JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn – After 37 season as the head coach of Carson-Newman football, Ken Sparks announced his retirement from coaching on Monday. He made the announcement in a press conference at the Ken Sparks Athletics Complex.
The following is a written transcript of the Ken Sparks press conference.
Sparks Opening Remarks: Wanted to make the announcement I won't be coaching. 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. 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. I want to have a whistle around my neck and Carol [Sparks] will have a rope around my neck. It's just, you know, last week, after missing three days of practice and being in the hospital four straight days, I said "I'm not a very good football coach." These guys deserve a better coach. That's how the decision came about. My goal was, and you've heard me say this before, my goal was to die on the practice field and they roll me over in the kudzu and Carol wouldn't have to worry about funeral arrangements. We're going to see what the Lord has for us. I want to thank a lot of people. The opportunity when I came here back in 1902. I squeezed five years of college into four years at Carson-Newman and got a degree from Carson-Newman and then I was here five years as an assistant coach and the last two as a head track coach and cross country coach and then came back here. I never will forget coming back here. I had three or four job [offers]. I was in a hotel in Richmond, Va. getting ready to take a job when Henry Blank, who's on the board of trustees called me and said "You owe me a favor. Don't you take that job until you come here and talk to us." And so I did because Henry had been an unbelievable friend for many, many years and so I came here and I met on Sunday morning late in December with him and Lonus Tarr and another trustee and Dr. Maddox. I told them my vision about what to do and they hired me. That's when I became the athletic director and the head football coach at Carson-Newman and I'm so grateful that those three men caught the vision and then the support that I've had on campus, the support that I've had with so many people that has made this possible. The interesting thing and I'm going to give you a little insight. 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. That's the other thing I want to say. Allen [Morgan] has been running around here, talking about it's my day. It's not my day, it's the Lord 's Day. Every day is his day, am I right? The fact is, my No. 1 goal isn't to call attention to myself, because I don't look very good, but to call attention to him because he looks good all the time. I'm thankful for my team of doctors that advise me and said "Old man, you're about through." [Its] an unbelievable group. It's been great. I'd name their names, but they might charge me if I do, so I'm not going to. It's been an unbelievable journey. It's been some unbelievable teachable times. I found out that God is always teaching. He's always trying to grow us. He's got unbelievable plans for us. He takes defeats and makes victories out of them and sometimes he takes victories and teaches us more than we want to learn sometimes. He's a great God. I have a great God and I'm thankful for his leadership in my life. I thankful for the fact that he's let me coach at Carson-Newman for 103 years and grateful for all that happened through this. What I'd like to do now is just answer some questions. Anybody got any? Yes Mark, I knew you'd be first.
Q1: So physically you say you're having a hard time. I'm going to ask you a question you've asked me a hundred times. How's your heart?
Sparks: That's a good question. I hope my heart is in the Lord's hands and I know it is. I hope that day-to-day, decision-to-decision, that it won't be a pity party, that I won't be a "look at me" guy, but it will be a continuous "Lord, thank you and look at all he is." That's what I hope for. Good question, thank you. I knew you'd ask a good question.
Q2: When did you make the decision to retire?
Sparks: Probably about 9:30 p.m. Thursday driving from the hospital. Thursday night. Of course, Allen and I had talked a little bit. I'd given him a heads up of what the doctors were saying that I probably wasn't going to live to 120. Basically, that's when it happened. After missing practice four days, you know, come on. I didn't miss all of practice and I didn't miss staff meeting and all that, but anyway, I'm not a very good football coach right now. I'm an underachiever and that's the reason I need to get out of it.
Q3: For those us who don't know the Lord like you do, a lot of people would look at this and say it's a sad day, but for you this is the start of a celebration.
Sparks: No question, it is a celebration because, every day that you trust the Lord is a celebration. Every day that he gets to do only what he can do is a celebration. I 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, but I'm at peace and I got a great doctor, my personal doctor, my great wife. If we're breathing we're fighting.
Q4: Are you going to stay involved in the university in some way or do you feel like you need to step away?
Sparks: They'd probably like to get rid of me after all these years. I've told Allen I'm available to do anything that I can help with, but I don't want to be nosy and I don't want to hang around and hang over somebody's shoulder. It's a different mission now.
Q5: Would you like help name your replacement?
Sparks: Well, I have all the confidence in the world in [Allen Morgan]. 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.
Q6: Coach, what was it like to break the news to your players?
Sparks: Not easy, but special and [I'm] grateful that the Lord gave me that opportunity.
Q7: Do you feel someone can come in and have immediate success?
Sparks: I do. It's such an unusual year. Three out of our best four defensive tackles didn't play. A defensive end who's probably the best defensive end we had didn't play. A linebacker that didn't play, three or four offensive lineman that were crippled all year, a quarterback that was crippled all year. I think it's in great shape. I can't wait to see what is going to happen here next year. I think it's going to be very, very special.
Any other questions? Allen, would you come up here and clean up the mess that I've made.
Allen Morgan: I just wanted to that say that, before Ken leaves here, that he has requested that he die on the practice field and we roll him over in the kudzu, but I told him that absolutely would be unacceptable. As high as that kudzu is, we wouldn't have found him for ten years and that wasn't going to work. Let me just say before I start taking a few questions from our media. I've told the coaches and I've told his players this is Ken Sparks' day. Obviously Ken is a humble man and I understand that and that's one of the things I respect about him but this is his day. He spent over 43 years of his life on this campus.
Morgan: 47. There's three years there we didn't count, this being one of them. Ken has spent his life at Carson-Newman and not only has he made an impact with these coaches that have come through here that he's worked with and the young men and young women that he's had a chance to work with, both as the Athletic Director and as our head football coach, he's made an impact on this campus. He's made an impact in this community and he's made an impact for God's kingdom. I would say that God is smiling right now on what this man has done for this university. He talks about he won't be here when he's 120. I promise you, Ken Sparks' spirit, his legacy and his leadership and the example he set will be on this campus and in this community, Ken, when you're 127 and I hope I'm around to see it. I will tell you, if I'm around to see it, we're the same age, so I'm pulling for it. I just think that we ought to show our respect for what this man has done and let give him the kind of applause to let him know he's loved and respected.
Morgan: Alright, we're not going to be here much longer, but I know there's one or two questions that you'll want to ask me, but I just want reemphasize to coach Sparks and Carol and Carol, we jokingly said before this meeting that, in the absence of having a great, supportive spouse, we men would be very little, so thank you for your love, your support, the nights you were at home by yourself, the nights you'd have to listen to him come home and complain because he got a bad call or Mike Turner made a bad call or Coach Slade didn't get us in the right defense. Thank you for your support and your love and we just want you to know you're an equally loved and important member of the Carson-Newman family, so thank you for being here today. Now there are several folks that are here today. We've got David Barger, Athletic Director Emeritus, who had to put up with Ken [for] 20+ years and some former coaches that Ken has worked with back through the years, they're here. Our coaching staff that's presently around the coaches and our other coaches that coach different sports are here. Some of our athletes are here and other, they better have their tail in class if they're not here. I want to thank you for being here today and I want to thank you for allowing me to be a part of your family. What a great family it is. When we left with our players, coach challenged them. I, too, want to challenge them and I want to challenge each of us that as we move forward, here has been my prayer since Ken and I have talked. Got this old, dumb boy from Strawberry Plains. I hope you put the man to lead this program in front of me and this old, dumb boy can't miss it. Here's what we will expect: the next coach coming behind coach Sparks will, in a lot of ways, have the same characteristics. 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. 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. With that said, I'll take questions from the media if you have any.
Q8: Obviously there's never going to be another situation like this where a coach has been the head coach for 37 years. Talk about that.
Morgan: Well I think that's true. There have been very few of those. The Bowdens, the Paternos, the Robinsons at Grambling and Ken Sparks. There are very few of those, but there are very few Ken Sparks. There are very few people that have his kind of Christian commitment. It's never been about the big salary for Ken. He's had opportunities to coach at other places, he's had opportunities to coach in the NFL, but if you know Ken, you know his heart and you know he felt like God's mission was here at Carson-Newman and to help young men become good Christian men that could go out into the world once they left him and make a difference for God's kingdom, so that's why you don't see many of them. Today, in this monetary society, most coaches are looking to move up and it means pay increases and increases in status, but that was not in Ken Sparks' heart. His heart was in a totally different direction. I think that's the reason that this campus and this university and this community have been blessed to have this man for 47 years of his life.
Q9: Allen, you've known for a few years that this was going to come after the diagnosis. Do you have an idea of where you might go?
Morgan: Well it's absolutely true of the first three things I see. That's who we're looking for. People with great character, people that will expect excellence in the classroom and certainly on the football field. I'd be lying to you and you'd be naïve to think that people had not approached me about this job. They have, both folks outside this university and I'm sure coaches on this staff would be interested, but as I said earlier, we are going to take our time if need be and we'll move quickly if we can and my preference is to move quickly to find that person.
Q10: When you took this job, did it make your job easier having someone like Ken Sparks on staff?
Morgan: Without question. David could take a lot credit for that. They had a great relationship, but I have to tell you, I was told before I got here and said "Gosh, that'll be hard." We've not had a single hard day. Ken Sparks has been a team player. He's been exemplary in everything we've asked him to do. He's done it with respect and he's done it far beyond what anyone sitting in my position could have hoped for. I was fortunate inheriting someone like Ken Sparks and the foundation that he set for this program that will certainly benefit those who follow him.
Q11: What's tomorrow going to be like?
Morgan: Tomorrow morning, to be honest, I'll have a 10 a.m. meeting with our coaching staff. We'll discuss the process of where we go from here and how that process will work. I feel like they deserve that. They've earned it and we'll begin that process with them and they'll hear it from me in the morning. That'll be the first step. Just let me say again before I go this is a special place. This is a special group that is assembled in this room. I have a pastor that often says "None of us are here by chance. God has placed us here." I just ask that each of us continue to support this university, this football program and coach Sparks as he and Carol start a new chapter of their life. Carol, our commitment to you and Ken is anything we can do to help that process, we stand ready to do so because you stood ready to help us. Thank you very much. Thank you for being here this afternoon and I hope everyone has a great day and I'll leave you with what I always leave you with: Go Eagles!