As Ken Sparks embarks on his 37th season he does so continuing a battle with a cancer that was diagnosed on June 30, 2012.
Christian principles have been the driving force behind Sparks’ coaching career. It was his faith that brought him to Carson-Newman in 1980 and it is his faith that will see him through this latest challenge.
He is the winningest active head coach in the country with 334 wins, 92 loss and two ties. Sparks passed legendary Alabama head coach Bear Bryant with a win on homecoming in 2014 over North Greenville. Going into 2016, Sparks only needs two wins to pass Pop Warner for fifth all-time (Sparks has already passed Warner on some lists, however, the NCAA credits him with 18 more wins during his time coaching Iowa State simultaneously with Georgia and Cornell over a five-year period).
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. Along the way, Sparks has developed one of the winningest football programs in the history of the sport. The Eagles have 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 334-92-2 record. Sparks holds the all-time record for wins in NCAA Division II and, with the recent retirement of St. John's (Minn.) John Gagliardi and Mount Union's Larry Kehres, Sparks is the activce leader in coaching wins. In fact, at the start of the 2016 season, Sparks has a 45-game lead on the coach with the next most wins - Kevin Donley (Saint Francis (Ind.)).
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. Coach 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. Sparks was elected president of the American Football Coaches Association in 2007. In 2002 Sparks received the All-American Football Foundation’s Johnny Vaught Lifetime Achievement Award.
Coach Sparks 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 Jeffeerson County Chamber of Commerce for outstanding committment 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 108 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.
Sparks took over the Farragut High School football program in 1977, guiding the Admirals to a 29-5 record. Sparks was twice-voted KIL and KFA Coach of the Year. After three seasons, Sparks was asked to take command of the Carson-Newman football program.
Coach Sparks is a sought-after public speaker and motivator, delivering speeches a coaches clinics, church groups and civic organizations. He is a member of Manley Baptist Church of Morristown, along with his wife Carol, and is heavily involved in multiple Christian organizations.