EAGAN, Minn. – The loss of Tony Sparano was felt throughout the entirety of the 2018 Vikings season.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer held his end-of-season press conference on Thursday and told Twin Cities media members about the ripple effect that occurred when his close friend and colleague passed away unexpectedly on July 21.
Sparano, Minnesota's offensive line coach at the time, died just two days prior to the start of Vikings Training Camp.
"It's tough," Zimmer said. "I got that phone call, we were going to have a [training camp] kickoff party on Monday, and I got the call Sunday morning at 9 a.m. from [Director of Security Kim Klawiter] that he had passed away."
Zimmer, who finished his fifth season in Minnesota 8-7-1 and fell just short of the postseason, said that the Vikings seemed to have lost a "chip on their shoulder" that they played with during the 2017 campaign, when they went 13-3 and advanced to the NFC Championship Game.
Sparano had some of that edge to him. Zimmer said it was helpful to have that type of mentality leading a position group and, on a larger scale, helping with the offense as a whole.
"I think you need that kind of a leader in [the offensive line] room that can help with those things," Zimmer said. "Tony was very innovative in the running game. He was extremely influential in that room. I used to talk with him every morning, so when I'm talking to the defense during games, he would be influential while [the offense was talking] about what they were going to do the next series. That was a little bit of a factor."
Zimmer did add that Clancy Barone and Andrew Janocko, who transitioned to co-offensive line coaches when Sparano passed away, did an "unbelievable job" considering the difficult set of circumstances.
Was it difficult for Zimmer to personally navigate the 2018 season without the familiar voice and perspective of his longtime friend?
The head coach pointed out that the loss of Sparano affected more than just practice and a playbook.
"His wife [Jeanette], I'd text her once in a while to see if she was OK, make sure her family is OK," said Zimmer, who lost his own wife unexpectedly in 2009. "It's not just about the football. That's what everybody wants it to be, but every time you put that pin on that said 'TS,' you're thinking about him and things you miss about him, as well.
"I know the offensive line room was devastated when that happened because they really loved the guy, as did everybody that worked with him," Zimmer continued. "He was a grumpy old Italian guy that was very, very good at his job and was a good friend of mine. I think there's no book on how to do it, but you just try to figure out the best way you can do it, and if it works, it works, and if it doesn't, it doesn't."
Earlier in the press conference, Zimmer had been asked if he believes the team's identity changed in 2018.
"Quite honestly, the death of Tony Sparano really kind of threw things into a little bit of a downward spiral," Zimmer said. "[He] was a Type-A personality, he was really innovative in the running game and had a strong voice in that room, [and he] had a strong voice with me."
Zimmer added that, yes, the Vikings did lose "a little bit of our identity" in addition to losing a coach and mentor so suddenly. He plans to find a way to regain that mentality that reflects, in part, Sparano's coaching style and approach to the game he loved.
"We're going to get that back," Zimmer said.