Former Carson-Newman football head coach and East Tennessee legend Ken Sparks died early Wednesday morning. He was 73.
Sparks coached Carson-Newman to a 338-99-2 record during his tenure. He has the fifth most wins of any college football coach of all time.
He served as head coach of the Eagles for 37 years from 1980 through the 2016 season. Sparks stepped down in November, citing health concerns.
Sparks had battled prostate cancer since his diagnosis in 2012. His doctors stopped treating him for the disease in January. The coach had been in hospice care for several weeks.
The Sparks family will receive friends at Manley Baptist Church in Morristown from 2-6 p.m. Friday with a service to follow. The event is open to the public.
Sparks' burial will be private at the request of the family.
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SPARKS' CAREER ON THE FIELD
A Knoxville native, Sparks was born Feb. 25, 1944. He played wide receiver for Carson-Newman and graduated from the college in 1968. From there, Sparks had coaching stops at Gibbs High School in Knox County, Tennessee Tech, Morristown East and Farragut High School.
Sparks assumed the role of head coach of the Carson-Newman Eagles in 1980. Under his leadership, the Eagles won five NAIA titles and 21 South Atlantic Conference (SAC) championships. The Eagles compete in Division II football.
His coaching philosophy centered around inspiring young athletes from within.
“What’s the greatest motivation? Inside motivation," Sparks said in January.
"It’s not outside motivation. Outside motivation doesn’t last long, it’s artificial,” Sparks added. “We coached heart and sold the kids on doing something over and beyond what they thought they could.”
Sparks announced his retirement in November 2016, fighting back tears through his news conference. He said he needed to focus on his family and his health.
“I’m at peace,” Sparks said. "I have a great wife. And if we’re breathing, we’re fighting.”
SPARKS OFF THE FIELD
In many ways, Sparks' persona on the field carried over to his life off of it. At his own retirement news conference, he handed a bouquet of flowers to his wife, Carol, and embraced her before giving his announcement.
Despite a lifetime's worth of accomplishments, Sparks credited his success to his players, coaches and God.
"He's just so humble in the way he goes about everything,” Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes said. “I hope he realizes and knows that the team he's really playing for is a team I truly want to be a part of."
Sparks and Barnes forged a relationship almost immediately after Barnes took the head coaching reigns at UT. The two bonded over their shared devotion to Christianity.
“He understands winning football games in one thing, but the real wins are the wins in life and the people that you are really able to talk Jesus Christ with,” Barnes said in February 2016.
Sparks drew heavy praise from coaches and colleagues during his career and in the wake of his retirement. Tennessee football coach Butch Jones was moved the day Sparks retired, calling him one of the greatest people he had ever met who had the power to change lives.
"He's what this game should stand for in terms of a human being and impacting the lives of many individuals," Jones said in November. "We always talk about being a champion, he's a champion in every sense of the way, and our friendship means the world to me."
Sparks didn't focus on how he wanted to be remembered.
“I don’t want to have a legacy," Sparks said in January. "Let me tell you what I want, I want an investment in the Kingdom of God that’s lasting. That’s what I want.”
University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones said Sparks did leave a legacy, and it went far beyond the football field.
“I’m very sad to hear of the passing of Coach Ken Sparks. Coach Sparks was a close friend to myself and our football program. I had followed Ken’s coaching career from afar and our friendship really began when he was one of the first people to call me when I was hired at UT. That phone call and our talks over the years mean the world to me. He was such a pillar in this community and was always willing to help," Jones said in a statement.
“I think anyone who had the opportunity to be around Ken Sparks would tell you what a special human being he was. His legacy extends way beyond the game of football. He touched so many lives off the field. The players he coached, he coached them to not only win football games, but to be successful in life. I spent some time with Ken a few weeks ago at his home and will always cherish that conversation.
“We lost a legend today and our thoughts and prayers go out to Carol and his family. He will be missed but always admired,” Jones concluded.