Carson-Newman legendary coach Ken Sparks has been named recipient of the 2010 Gen. Robert R. Neyland Trophy, presented each year by the Knoxville Quarterback Club.
First awarded in 1967, the trophy is named in honor of Hall of Fame and legendary head coach Gen. Robert R. Neyland, who led the Vols from 1926-52. The presentation will be made at The East Tennessee Chapter of the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame banquet, set for April 17 at 10 a.m. at The Foundry in Knoxville. Sparks also will be honored on the field in pregame ceremonies before the annual Dish Network Orange and White Game.
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.