Carson-Newman's Sparks seeks to join 300-win club

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JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. (AP) — On the verge of joining one of college football's most exclusive fraternities, Carson-Newman coach Ken Sparks received the type of news that would shake just about anyone.

One win shy of his 300th career coaching victory, Sparks learned this summer that he had prostate cancer. He was 68 years old and facing the fight of his life.

After spending only a handful of days away from the office, Sparks resumed preparing for his 33rd season coaching his alma mater. Just over two months after undergoing surgery, Sparks seeks his 300th career victory Thursday when Carson-Newman opens its season against Glenville (W.Va.) State.

"I've always been accused of being a driven person," Sparks said. "When I got into this profession, I wanted to be the best coach in America. I hope that's what they mean when they say driven. That hasn't changed, but I hope that I'm using the situation that I'm in to do a better job of touching lives. I hope I am. At least that's my desire. It's always been my desire, but it seems to be more urgent now. I don't want to miss out."

Sparks' record is 299-80-2 and he would become one of only 11 coaches in college football history with 300 career wins.

Sparks holds the record for career wins by a Division II coach and ranks behind only John Gagliardi of St. John's (Minn.) and Larry Kehres of Mount Union among active coaches in any level of college football after the NCAA vacated 111 of Joe Paterno's wins at Penn State to leave him at 298-136-3. He led Carson-Newman to five NAIA national titles. Since Carson-Newman moved to NCAA Division II in 1993, Sparks has directed the Eagles to three national runner-up finishes.

Now he's taking on his toughest opponent yet.

Sparks was undergoing a physical in June when his prostate cancer screening raised red flags. A biopsy revealed worse news. The Gleason scale measures the seriousness of prostate cancer on a scale from one to 10, with 10 being the most aggressive. Sparks said he received a nine.

"It blindsided me," Sparks said.

Yet he never seriously thought about retiring.

"It was never a consideration," said his wife, Carol. "At least he never verbalized it if he thought it."

Sparks leaned on his faith to guide him.

"This is what I said, 'Lord, I'm yours. Whatever you want to do with me, I'm fine,' " Sparks said. "The thoughts of retirement, he never put that in my mind or I never thought about that. I was battling to get back on my feet, so I could get back on the field again."

Sparks isn't jumping into team drills as much as he did before, but otherwise he hasn't changed his approach much.

Senior center Kevin Day said he sensed a difference this summer even before Sparks informed the team of his condition. He noticed that Sparks wasn't as much of a presence around campus during voluntary workouts. Now, the Eagles believe Sparks is more like his old self.

"Everything still runs smoothly," junior guard Alex Taylor said. "You can still see that this is his team and he's running it the same as he always has."

That means he's continuing to teach his players about football and life while applying plenty of religious principles at this Christian school. Day remembers the time Sparks interrupted a workout by telling his players how the drill related to God's plan for them.

"If you've ever talked to coach Sparks, one of the first things to come out of his mouth is what he wants to do and what he hopes his football team can do to honor the Lord," Day said. "That's probably one of the first things he's going to say, and that's 100 percent real. It's not a show at all."

Sparks relies on that philosophy now more than ever.

As he downplays the prospect of his 300th win by saying it's nothing more than a number, Sparks focuses on how coaching has given him an opportunity to teach life lessons. His disease has given him plenty of subject material.

"'I'm the typical red-blooded American male," Sparks said. "I think I'm invincible and things like this will never happen to me. The reality of the fragile life became pretty real to me, that we have no guarantees. We need to celebrate every minute and be ready to meet our maker any minute. Life is very temporary. It can come and go pretty quick."