JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. — Carson-Newman’s Ken Sparks remembers watching practices and sitting in on meetings with Paul “Bear” Bryant’s staff as a young high school coach visiting Alabama’s campus.
Now he’s about to catch up to Bryant in the NCAA record book.
Sparks, in his 35th season at this Division II program, will attempt to improve his career record to 323-87-2 when Carson-Newman (4-1) plays at Tusculum (1-2) on Saturday.
“I need to be really careful about [not] thinking that this is all about me,” Sparks said. “It’s about a whole bunch of players, a whole bunch of coaches, but here’s what it really is about. It’s about a God that has blessed me — a lot of times when I didn’t deserve it — to be in this position.”
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Sparks, 70, is seeking the milestone victory amid virtually no fanfare.
Defensive lineman William Alderman said he didn’t realize Sparks was one win away from Bryant until a reporter mentioned it to him Wednesday. Defensive coordinator Mike Clowney only found out when athletic director Allen Morgan brought it up last week.
They certainly weren’t going to hear it from Sparks, who avoids discussing personal accomplishments. He considers coaching a calling that allows him to honor his faith and teach life lessons at this Christian school.
“His heart has always been to better us as men and better us as football players – and it’s in that order,” Alderman said.
Sparks’ teams have won five NAIA titles and have reached an NAIA or NCAA Division II championship game on four other occasions. The only coaches with more career victories are John Gagliardi (489-138-11), Eddie Robinson (408-165-15), Bobby Bowden (377-129-4), Pop Warner (336-114-32), Larry Kehres (332-24-3) and Bryant (323-85-17).
Warner previously was credited with 319 wins, but the NCAA updated his record in 2012. David Worlock, the NCAA’s director of media coordination and statistics, said the change occurred after the NCAA discovered Warner had coached at Iowa State in the 1890s and added the victories he accumulated there. NCAA records show Warner coached two schools at the same time from 1895-99.
A twist of fate started Sparks along this path. He was attending Tennessee when a case of mononucleosis forced him to stop boxing, his sport of choice at the time. He started coaching a youth football team sponsored by a local Optimist club.
Sparks realized this was what he wanted to do with his life. He transferred to Carson-Newman, where he played wide receiver, before getting a coaching job at a high school in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was during those years that he visited Alabama thanks to his friendship with former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Ken Donahue.
“We’d spend a lot of time with the offensive staff, defensive staff just to pick their brain and try to expand our football world,” Sparks said.
Sparks has coached Carson-Newman since 1980 and has led his alma mater to 24 playoff appearances. Sparks’ players and assistant coaches say his biggest wins have come in the lives he’s shaped.
“What I’ve learned over my four years playing for him is how to be a man,” running back Andy Hibbett said. “That’s what he’s instilled.”
Sparks has continued offering those lessons even after learning he had prostate cancer in the summer of 2012. Sparks earned his 300th victory in the first game after his diagnosis.
“It’s not good, but that’s in the Lord’s hands,” Sparks said of his health. “I’ll let him handle that, and I’ll try to handle trusting with it and surrendering to it.”
Sparks used to participate in regular conditioning runs with his team and doesn’t do that as much anymore. Other than that, he’s coached the same way as before his diagnosis.
“The only difference is every now and then he sneaks off to the doctor and we don’t know about it,” Clowney said. “His approach has been the same.”
Sparks believes he was called into coaching and plans to keep doing it until he’s called out of it.
“I hope I can coach until maybe down there on that practice field, there’s some kudzu down there, [so] they’ll roll me over in the kudzu and throw some dirt on me [and] I can be coaching when I die,” Sparks said. “You know how that works. I don’t know how it’s going to play out. I really don’t. I take it one day at a time.”