Guerry Clegg commentary: Jay Sparks' decision not an easy one

April 5, 2014 

Jay Sparks was named Columbus State’s athletic director in April 2008 after spending nine years as the top assistant to former Athletic Director Herbert Greene.

The initial conversation seemed fairly customary. Columbus State athletic director Jay Sparks called Francis Marion AD Murray Hartzler and said he had heard there was an opening for a women's basketball coach.

"I have someone I'd like to recommend for the job," Sparks told Hartzler.

"Who?" asked Hartzler.

"Me," replied Sparks.

"That kind of floored him," Sparks said.

Had the conversation taken place two weeks earlier, Hartzler might have thought it was a great April Fool's gag. Instead, Hartzler was just momentarily stunned.

As you might have imagined, it took some persistent selling for Sparks to leave his cushy job in his hometown. But Sparks was the one doing the selling … and on two different fronts.

First, Sparks had to convince FMU president Fred Carter that, at 55, he was far from too old to return to coaching. He also had to convince his wife Cindy that leaving their life so deeply rooted in Columbus for a fresh adventure in Florence, S.C., would rewarding for both of them.

"It was really two selling jobs that I was involved in," Sparks said. "When I visited Francis Marion and we met with the president, Dr. Carter told Murray Hartzler, who's the athletic director, 'We will not make an offer until Jay brings his wife to Florence for a visit.' "

Hartzler called back Monday and offered Sparks the job. Hiring one of the most successful coaches in Peach Belt Conference history was an obvious coup for Francis Marion. It's not often that a school has a coach with 367 career wins, two Division II Final Four appearance and universal respect for conducting business the right way actually courting them.

The question everybody has asked, including Sparks himself, is simply ...

Why?

Why give up a job that paid him $103,000 and came without the pressure of winning and losing?

Why leave a school which just voted him into its athletics hall of fame? The induction ceremony will be Tuesday night.

Why leave a community that he and Cindy have called home for most of their lives?

"We had some long, serious, heart-to-heart talks," Sparks said. "It was not a decision that came easily to us."

Us. That is the key word. After some initial -- and understandable -- concern, Cindy became sold on this new and exciting adventure.

"It's exciting to see that she's just as keyed up as I am," Sparks said.

About that cushy AD job. In one sense, it seemed like a perfect fit for Sparks. He had left coaching once before to help his father-in-law run their Baskin Robins stores. He returned to coaching to launch the women's basketball program at Columbus College, as it was called then. After building one of the premier programs in Division II, Sparks handed the keys over to his protege, Jonathan Norton, so he could focus solely on his new job as athletic director.

This was no easy task as Sparks had to oversee the conflicting challenges of adding sports while dealing with a tightening budget.

"As an administrator, you don't get those highs you get from coaching," Sparks said. "You have to relish other highs."

"When you're an administrator," said Herbert Greene, Sparks' predecessor as CSU's athletic director, "anybody who comes into your door has a problem."

As far back as two years ago, Sparks had confided to his closest friends that he wanted to coach again. Seeing the Lady Cougars celebrate the Peach Belt Conference tournament champion at the Lumpkin Center confirmed that feeling.

"I think that resonated with me that I'd like even more to get back into it," Sparks said.

It was just the thrill of winning that Sparks missed. Rather, it was the rewarding feeling of knowing he had made a difference in people's lives.

"I miss being able to perhaps influence young people and the direction they're going in life," Sparks said. "That's really what we're here to do. It's something that can't be measured on a graph. You measure it by the impact you have on young people's lives."

Sparks insisted that this is not a whim. He fully believes he has another good 10 years or more left in him.

"I need to show everybody that I have a lot of energy and enthusiasm," he said. "That will help them believe 'he still has some life left in him.' "

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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