By Alex Norman
East Tennessee lost one of its greatest ambassadors on Wednesday, March 29th when Carson-Newman football coach Ken Sparks passed away at the age of 73, following a five year battle with prostate cancer.
“It is a sad day at Mossy Creek,” said Carson-Newman University President J. Randall O’Brien. “Coach Sparks leaves a legacy that has influenced, and will continue to impact, the lives of Carson-Newman student-athletes for years to come. Ken’s devotion to seeing that his players develop on the field was secondary to seeing them develop as Christian young men off the field. He inspired us in the way he so bravely fought his battle with cancer – with courage and full of faith. Our hearts are saddened, but we know that Ken is with his loving Heavenly Father. Our prayers are with his dear wife Carol and his family.”
It was a coaching career that brought him to Gibbs, Morristown East and Farragut high schools, as well as Tennessee Tech, but it was the 37 years building the Carson-Newman Eagles program that Sparks is best known. His teams won 338 games, the 5th most in the history of college football. The only coaches with more victories are John Gagliardi, Joe Paterno, Eddie Robinson and Bobby Bowden.
The Eagles won 5 NAIA titles in the 1980s under Sparks’s direction. The program moved up to Division II in 1990 and Carson-Newman became a regular postseason participant, finishing second in the nation on three occasions.
In 37 years, the Eagles played in the postseason 25 times, or a remarkable 68% of the time.
“I’m very sad to hear of the passing of Coach Ken Sparks,” said Tennessee head coach Butch Jones in a statement released by the University of Tennessee’s Sports Information Department. “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.”
“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,” said Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes in a statement released by the University of Tennessee’s Sports Information Department. “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.”
Back in November Sparks announced that he was retiring from coaching.
“It’s not easy… but that’s special,” said Sparks at a news conference. “And I’m grateful that the Lord gave me that opportunity.”
As good a coach as Ken Sparks was, he was a better man. He was always polite to fans and accommodating to the media.
Ken Sparks will be greatly missed by the people of Jefferson City, but he will not be forgotten.