Chances are pretty strong that unless you keep up with College Football closely or have lived in East Tennessee, you’ve never heard the name Ken Sparks. Rest assured, the close knit coaching fraternity of College Football knows who he is
This week after 37 seasons 338 wins against just 99 losses and two ties, Sparks retired as the head coach at Division II Carson-Newman University, a small private Baptist affiliated school in Jefferson City, Tennessee approximately 1 1/2 hours from Bristol to the North and 30 miles from Knoxville to the West. Sparks leaves College Football with a winning percentage of .769, which is the 5th best in college football history and is one of only 13 college football coaches at any level to win 300 games.
During his career at Carson-Newman, Sparks kept his philosophy simple much like his own personality. Sparks’ teams ran the basic split-veer offense developed by legendary University of Houston coach Bill Yoeman in the 1960s. It’s triple option football at its finest and with a few wrinkles here and there, Carson-Newman’s version of the veer was darn near unstoppable and an absolute thing of beauty to watch when it was humming. His philosophy off the field was putting God first, and his players second making sure that they got an excellent football experience along with an education and becoming successful husbands, fathers and men.
Sparks was born in Knoxville, and played at Carson-Newman and his coaching career never took him far from his Tennessee mountain home. After his playing days were over at Carson-Newman, Sparks took a job at Gibbs High School tucked in the most rural corner of Knox County. He started the football program from scratch and while he didn’t coach him Gibbs did turn out a football player you may have heard of for other accomplishments, country music star Kenny Chesney. Sparks then made a stop as an assistant at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, Tennessee, took a job at Morristown East High School in Morristown, Tennessee, and then returned home to coach football at Knoxville’s Farragut High School. When Sparks went to Farragut, the area had a reputation as being kind of rural. It’s not know and, in fact, if you ride through the student parking lot at Farragut High School you’ll see plenty of Mercedes and BMW’s. He went 29-5 at Farragut before returning to Carson-Newman as the offensive coordinator for head coach Dal Shealy. Shealy would leave the school to take over the job at Richmond (where my buddy the late Grant Plaskon played for him) and Sparks took over.
In his career at C-N, Sparks won 21 conference titles, took 25 teams to the playoffs, won 5 NAIA National Titles at a time when the best small colleges played in the NAIA. In 1993, most small college conferences including the West Virginia Conference and the South Atlantic Conference where Carson-Newman plays became disenchanted with the NAIA model and moved to NCAA Division II. While the leap was difficult for some, it wasn’t for Carson-Newman. C-N played for the NCAA Title three times during Sparks tenure and made the semi-finals in 2009. His 1999 team all but had the Division II title in its grasp needing only to kill the clock to beat Northwest Missouri State when inexplicably his running back ran out of bounds on third down stopping the clock. Northwest Missouri took over with better than a minute to go in the game, tied the game, and then won the title in 4 overtimes 58-52.
During his career, Sparks worst season in NCAA Division II was 6-3 in 2001 until this year. This year his team went an uncharacteristic 4-7. So, perhaps that had something to do with calling it quits, but any coach will tell you that they don’t want to go out on a year like that. There was most likely a bigger factor involved. Sparks was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012 and has coached the last 5 seasons while battling the disease. Perhaps Ken Sparks knows something that the rest of us don’t about his diagnosis or maybe it was just time. Regardless, this quiet humble God-fearing man rides off into the Sunset of his coaching career into his next chapter leaving behind a legacy that will be nearly impossible to match. He did it without fame or fortune, and countless young men are a success today because he stayed true to himself and his simple philosophy.
Obviously with the Division II playoffs beginning this weekend, Sparks Carson-Newman team isn’t involved. We’ll talk about Division II in a moment, but first there are two games that are very interesting this week. One matches Washington State and Colorado. This actually could be the first of two meetings between these two schools this year as both have a chance to advance to the PAC-12 title game. The other is the prime-time ABC game on Saturday night where it’s time to fire up the couch for West Virginia and Oklahoma. With the way things in the playoff rankings are starting to shake out I’m not sure that a two loss Oklahoma team can make the final 4 if they win the Big-12. West Virginia with 1-loss and winning the Big-12 just might with a few breaks here and there and one of those happened last night when Louisville got housed by Houston. Since joining the Big-12 West Virginia has not beaten Oklahoma. Their last win over the Sooners was in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl when then-interim coach Bill Stewart gave the pre-game speech of a lifetime and the Mountaineers just pummeled Oklahoma. If you like offense, you’ll like this one. Both Oklahoma and West Virginia are in the nation’s Top 25 in total offense, but nowhere to be seen in the Top 25 in Total Defense.
Under the shadow of touchdown Jesus, comes the first ever meeting between Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. This has absolutely nothing to do with whether Va. Tech wins the ACC Coastal Division, but given last night’s Louisville loss, it has a lot to do with their bowl destination. Assuming Va. Tech beats Notre Dame and Virginia and then loses to Clemson in the ACC Title game, there is an excellent chance they’ll play in the New Year’s Six Orange Bowl as the ACC representative as Clemson will most certainly be in the Final 4. Notre Dame needs to win this game and next week against USC to even go to a bowl game. This also marks a rare appearance for Va. Tech on NBC. They’ve appeared on the Peacock Network just 4 previous times, all Gator Bowls. Notre Dame is contractually obligated to play 5 ACC teams per year so they’ll come to Blacksburg in 2018 and 2021, with Va. Tech returning to South Bend in 2019.
I might live to be 100. I kind of doubt it and I am really kind of not interested in that, but if I do that will make 100 years that I don’t understand the University of Virginia. A great school in a great town with an obvious dumpster fire of a football program and some faculty members who appear to be shall we say…stupid. You might remember that Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. On his tombstone reads one thing:, that he’s the founder of the University of Virginia. So obviously he should be held in high regard. Last week after the election, the University of Virginia President sent an e-mail to faculty and students in which she quoted Thomas Jefferson. That was met with an objection from some faculty and students who said that Thomas Jefferson shouldn’t be quoted because he owned slaves. Yes, he did. He reproduced with one of them in fact. And every other White Southern Plantation Owner owned slaves in those days. Was it right? No, but revisionist history isn’t either. He’s the founder of the damn school and now he’s not worth quoting. Someone needs to get a grip and if they are that offended, I’m sure they can find a nice-tenure track job somewhere else and stop bothering the rest of the world with this crap. And, if you adopt the rationale that Thomas Jefferson is a nullity now, then you must do away with U.Va. jargon like the “campus” is called the “grounds” and you don’t use freshman, sophomore, etc, but instead call them first years, second year, etc.
That example is a just one of the problems at U.Va. which extend to the football field. Virginia is going nowhere having lost 5 straight games heading to Ga. Tech and are seriously looking down the barrel of a 2-10 season with what was an odd hire leading the program. Bronco Mendenhall might turn out to be a success, but he’s bungled his first year and he still needs to prove that he can recruit the best players in Virginia. To top it off, U.Va. is still writing checks to Mike London to coach at Maryland. Just don’t ask some of the faculty what Thomas Jefferson’s might think of that.
Then there’s the curious case of Tennessee football. Pre-season pick to win the SEC East, the Volunteers at 7-3 and 3-3 in the Conference may in fact win the SEC East. If LSU beats Florida tomorrow and they are a 13-point favorite to do so, Tennessee needs only to beat 3-7 Missouri and Vanderbilt next weekend to earn a spot in Atlanta against West Champion Alabama. Tennessee is one of 127 FBS teams playing football. Alabama is the only team playing for a National Championship.
This is the final weekend of the FCS season as the NCAA announces the playoff field on Sunday. Some spots are clinched, but there are no less than 5 conference titles in play this Saturday. In the Big South, Charleston Southern wins the league’s automatic bid to the playoffs by beating Kennesaw State. A Kennesaw State win sends Liberty to the playoffs as the Big South Champion. In the Missouri Valley it’s either South Dakota State or North Dakota State earning the automatic bid to the playoffs. If South Dakota State beats Northern Iowa, it’s theirs. A loss gives it to the 5-time defending National Champions. Regardless, both teams figure to make the post-season. In the MEAC, Ohio Valley and the Southland, there are games that were scheduled as regular season games but with some clairvoyance as they are league title games. North Carolina A&T faces North Carolina Central for the MEAC Title, UT-Martin and Jacksonville State meet in the Ohio Valley and in the Southland it’s 9-1 Central Arkansas matching up with 10-0 Sam Houston State. And while it means absolutely nothing you can just throw out the record books anytime the Southern Illinois Salukis face the Western Illinois Fighting Leathernecks.
As noted earlier, the playoffs begin this weekend in Divisions II and III so for our Division II Game of the Week, we go to Melbourne, Florida on Florida’s Space Coast where the Panthers of the Florida Institute of Technology face the Crusaders of North Greeneville in a First Round Super Region II game. Florida Tech is the number 3 seed in the Region and if you don’t think there’s enough talent in Florida to win at football, then consider that Florida Tech started it’s program in 2013 and in just their 4th year (or one recruiting class) they make their first playoff appearance in school history against North Greeneville from Tigerville, South Carolina. The Crusaders are the 6th seed in the Region and have the worst record of any Division II playoff team at 7-4.
For Division III, it’s off to University Heights, Ohio where the giant killers from John Carroll University host Olivet College in a first round D-III playoff game. John Carroll won the Ohio Athletic Conference Championship last weekend by ending Mount Union’s 112-game regular season winning streak. It’s John Carroll’s first OAC Title since 1991. They make their 6th playoff appearance against the Champions of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. You have to like the nicknames and where this game is going to be played. John Carroll is the Blue Streaks…Olivet is the Comets. John Carroll’s home Stadium is Don Shula Stadium named after the NFL’s all-time winningest coach and alum who played Defensive Back at John Carroll in the late 1940s.
Have a great weekend….