Legendary Carson-Newman Football Coach Ken Sparks Passes

Carson-Newman University Athletic Department; University of Tennesee Athletics

Former Carson-Neman Coach Ken Sparks. Photo Courtesy of Carson-Newman Athletics

Former Carson-Neman Coach Ken Sparks. Photo Courtesy of Carson-Newman Athletics

Following a five-year battle with cancer, legendary Carson-Newman University head football coach Ken Sparks passed away Wednesday morning at 1:30. He was 73.

Sparks announced his retirement on Nov. 14. He finished his Carson-Newman career after 37 seasons, 338 wins, 99 losses and two ties. His career winning percentage of .7699 is the fourth highest in college football history while the 338 victories amount to the fifth best total nationally.

However, those numbers mattered little to Sparks. The Eagles’ head man was far more likely to ask a player, colleague or coach how their heart was and to guide them to a life in the light of Christ.

Sparks himself lived his life at the foot of the cross, doing everything in his power to honor his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at every turn.

Every year, he grounded the Carson-Newman football program in a theme that was rooted in a Bible verse.

The 2016 team’s theme is a good example of that. Before the season began, Sparks set the theme as me 2 We for HE. The theme was based on Philippians 1:27 – “Just one thing: live your (me) life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (He), so (We) will be seen standing firm in one Spirit, with one mind, working side-by-side (we) for the Gospel (He).”

For a Sparks-led practice, it was a common sight to see the session open and close with a prayer, led by players wearing Carson-Newman gear not adorned by C-N slogans, but with bible verses.

Following a comeback win over North Greenville on Homecoming in 2015, Sparks led the team in an impromptu rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” at the 50-yard-line in celebration.

The Sparks family will receive friends at Manley Baptist Church in Morristown, Tenn. from 2-6 p.m. Friday with a service to follow. That event
is open to the public.

In accordance with the family’s wishes, the burial will be private and family only.

Sparks developed one of the winningest football programs in the history of the sport. The Eagles won five NAIA National Titles and played for it six times. A move to NCAA Division II didn’t slow Sparks’ Carson-Newman squad
down. The Eagles played for the D-II National Title three times and were a semifinalist in 2009.

The rest of the numbers speak for themselves as Sparks has recorded 21 South Atlantic Conference Championships, 25 NCAA or NAIA playoff appearances, 104 All-Americans, and most recently, a street renamed after him that runs through the middle of Carson-Newman’s campus.
Sparks was inducted into the inaugural NCAA Division II Hall of Fame Coaches Class in 2010 along with Northwest Missouri State’s Mel Tjeerdsma and West Alabama’s Bobby Wallace.

Sparks is also a member of the South Atlantic Conference Hall of Fame, the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame, the Carson-Newman Athletic Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the NAIA Hall of Fame.

Sparks has been honored with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Lifetime Achievement Award and National Coach of the Year. In 2002, Sparks received the All-American Football Foundation’s Johnny Vaught Lifetime Achievement Award. He is also a recipient of the FCA Grant Teaff Coach of the Year Award as well as the inaugural “Uncommon Award” presented by Tony Dungy.

A native of Knoxville, Tenn., Sparks began his coaching career at Gibbs High School in Knoxville, restarting the football program with a winning season. A year later Sparks coached quarterbacks and wide receivers at Tennessee Tech while earning his Master’s Degree. He coached Morristown East High School for one season before returning to his alma mater, Carson-Newman, to serve as offensive coordinator for then-Carson-Newman head coach Dal Shealy and oversee the track program. Sparks served both teams with distinction, receiving Southern Collegiate Track Coach of the Year honors in 1977. With Sparks running the offense, the 1972 Eagles advanced to their first-ever NAIA Champion Bowl, falling to East Texas State.

Sparks took over the Farragut High School football program in 1977, guiding  the Admirals to a 29-5 record. Sparks was twice-voted KIL and KFA Coach of the Year. After three seasons, Sparks was asked to take command of the Carson-Newman football program where he would finish his career in legendary fashion.

He is survived by his wife Carol; son Chad Sparks and his wife Darla; daughter Chandra and her husband Chad Childress; stepson Tim Bobo and his wife Mindy; and stepdaughter Kim and her husband Dr. Dan Hines. He is also survived by grandchildren Duncan, Drew and Dara Sparks; Clay, Cole, Calvin and Craten Childress; Lauren Grace, Emma and Anna Kate Hines; and Peyton Walker, Alexandra, Carlie and Christopher Bobo.

Coach Butch Jones of the University of Tennesee Football Program released the following statement about Coach Sparks:

“I’m very sad to hear of the passing of Coach Ken Sparks. Coach Sparks was a close friend to myself and our football program. I had followed Ken’s coaching career from afar and our friendship really began when he was one of the first people to call me when I was hired at UT. That phone call and our talks over the years mean the world to me. He was such a pillar in this community and was always willing to help.

“I think anyone who had the opportunity to be around Ken Sparks would tell you what a special human being he was. His legacy extends way beyond the game of football. He touched so many lives off the field. The players he coached, he coached them to not only win football games, but to be successful in life. I spent some time with Ken a few weeks ago at his home and will always cherish that conversation.

“We lost a legend today and our thoughts and prayers go out to Carol and his family.  He will be missed but always admired.”

Coach Rick Barnes of the University of Tennesee Basketball Program also released a statement:

“First of all, I can’t express how incredibly thankful I am that I had the chance to really get to know and befriend Ken Sparks. The time we spent together was a blessing, and I always came away in awe of a man who was truly living for the Kingdom of the Lord.
“It’s sad to realize that, at least in this life, I don’t have any more opportunities to visit with and learn from him. But when I think about all the lives he impacted… and I think about the celebration taking place today in Heaven, it eases that sadness and evokes a sense of happiness that I was ever blessed to cross paths with such a great man.
“My sincere prayers go out to his wife, Carol, his family and everyone whose lives he touched.”

Source: Carson-Newman University Athletic Department; University of Tennesee Athletics

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