MIAMI — Even before the Miami Dolphins fired Tony Sparano on Monday, names of potential successors were being bandied about.
Bill Cowher? Jeff Fisher? Jon Gruden?
"I'd like to find a young Don Shula if that's possible," owner Stephen Ross said.
Shula turns 81 next month, which rules out that option. But it's no wonder Ross craves some stability — since Shula retired in 1996, no coach has made it through five full seasons in Miami.
That includes Sparano, fired three games from the end of his fourth season, and one day after the Dolphins lost to the Philadelphia Eagles to fall to 4-9. The defeat ended a recent surge by the Dolphins after they lost their first seven games.
With two other NFL teams already in the market for a new coach, Ross didn't want to wait any longer to start shopping. Sparano's dismissal came hours after the Kansas City Chiefs fired coach Todd Haley. Jacksonville fired coach Jack Del Rio on Nov. 29.
General manager Jeff Ireland's status had also been in question, but he'll be retained and take part in the coaching search, Ross said.
Todd Bowles, who had been assistant head coach and secondary coach, becomes interim head coach. He's the sixth coach since 2004 for the Dolphins, who haven't won a playoff game since 2000 and haven't reached the Super Bowl since 1984.
The Dolphins play Sunday at Buffalo, but they're already assured of their third consecutive losing season, the longest such streak since the 1960s.
"The results speak for themselves," Ross said at a hastily called news conference. "We're looking to becoming a winning organization, and I thought this was the best time to make the change and let us go in a direction that will allow us to become that."
Joining Ross at the news conference was Ireland, who hired Sparano in Miami and also worked with him in Dallas.
"It's a difficult day for me," Ireland said. "He's a friend of mine. He has been a colleague of mine from before we got here together."
Ross is expected to pursue a coach with star power. But with Ireland remaining in charge of personnel, someone of Cowher's caliber might not be interested in the job.
On the other hand, Ireland stressed the need for an experienced coach, which might rule out hiring an assistant.
"You're looking for the best candidate out there, a guy who has been in the trenches before," Ireland said. "You're looking for some of the same qualities I saw in Tony — a tireless worker, a guy who understands offense and defense. We'll talk about those things as the weeks go by, and exactly what we're looking for, and iron out a plan that best fits what Mr. Ross is looking for."
Bowles, in his fourth season with the Dolphins, is among those who will be interviewed.
Sagging attendance helped doom Sparano, and Ross said he wants a turnaround at the ticket office as well as in the standings.
"Certainly when you're winning, it's a lot easier to sell tickets," Ross said. "If you win, everything takes care of itself, and that's what we're really trying to bring back."
Sparano began the season aware he was on borrowed time. After Miami's late-season fade to 7-9 last year, Ross and Ireland embarked on a public courtship with Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh.
When Harbaugh instead joined the San Francisco 49ers, Ross gave Sparano a contract extension through 2013. But Ross made clear he expected substantial improvement this season, saying the Dolphins had "the nucleus of a great winning team."
Sparano was fired even though he retained the support of his players, who staged a surprising turnaround after their 0-7 start.
"Sad and disappointing news on Coach Sparano's termination," running back Reggie Bush tweeted. "He's a great coach and an even better man! He will be greatly missed."
In Sparano's first season as an NFL head coach, he led the Dolphins to a surprising 11-5 record, the 2008 AFC East title and their only playoff game since 2001. He departs with a record of 29-32.
Shortly before he was fired, Sparano held his regular Monday news conference. When asked if he wanted to comment on reports he would be fired after the season, he said no.
"I want to coach against the Buffalo Bills this week. That's my sole focus," he said.
Sparano's departure represents further dismantling of the regime built by Bill Parcells after he joined the Dolphins in late 2007, as they staggered to the end of a 1-15 season. Ross took over as owner in early 2009, and Parcells turned control of football operations over to Ireland before last season.
As in 2007, the Dolphins have issues at quarterback, in the offensive line and elsewhere. But Ross said the situation is not as bleak now.
"Everybody recognizes there's a great foundation here to build upon," Ross said. "It's not starting all over again. This isn't the way the team was when Parcells came and they had to rebuild the entire roster."
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