Sparks, who is beginning his 31st season as the Eagles head coach, has built a national football powerhouse first at the NAIA level and now at the NCAA Division II level. The numbers speak for themselves when examining the success Sparks has brought to the Eagle football program -- five national championships, four national runner-up finishes, 20 South Atlantic Conference championships and 21 NAIA or NCAA playoff appearances. A respected and well-known coach at any level, Sparks has accumulated the best won-lost record and highest winning percentage of any coach in C-N football history.
In 30 seasons at the wheel of the Eagle machine, the 1968 C-N graduate has guided his squads to a 287-70-2 record. Sparks is the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division II and is third in total wins among active coaches in all divisions of the NCAA behind St. John's (Minn.) John Gagliardi and Penn State's Joe Paterno.
The run of success began in 1982, when Sparks guided the Eagles to a 10-2 record and an NAIA playoff berth during his third season on the job. Carson-Newman lost in the first round that year, but things in Jefferson City would never be the same again. The following year, Sparks led C-N to its second-straight SAC-8 title and back to the playoffs. The Eagles breezed through the first two rounds and upset heavily favored Mesa State in the NAIA Champion Bowl, 36-28, to capture the first national football title in school history.
After winning that first title in 1983, Carson-Newman went on to win four more NAIA national crowns. The Eagles brought home championships by tying Central Arkansas (19-19) in 1984 and by beating Cameron (17-0) in 1986, Adams State (56-21) in 1988 and Emporia State (34-20) in 1989.
As would be expected for someone with his long list of accomplishments, Sparks has become one of the most-decorated coaches in college football. He was named NAIA Coach of the Year in 1984 and has been voted SAC Coach of the Year by his peers 11 times. He was named Fellowship of Christian Athletes National Coach of the Year, American Football Coach Magazine Division II Coach of the Year and Tennessee Sports Writers Association Coach of the Year in 1999. He also was named Tennessee Sports Writers Association College Coach of the Year again in 2002. A native of Knoxville, Sparks began his coaching career in his hometown by restarting the football team at Gibbs High School.
The former C-N wide receiver posted a winning record in his first full season there before moving on to Tennessee Tech to coach the quarterbacks and receivers. After earning his master's degree at TTU, Sparks made a one-year stop as head coach at Morristown East High School before returning to C-N. His new job was to direct the track and field program and coordinate the offense for head coach Dal Shealy, now executive director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. After Sparks' return, the Carson-Newman football team advanced to its first-ever Champion Bowl in 1972, where the Eagles lost to East Texas State.
Sparks also gained personal distinction in 1977 when he was named Southern Collegiate Track Coach of the Year. In the fall of 1977, Sparks returned to Knoxville and the high school ranks to become head coach at Farragut. In three seasons, Sparks guided the Admirals to a 29-5 record and twice was voted KIL and KFA Coach of the Year for his performances. Among the pupils he tutored was Bill Bates, who went on to a distinguished playing career at Tennessee and with the Dallas Cowboys. Then, in 1980, he got the call from Carson-Newman to return the football program to its success of the early 1970s.
Sparks is one of the most sought-after speakers in the nation. He delivers speeches to many coaches' clinics, church groups and civic organizations. He is a member of Manley Baptist Church of Morristown and is heavily involved in various Christian organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He was inducted into the Knoxville Sports Hall of the Fame in 2001 and is a member of the Carson-Newman Athletic Hall of Fame.
He served as President of the American Football Coaches Association in 2008 and was named to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. Sparks and his wife, Carol, reside in Jefferson City.
In 1967, the Knoxville Quarterback Club, seeking a way to honor Gen. Neyland's memory, established the Robert R. Neyland Memorial Trophy. This award is given annually by the Club to an outstanding man who has contributed greatly to intercollegiate athletics. The first presentation in 1967 included the man who hired Gen. Neyland in 1926 and his first All-America lineman, who later became head coach at Yale. The permanent trophy is displayed in the Tennessee Hall of Fame Exhibit in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center on the University of Tennessee campus.
Neyland Trophy Recipients 1967 - Nathan W. Dougherty, Tennessee
1967 - Herman Hickman, Yale
1968 - Wallace Wade, Alabama
1969 - Bobby Dodd, Georgia Tech
1970 - John Barnhill, Arkansas
1971 - Jess Neely, Rice
1972 - John Vaught, Mississippi
1973 - Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma
1974 - Fritz Crisler, Michigan
1975 - Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf, California
1976 - John McKay, Southern California
1977 - Darrell Royal, Texas
1978 - Ralph "Shug" Jordan, Auburn
1979 - Frank Broyles, Arkansas
1980 - Bob Devaney, Nebraska
1981 - Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame
1982 - Bill Murray, Duke
1983 - Paul "Bear" Bryant, Alabama
1984 - Woody Hayes, Ohio State
1985 - Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State
1986 - Bob Woodruff, Tennessee
1987 - Charles McClendon, LSU
1988 - LaVell Edwards, Brigham Young
1990 - Bo Schembechler, Michigan
1991 - Murray Warmath, Minnesota
1992 - Bobby Bowden, Florida State
1993 - Grant Teaff, Baylor
1994 - Jerry Claiborne, Kentucky
1995 - Dan Devine, Notre Dame
1996 - Hayden Fry, Iowa
1997 - Terry Donahue, UCLA
1998 - Lou Holtz, Notre Dame
1999 - Eddie Robinson, Grambling
2000 - Tom Osborne, Nebraska
2001 - Doug Dickey, Tennessee
2002 - Gene Stallings, Alabama
2003 - Johnny Majors, Pittsburgh
2004 - John Gaglidardi, St. John's (Minn.)
2005 - Barry Switzer, Oklahoma
2006 - John Cooper, Ohio State
2007 - John Robinson, UNLV
2008 - Lloyd Carr, Michigan
2009 - Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee
2010 – Ken Sparks, Carson-Newman