VIDEO: Press Conference
VIDEO: Players reaction
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – America's active wins leader and the fifth winningest coach in college football history, Carson-Newman head football coach Ken Sparks, announced his retirement during a press conference Monday afternoon inside the football athletic complex that bears his name.
Sparks finishes 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.
"On behalf of the entire Carson-Newman family I would like to thank the man who made winning football and Carson-Newman synonymous," Carson-Newman University President Dr. Randall O'Brien said. "Even more important to him than the victories, Coach Ken Sparks wanted each young man to be a champion for Christ. What a legacy in football and life!"
In 2012 Sparks made history, becoming only the 13th man in college football to record 300 wins.
The coach is reluctant to shine the spotlight on himself and his accomplishments. Sparks would instead rather be measured by his impact in the lives of the young men and coaches who've been a part of his Carson-Newman family.
For Coach Sparks, football is a laboratory of learning where he and his staff strive to develop the whole person – educationally, socially, athletically and spiritually.
While Sparks indicated he's done coaching, his outlook and purpose remains the same as it has been.
"After 47 years, this is hard, but the mission hasn't changes guys, I want y'all to understand that. My mission hasn't changed," Sparks said, fighting through tears. "What is my mission? [It] should be all of our missions and that is to honor and glorify the God who's created us and has got big plans for us and is trying to do some unbelievable things through us and that's what I want to continue to do."
Sparks received a standing ovation from a crowd of administrators, coaches and media assembled at the event.
"This is a day that none of us looked forward to as Carson-Newman football fans and supporters, but it's a day we honor and a day we rejoice in," Carson-Newman Director of Athletics Allen Morgan said. "It's a day we honor Ken and the legacy he is leaving for how he has touched young men's lives in a way far greater than wins on a football field.
"He has molded boys to become Christian young men, husbands and community leaders where they too can give back. So today, it's Ken Sparks' day. The entire Carson-Newman community gives thanks for what he has done not only for Carson-Newman but for the greater good of mankind."
Along the way, 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 and a slew of recognitions from various halls of fame.
"The interesting thing and I'm going to give you a little insight," Sparks said. "If you want to involved in your program, get people involved in your life, get people involved in doing, then cast a vision about what God is doing. Make sure that you sell an all-mighty God that's got some unbelievable plans that wants to do some things in kids lives because a lot of things fell into place when that happened. I'm so grateful just to be a small part of it."
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.
"Every day that you trust the Lord is a celebration," Sparks said. "Every day that he gets to do only what he can do is a celebration. I never had a bad time with the Lord. I've had a bad time when I had it all figured out. So, thank you, it's good. I'm at peace, man. I may miss out on the kudzu experience (Ken has frequently said he wouldn't retire, but rather just die on the practice field and let his body be moved into the kudzu that lines a hill beside it), but I'm at peace and I got a great doctor, my personal doctor, my great wife. If we're breathing we're fighting."
The former coach of Farragut High School earned NAIA Coach of the Year honors in 1984. He's been voted SAC Coach of the Year 12 times. Sparks is a two-time winner of the Tennessee Sportswriters Coach of the Year in 1999 and 2002 and was also named Division II Coach of the Year by American Football Coach Magazine.
In 2010, Sparks received the prestigious General Robert R. Neyland Trophy, presented by the Knoxville Quarterback Club for contributing greatly to intercollegiate athletics. In 2013, he was named Jefferson Countian of the Year by the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce for outstanding commitment to the area. Following that he was presented the Uncommon Award by former NFL coach Tony Dungy for "uncommon leadership through character and faith." Sparks has called the Uncommon Award one of the most meaningful of his career along with the lifetime achievement award from the FCA because of what they stand for.
The Eagles' postseason run under Sparks began in 1982, when he guided the Eagles to a 10-2 record and an NAIA playoff berth in his third season. Carson-Newman lost in the opening round of the playoffs that season, but the culture of the Eagles program was forever changed. The next season, C-N won its second-straight SAC-8 title, then captured its first national football title in school history, beating heavily-favored Mesa State 36-28 in the NAIA Champion Bowl.
The Eagles brought home four more titles beginning with a 19-19 tie with Central Arkansas in 1984. Carson-Newman shutout Cameron 17-0 in the 1986 championship game, blew out Adams State 56-21 in 1988 for the title and cruised to a fifth in 1989 with a 34-20 win over Emporia State.
In 2009, after opening the season 0-2, the Eagles reeled off 11 consecutive victories, including a perfect 7-0 mark in the SAC to claim their 21st conference title. C-N fell a game short of making its 11th national title game appearance, falling to Grand Valley State in the Division II semifinals.
2012 went down similarly for Sparks' Eagles. After stuttering to a 2-2 start, the Eagles reeled of seven consecutive victories to earn a first round bye. C-N came out in round two and took the SAC champions, the Lenoir-Rhyne Bears, out of the playoffs with a 38-35 victory. Carson-Newman would fall just shy of the semis against eventual national champions Valdosta State.
Carson-Newman made its 25th postseason appearance under Sparks in 2015. The Eagle mentor has helped coach four Harlon Hill Trophy Finalists, 412 All-SAC selections and 106 All-Americans.
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.
All told, as a student, coordinator and head coach, Sparks has spent 47 years on the banks of Mossy Creek.
The Eagles and Morgan now move toward hiring the 18th head football coach in program history, a process which Sparks said he will step back from.
"I have all the confidence in the world in [Allen Morgan]," Sparks said. "I think he'll do an unbelievable job, better than I could do because I got some vices. I think he'll do a great job. The only thing I've asked is take care of this coaching staff because this is the best coaching staff in America and they do it differently from anybody that I know. This is a great coaching staff.
"One thing I do want to do is, I've got a golf cart that the players got together and got for me. I want to ride them little grandchildren I got running around here. I'm talking about coaches' kids. There's a bunch of them. We had three born in one month last year. They love to ride in that golf cart, so that's what I'd like to do a whole lot and whatever else I can do to contribute. That might be the limit to what I can contribute."
Morgan said that Monday is for honoring Ken, but a search to find the Eagles' next head coach will begin sooner rather than later.
"We're looking for a coach that has great character, who will continue to be Godly and lead this football program, this university in the manner that we've become accustomed," Morgan said. "No. 2, we will expect a coach that expects excellence from these young men, both in the classroom and on the field. We want to graduate the students that God's given us the responsibility for.
"No. 3, he better be able to coach some football. Those three things are what we'll be looking for. We want to begin. Today is Ken's day, so we won't be dealing with that today, but we'll start the process quickly and we will hope it will be over quickly because I don't relish the thought of everybody that's ever played for him or every alum or every coach that's interested in the
job, and there are literally hundreds of them, calling me and saying 'Hey, I'm your guy.'
"But, seriously, those are the three characteristics we are going to look for and we'll try to make it quickly and we will expect excellence to continue through the foundation that Ken Sparks and others that have preceded him have brought to this university."
To follow along with the conversation surrounding Ken Sparks' retirement, use the hashtags #SparksRetirement and #ThankYouKen on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.