ALAMEDA — Tony Sparano won over the locker room and changed the mindset of the Oakland Raiders in 12 games as interim coach.
That garnered him widespread support in the locker room despite getting only three wins. Whether it proves to be enough for him to keep the job next season will ultimately be up to owner Mark Davis.
Sparano wrapped up the season Monday by holding a brief team meeting with his players and then emphatically stating his case for keeping the job in a season-ending news conference.
“All I want to do right now is be the head coach of the Raiders,” Sparano said. “How badly? Very, very badly. This is my team. I left my team today. I'm looking forward to starting over again with them. Those decisions will be made down the road. I only have one concern now and that's to be head coach of the Oakland Raiders.”
Sparano appeared to be talking to Davis as much as anyone during the news conference. He cited the spark he has with his team, the improvement following the firing of Dennis Allen in September and the 27 first- or second-year players who participated in more than 10,000 plays this season.
“I'm confident. I know the direction this is headed,” Sparano said. “I've done this before, not quite like this. I've got a lot of work done right here. I want that work to be for me, for this organization.”
Sparano will get the chance to talk directly with Davis when he interviews for the job shortly. Davis will also interview other candidates but big names like Jim Harbaugh and Jon Gruden are no longer options.
Sparano and the players also talked about the importance of continuity, citing the eight head coaches and more than 100 assistants Oakland has had in 12 seasons since last going to the playoffs in 2002.
Defensive end Justin Tuck, one of the many proven veterans brought in this offseason to help instill a winning mindset in Oakland, said he hopes that there will not be major changes on the coaching staff.
Tuck, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, said the Raiders are not as far away from becoming a winner as most outsiders might think.
“We're not far off,” he said. “Obviously you look at the record and say, 'They're at the bottom of the league and things like that.' I think I've played this game long enough and a lot of guys around here have played this game long enough to know that the foundation has been set here.”
Defensive lineman Antonio Smith said Sparano's best trait was his ability to keep the team together through an 0-10 start. The Raiders played their best football late in a lost season and never showed signs of giving up on the field.
Smith said without that leadership from Sparano, this team could have joined the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams ever to go winless in a 16-game season.
“Definitely. It could have easily went that way,” Smith said. “Oh, yeah. If everybody wouldn't have bought in, if he wouldn't have been able to relate to players enough to get them to buy in, it would have been exactly that.”
Left tackle Donald Penn praised Sparano's honesty, motivation and leadership and said it only would be fair to get a full season to show what he could do with his own team.
“You have to understand, he inherited somebody else's team,” Penn said. “If you give him an offseason to make his moves and bring in the guys he wants to bring and give him a year with his own team, a full year, I think he will make some changes and I think things will get better.”