VIDEO: Sunday Conversation
PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. – Legendary Carson-Newman football coach Ken Sparks was inducted into the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' Hall of Champions at the C-N Championship Coaching Clinic Friday night.
Sparks, who was unable to attend the induction because of his continuing battle with cancer, passed a long a message for his son Chad to tell the crowd assembled at the event.
"This life is not about this life," the young Sparks relayed to the crowd assembled. "With this exception, we secure eternal glory for ourselves and as many others while we are here. That happens only if we seek the Lord."
Sparks' fingerprints were all over the clinic he established in the mid-1980s.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, former NFL coach Chan Gailey and Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen have all seen their lives impacted by the man who spent all 37 of his years as head coach on the banks of Mossy Creek.
All three prominent coaches were on hand to speak at the C-N coaching clinic in large part because of Sparks.
"I never had the fortune to work with Ken, like so many of us have in this business," Gailey said. "I first met him through FCA, but really got to know him by speaking at these clinics. It's been a wonderful opportunity to get to know an even more wonderful man."
Much like Gailey, Christensen also first encountered Sparks at an FCA retreat. It wasn't long before Sparks was asking him to make his way to East Tennessee to speak.
"We all say that coaching is a platform," Christensen said. "Then we all probably come up short in sharing the Gospel through that platform. Ken didn't. He is a step above. When I coached a Pro Bowl. It was evident that there were pro athletes, and then there were pro athletes plus.
"It's the same with Christian coaches. There are a lot of fine Christian coaches. But Ken is a Christian coach plus. He's encouraged me so many times to tell people at this clinic, his team, his quarterbacks, to tell them about Jesus."
Sparks announced his retirement on Nov. 14. He finished 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.
Freeze first met Sparks when he was the head coach at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis when Sparks was speaking to a small group he was in at a clinic at the University of Memphis. Freeze called Sparks the first college coach that he had ever interacted with who was truly faith-based.
"I could tell there was something unique about him," Freeze said. "I was drawn to that. He's an incredible role model. I followed the wins, but the things that you here that really stand out are the players who come back and say such great things about him after 20 years. To emulate a man like Ken Sparks is a lofty goal, but he's someone I strive to be like. He's a giant because of his coaching. And, he's a giant because of his faith."
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.
"When you look at people and you say, 'How do you know they've done right?'" Gailey said. "The answer to that is if you hear no wrong. Word gets around in our business. For nothing ill to be spoken of Ken that means that he's done right for a very long time."
The rest of the numbers speak for themselves as Sparks has recorded 21 South Atlantic Conference Championships, 25 NCAA or NAIA playoff appearances, 104 All-Americans, and most recently, a street renamed after him that runs through the middle of Carson-Newman's campus.
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.
"I use his phrase about the scoreboard all the time," Freeze said. "You don't have to define yourself by what the scoreboard at the end of the field says. Who we are is defined by how we are viewed in God's eyes through Jesus Christ. Ken's so consistent in that message."
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. He is also a recipient of the FCA Grant Teaff Coach of the Year Award as well as the inaugural "Uncommon Award" presented by Tony Dungy.
"His faith has been so strong through the suffering of these past five years through the cancer," Christensen said. "That authenticates him. There's nothing like suffering and trials that make you see what a man really is. Some men like me fall apart when a little wind blows. To watch him face what he has faced these last five years, and do it with a joy that can only be supernatural and can only come from Christ, that's a testimony to me. That's what a real faith should look like and can only be true and authentic. That's what I want my relationship with God to look like."