By Scott Barkley
JEFFERSON CITY — For 40 years, Ken Sparks coached and led thousands of young men on football fields in East Tennessee. Over that time his impact led to wins and championships, but also innumerable lives changed for the gospel through the man referred to as “the Billy Graham of coaches.”
“Sparks — The Ken Sparks Story” continues in theaters a week after its debut, telling of the longtime Carson-Newman University coach who died in 2017. For 37 years, Sparks led the Eagles to five national championships and a 338-99-2 record, retiring fifth in all-time NCAA wins. In that time, he was also highly involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and an active member of Manley Baptist Church in Morristown.
Carson-Newman is a private Baptist university in Jefferson City and affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
“He inspired me. He gave me that role model of how to coach,” said Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, one of several testimonials in the documentary spearheaded by actor/filmmaker Jeff Joslin, who quarterbacked for Sparks at Farragut High in Knoxville and later at Carson-Newman.
Alan Duncan, associate pastor at Manley Baptist, was a kicker in the late 1970s for the University of Tennessee who also preached throughout the state. At one point, Sparks, then head coach at Farragut, asked Duncan to speak to the school’s FCA group.
It began a lifelong friendship between the two.
“I’ve met a lot of wonderful Christian men throughout the years, but he’s the most amazing I’ve seen,” Duncan told Baptist Press. “Ken was a competitor like no one I’ve ever known and had high expectations on the football field, but he was always about sharing the Gospel.”
Duncan would go on to NFL training camp stints with the Eagles and Broncos. Eventually, he played with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL. The league’s spring schedule allowed him to work in the Fall as a volunteer coach with Carson-Newman kickers and learn from Sparks.
“During two-a-day practices he would have me and others come in and speak to the guys,” Duncan said. “He became a great friend, and we saw each other often since he was a member at Manley for at least 30 years.”
Shortly before his death, Sparks was inducted into the FCA Hall of Champions at the C-N Championship Coaching Clinic, which he founded in the mid-1980s. Weakened by cancer at the time, Sparks was unable to attend in person. However, several in his coaching brotherhood spoke of his influence.
“I could tell there was something unique about him,” said Liberty University coach Hugh Freeze, the former head coach at Ole Miss. “I was drawn to that. He’s an incredible role model. I followed the wins, but the things that you hear that really stand out are the players who come back and say such great things about him after 20 years.”
In 2016, Sparks received the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s first Eagle Award which is now presented annually to an outstanding Baptist lay leader in the state.
“Coach Sparks was one of the most dynamic Christ followers I have ever known,” said Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. “He was a man of prayer; an unashamed witness for Christ; and a strong advocate for the trustworthiness of the Bible. Ken was a great ambassador for Christ. He was in every way a gentleman and a champion,” Davis said.
Roc Collins, director of strategic objectives for the TBMB, agreed. “Coach Sparks impacted countless lives while coaching his way into the record books. His winning record as a coach and multiple national championships were always secondary to his seeking to win people for Christ. He had an enormous impact on countless lives and I’m glad my life was impacted by him as well.
“Surely, Coach Sparks showed us that winning on the field isn’t everything, but winning people to Jesus is the most important thing.” B&R — B&R editor Lonnie Wilkey contributed to this article.