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The Farragut Connection
Sparks found football success at FHS before national crowns at C-N


Ken Sparks’ football head-coaching stint at Farragut High School — featuring a near state championship, christening a new stadium and talking a future NFL player out of quitting football — became his “rebound” job.

Only one year before his hire at FHS in 1977, Sparks had been fired as an assistant coach at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City.

“I think it’s interesting that I got fired once as a football coach at Carson-Newman,” said Sparks, now a C-N legend who’ll begin his 30th season as Eagles head coach with the fourth highest winning percentage among all active NCAA coaches — including major college among the likes of Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden.

While compiling more wins than any football coach in NCAA Division II history, Sparks has coached C-N to five NAIA national crowns, three NCAA Division II tournament runner-up finishes and a 276-67-2 overall C-N record.

But Sparks found his footing at FHS, leading the Admirals to a 29-5 record in three seasons and coming within a hair of winning the 1978 Class AAA state crown.

Saying he had a number of Farragut High School connections, “It was an attractive job, they had moved into a new building (beginning with 1976-77 school year), and I had been friends with Bill Clabo [FHS head coach, 1961-76] for a long time,” Sparks said. “I always had a high regard for Bill.


“And Jerry Elliott, who was an assistant coach at The University of Tennessee, had a son that was going to Farragut and he was pushing for me to get involved with it,” Sparks added. “The main thing was I just thought it would be a great challenge, and take a new facility and kinda make a new program out of it.

“I just felt like the Lord could have some ministry in West Knoxville with me.”

Sparks labeled the three-season run (1977-79) “a great experience. I think we were the fifth- or sixth-ranked team [statewide, 10-1 record] my first year.”

His 1978 team went 12-1 — best-ever FHS football record according to program historian Clyde Floyd — led by All-state strong safety Bill Bates, later a UT and NFL Dallas Cowboys standout.

However, “Bill wasn’t going to play football,” Sparks said about Bates’ and a few other Admirals prior to their junior years when the coach arrived in ’77. “I asked them, ‘just come to the first meeting, that’s all I asked you to do.’

“They were gung-ho after that.”

But then came a heartbreaking state semifinal loss to Red Bank in 1978. “I still remember that one,” he said. “I think we had three or four pass interference calls in the last quarter and overtime. It really killed us. Every time we’d stop ’em it would be pass interference.”

Sparks, whose 1979 team finished 7-3, recalled playing his 1977 FHS season at the former campus site field near the corner of Kingston Pike and Concord Road.

“The night we played Oak Ridge [21-14 loss] half the lights went out … already the lights weren’t very good,” he said. “So we were playing in semi-light. But it was a huge crowd because it was two undefeated, ranked teams.”

In 1978 came the current Farragut Stadium, now named Bill Clabo Field. Its process from conception to reality was a short one.

“A lot of good people in the community made it a [reality] quickly. They started [construction] in June, and we played in it in August,” he said, adding he pushed for it “big time” because “the one we were playing in, we were crossing that highway [Kingston Pike] every day going to practice. We didn’t even have a place to practice. It was pretty dangerous, really.”

“We tried to make something positive out of it to say, ‘we’re the only team in the state of Tennessee that runs a half-mile before practice and a half-mile after practice — just to get to practice,” the coach added. “And I ran with ’em.”

Among praise to his assistants, Sparks said Bobby Henry “coordinated the freshman program and did a unbelievable job. What a great guy to have with those kids.”

Another young assistant coach was described by Sparks as “an enthusiastic guy … good student of the game.” That was Eddie Courtney, FHS head coach since 1996, who was hired by Sparks in 1978 as linebackers coach.

“He was a great hire,” Sparks said of the former Mars Hill (N.C.) and Fulton High School standout linebacker. “Did a great job with the linebackers. He was one of those organized guys … he started coming up with some ideas that were very, very helpful to us. As far as how to get some things done. He was hungry.”

Having met Sparks before accepting the FHS coaching job after serving as a UT assistant under head coaches Bill Battle and Johnny Majors, Courtney labeled Sparks “a winner in life dealing with young men. He was a great influence on me, how to really coach and care about kids.

“He believes the Lord will take care of things if you put things in perspective.”

Sparks remembered labeling Floyd, an FHS program volunteer and former “chain gang” member, “my ‘athletic director.’

“He’d come about every day and check on me and make sure I was doing things right,” Sparks added with a laugh. “Clyde really was a great encourager.”

 

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