Carson-Newman football coach knows what's really important

JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. (BP)--Statistics do not really tell the story about Ken Sparks' coaching career.

Sparks' 197-46-2 record after 20 seasons as head coach of the Carson-Newman College Eagles and five NAIA national championships are impressive. His latest C-N team finished the regular season undefeated and advanced to the NCAA Division II championship game, losing 58-52 in four overtimes. He has won numerous "coach of the year" awards. Yet while important and personally satisfying, those are not the numbers that matter most to the C-N coach.

The all-important stat is the large number of his players who have gained a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ over the past 20 years.

"I believe the Lord will ask me one day what I did with the kids under my care, not how many wins I had," said Sparks, a Knoxville native and C-N graduate.

He noted that if football can be used as a tool to bring people to the Lord, "it has done something. If it hasn't, we haven't done a thing, no matter how many games we won."

Sparks, an active member of Manley Baptist Church, Morristown, Tenn. accepted Christ at the age of 18 in Galilee Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. and was baptized by his pastor, Guy Milam, now pastor of Springview Baptist Church, Maryville, Tenn.

It was then he began to "get serious" about God's Word. Later, Sparks said he felt called to "be a coach and impact kids' lives. I have never doubted that call."

Sparks transferred to Carson-Newman from the University of Tennessee. "A lot of people ministered to me at Carson-Newman and helped me grow as a young Christian," Sparks recalled. Carson-Newman is one of the three colleges of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

Those strong roots have kept Sparks at Carson-Newman despite offers to move that have come his way as the wins have piled up over the years.

"It's a God-honoring place," Sparks said of the college. "God has influenced a lot of lives here, sometimes in spite of ourselves," he said.

When recruiting players, Sparks makes sure everyone knows what the football program stands for. "We don't make any bones about it."

He noted the team has high standards and that all the coaches are Christians. "There is hardly a day goes by that we don't talk about the Lord," Sparks said.

The C-N coach cares about his players as people, not what they can do on the football field. "The key to anything in dealing with people is to talk to their hearts, not just their heads," he related.

A number of Sparks' players have gone on to play professional football. While proud of those players, he takes much greater satisfaction when one of his players turns his heart over to God and becomes a Christian.

"The average professional career is 3.5 years," Sparks noted. "Eternity is forever. There is no comparison."

A page in the 1999 C-N football media guide perhaps bests sums up Sparks and his philosophy.

A photo shows Sparks talking with one of his players. The only words beneath the photo read: "Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain" (I Corinthians 15:58).

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