Coach Ken Sparks
Sparks, the life changer, calls it a career
‘I felt good with that 10-10 lead at the half’
By Jim Freeman
When Sugar called to tell me that Coach had called, I said “You mean Beverly, his assistant?”
“No, it was Coach Sparks,” she said. Really! Ken rarely called, and when he did, you knew something was up.
I apologized to him for not staying in touch. He said, “I always know how to find you, and besides, if us fellas had to stay in touch to be friends, we wouldn’t have any friends.” Sparks just has a way to keep you lifted.
When the text came in yesterday that Coach was retiring from Carson-Newman, the memories flooded back.
As the radio and television ‘Voice of the Eagles,’ Thursday was my day of the week, besides game day, to share some time with Coach Sparks. We’d shoot his weekly coach’s TV show, record pre-game radio for Saturday, and just catch up.
Coach hates mayonnaise. One Thursday, he tossed me a $20 and said, “You go get the Whoppers, and I’ll buy.” He had to meet with someone, and I took off for lunch. When I made it back to his office, I realized there wasn’t any mayonnaise on my Whopper. Yep. His was loaded with mayonnaise. Either never live this down or race back to BK was my choice. I drove back to Burger King.
If it wasn’t on Channel 10 or in the News-Sentinel, nothing else mattered for Sparks. The Young High Grad, south Knoxville, boy was sold on those two outlets.
Our weekly coach’s show on Channel 10 was always worth a laugh or two. Like the time we were headed to a break when he said that he felt pretty good with that 10-10 halftime lead. We even did the whole show without highlights one week. Our film was left in New Haven, CT, after Saturday’s game. Coach never wore an ear piece, so he took his “wrap it up” cue from me- a wink.
Ken had his share of job offers. Sam Ritigliano, when he was the Cleveland Browns head coach, wanted him to coach his defensive backs. Samford University had a scheduled press conference at noon in December 1994 to announce him as their head coach. It never happened. Ken woke up that morning, called Athletic Director David Barger, asked for his job back at Carson Newman, and stayed until yesterday.
Carson-Newman kicked off to start both halves one Saturday at Jefferson City. Coach generally thought if your defense did its job, that you ended up with better field position to kick-off to start a game. A defensive lineman, Tony Couey, was one of the captains this particular day. It was his turn to make the call if Carson Newman won the toss. The Eagles won the toss and Couey said, “We want to kick-off. “ That was the last time Couey was a game captain.
Everybody knows Carson-Newman runs the veer. Except for Edinburough in Pennsylvania. It was the first game of the season, at home, and the Eagles were poised to play for a national championship. On the first play from scrimmage, Carson-Newman Quarterback Matt Penland calls a time out. Edinburough’s defense was celebrating. As the Eagles radio announcer, I’m was a little puzzled and sorta deflated. A timeout before we can run the first play of the season? Penland came to the sideline and tells Sparks, “Coach, I know you want to open with a pass, but they’re not covering the right side. The veer is wide open.” Sparks said, “Run it!” Sixty-eight yards later, the Eagles led 7-0 just seconds into the game. Carson-Newman won 44-12. Edinborough’s coach told Sparks at midfield after the game that he never wanted to play him again.
In his younger days, Sparks was a Golden Gloves boxer. Everyone knew, even as he grew older, you never wanted to mess with Sparks; maybe not so much because he could really fight, but, the fact that there was such a spirit, a fire, within him. One day at practice, two lineman scuffled.-nothing unusual. But when Sparks shouted, “Hold up.” They didn’t. He jumped between them and pulled their face masks down to him. A hush fell over the practice field. He told them that when he says “Hold up, you’d better hold up – or I’ll run you outta here.” The two linemen and all the rest of us knew we didn’t want to take on Sparks.
One summer, I was in from New Orleans working as the Voice of Tulane University and my broadcast mentor, Stan Cotton was home from Winston-Salem where he was the Voice of Wake Forest. We decided to go to Jefferson City and see Sparks. In typical Sparks’ fashion, it was after 12 pm, and he was already gone for the day. So, we called him and both of us left him this long message on his mobile phone. After we hung up, I looked at Stan, and he said, “Yep, he’ll never hear that message. Because chances are good that he can’t do anything with that phone expect answer it and call out on it.”
Anyone who was not on the bus for a road game when the busses were scheduled to leave was left at Jefferson City per Sparks’ orders. It was November 1995, busses were to leave at 9am for Florence, AL. Sparks wasn’t there. The busses left without him. His wife, Carol, finally caught up with the busses, and Sparks hopped on the bus at a red light at Knoxville.
One night at Hickory, N.C., Carson-Newman dug itself a big hole in the first-half trailing Lenoir-Rhyne by a wide margin. Somehow. Some way. The Eagles came back and won; convincingly. Most times on the road, a few boosters and the athletic director will come to the radio booth to hear coach’s post game comments. When I asked Coach just how was this team able to come back, he said, “It’s our work ethnic, Jim.” He had no idea what he’d said, and I fought off laughter, especially when I could see his audience pealing out of the booth one-by-one to get to the hall way so they could laugh.
Coach has a way of making you feel special. And he sure did me. When he told the powers that be at Carson-Newman that he wanted me to be his play-by-play man that was it.
My pal Chuck Cavalaris, who covered the Eagles for the News-Sentinel in those days, told me he quit trying to interview Sparks after games, because he’d never give him the detailed answers that he would to me on the radio. So, Chuck would just go to the car after the game and listen to the radio interview.
Every now and then, I would poke fun at him about that monument of sorts near the Kroger on Chapman Highway. It is there telling where Young High once stood. I always told Sparks that it also mentions that that’s where he went to high school.
At the heart of it all, Sparks is a salesman. And a very good one at that. He’s spent most of his lifetime selling his football and his faith. And he’s closed a lot of deals in both recruiting football players and winning souls to his Lord. So, when Coach Ken Sparks calls, you know something’s up. (11/15/2016-6AM)