By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
JEFFERSON CITY — Carson-Newman University coaching legend Ken Sparks died March 29 at the age of 73 after a lengthy bout with prostate cancer.
Sparks retired last fall at the end of the season after 37 years as head coach at Carson-Newman. He is the fifth winningest coach in college football history with a record of 338-99-2. His career winning percentage of .7699 is the fourth highest in college football history.
The C-N Eagles won five NAIA national championships under Sparks and played for it six times. After transitioning to NCAA Division II, C-N played for the national title three times. Sparks recorded 21 South Atlantic Conference championships and 25 NCAA or NAIA playoff appearances. He was inducted into several hall of fames, including the NCAA Division II and Tennessee Sports Hall of Fames.
Despite his success on the football field, the Knoxville native was more concerned about the spiritual condition of his players. The Citizen Tribune in Morristown reported that Sparks’ philosophy since he began coaching high school football was: “It’s never about wins on the field, but the victories of the soul.”
A press released from Carson-Newman following Sparks’ death noted: “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 lives his life at the foot of the cross, doing everything in his power to honor his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at every turn.”
Those who knew Sparks well agree.
“Coach Ken Sparks was a dear friend and personal encourager to me,” said Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. “I appreciated his focus on being a witness for Christ, having a strong, crystal clear, biblical-based conviction, and being a great Tennessee Baptist,” Davis added.
He noted that Sparks used a national platform “of being one of the winningest coaches of all time to humbly share the gospel at every turn. While we will tremendously miss our brother, his legacy will have an impact for years to come.”
Marty Blakely, director of the Lakeway area of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, based in Morristown, agreed.
“Coach Sparks is the epitome of what the Fellowship of Christian Athletes stands for. He saw sports, and specifically football, as a vehicle to share the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Blakely, who played football at Carson-Newman for the coach and was member of two NAIA national championship teams in 1984 and 1986.
“Our vision with FCA is to see the world impacted through the influence of coaches and athletes and that is exactly what Coach Sparks did,” Blakely said.
“His influence will continue well on after his life has ended because of the people he impacted, who in turn, will impact others.”
Retired Tennessee Baptist pastor Guy Milam of Whiteville led Sparks, then a teenager, to Christ while serving as pastor of Galilee Baptist Church in Knoxville. He described Sparks as a “trophy of God’s grace.”
Milam maintained a strong relationship with Sparks over the years. “I’m glad I had the privilege to know that boy and lead him to Christ,” he said. “Only God knows how many people he (Sparks) influenced over the years. He was a devout Christian,” Milam said.
“It is a sad day at Mossy Creek,” said C-N 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.”
In November, Sparks addressed the convention’s theme, “Connect Now … Whatever It Takes,” during the annual Summit held in Sevierville.
During his introduction of Sparks to TBC messengers, then convention president Roc Collins of Kingsport noted that Sparks would never shine the spotlight on himself. “He would rather be measured by impact on the lives of young men and coaches who have been part of the Carson-Newman family,” said Collins, now director of evangelism for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
Sparks reminded Tennessee Baptists of “why we do what we do.” He noted that God created, called, and commissioned His people to walk down “victory road,” as described in I Peter 5:5-11. “Let’s make sure we give God the glory. Come on church. Go down the victory road. No excuses,” Sparks challenged.
Sparks is survived by his wife Carol, two children, two stepchildren, and 14 grandchildren.
— The Sparks family will receive friends at Manley Baptist Church in Morristown from 2-6 p.m. on Friday, March 31, with a service to follow. It is open to the public.