching is serious in Sparano’s realm.
It’s an approach that mirrors Zimmer’s – both rote with technique and holding their players to the fundamentals they demand.
That’s what made Sparano a natural hire for Zimmer, who said after the 2015 season that fixing the offensive line was his top priority. The Vikings signed Boone and Andre Smith and drafted Willie Beavers.
But, perhaps the biggest move was hiring Sparano.
Like Zimmer, Sparano appreciates the hard workers and believes he has plenty of them on his offensive line.
“This is probably arguably one of the hardest groups of working guys I’ve seen, that I’ve been around in a long, long time. They work real hard; they’re eager to get better,” Sparano said. “They’ll do anything you ask them to do. That’s a credit to what Zim has put together here and Rick (Spielman), what they’ve done that way with bringing people in. It’s nice to get in a room and get to coach them and just know that they’re going to do the things that we want them to do. I think they’ve all seen that we’re making some steps toward getting better.”
Sparano looked at his new offensive line on film when he was first hired. He studied hard but held off on making too many judgments until he got to know them personally.
“I thought they were a physical group. I thought it was a group that could improve in different areas, but I just knew why I was brought here and I knew that we had to get some things going in a little bit different direction with that group,” he said, acknowledging that injuries to John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt in 2015 didn’t help. “In studying them, I felt like it’s a group that if we can make another jump here that we have a chance to be pretty good.”
In fact, he will demand it. Time and again, Sparano deems himself a “no-nonsense” coach. He doesn’t mind his players having fun, but work is work and he is intent on instilling his quiet intensity.
“I think it’s more in your face and those are the coaches that I really like a lot, guys that are very straightforward. Hurt me with the truth, don’t comfort me with a lie. Give it to me straight,” Boone said. “I know when I screwed up. You can tell me I screwed up. Let’s fix the problem and we’ll move on. That’s the kind of coach he is. I hate these guys that beat around the bush – ‘Oh, yeah, it wasn’t really your fault.’ Yeah, it was my fault. That’s fine. I’m not going to cry; I’m not a girl. It’s really his coaching style that I love.”
Zimmer’s defensive players quickly grew to that point with his teaching style, too. His knowledge gained him quick credibility. Sparano got that with Boone in their one year together and he’s likely rapidly getting there with the rest of the group.
His mentality is simple.
“Listen, I’m kind of a no-nonsense guy,” he said. “I’m easy to read that way.”