After overseeing Maryland public school athletics for 34 years, Ned Sparks is ready for a break.
Sparks, who steered the state's high school sports programs through a rapidly-changing competitive landscape during his tenure, said Thursday he will retire as executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association on Aug. 1
"I just want to ease back on the accelerator a bit, knowing in this job you've got to go full speed; there's no walk-throughs," Sparks said. "I have friends who own their own businesses and they're able to ease away from their jobs as their children sort of take over. I can't do that in my position. I can't come in every other Thursday."
Sparks, 68, coordinated the rapid growth of girls sports, added state championships in five sports, moved state tournament sites to facilities such as M&T Bank Stadium, Xfinity Center and SECU Arena, developed corporate sponsorships and navigated technological advances.
His reach went beyond Maryland's borders as he became involved with the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS), serving on its Board of Directors, chairing its competitions committee and serving on its strategic planning committee over the years.
"Ned is the dean of executive directors and commissioners across the country," said Jim Tenopir, the CEO of the NFHS, who met Sparks when he was executive director of Nebraska's MPSSAA counterpart.
"He's very well thought of, certainly from the standpoint of his contributions. He thinks things through very well and he provides great input whenever we have any sort of committee or executive round table function. Ned's not outspoken, but when Ned speaks people tend to listen."
Ron Belinko, who retired in 2012 after 21 years as coordinator of athletics for Baltimore County, said Sparks was often ahead of major issues such as concussion management and that he earned the respect of everyone he dealt with because of his easy-going leadership style.
"His are going to be tough shoes to fill, particularly with the political climate," Belinko said. "That was Ned's strongest point -- dealing with politicians that want to change everything athletically. The politicians forget what athletics is all about and how it's educationally based. I don't know how many times Ned knocked it down with them in Annapolis with testifying on girls lacrosse helmets and other rule changes and everything else over the years."
A Massachusetts native who grew up in Washington, D.C., Sparks was a football center at North Carolina. He began his career as a teacher and coach at Mount Saint Joseph in 1969. He spent 10 years as a teacher, coach and athletic director at Howard High School before taking over the MPSSAA in 1981.
He almost did not apply for the job when Jack Molesworth planned to retire as executive director in 1981. Sparks said the job sounded like fun and he thought he could do it, but when he saw the application, he realized he didn't meet all the qualifications.
He threw the application in the trash, but later in the day, changed his mind and filled it out. He can't remember now what qualifications he didn't meet, but they couldn't have been that important, because he got the job.
Under his watch, the MPSSAA added state championships in girls soccer, swimming and boys and girls lacrosse along with a dual meet wrestling championship. The football tournament expanded twice and state playoffs opened to every team instead of a few top teams in each region.
The MPSSAA also launched a website and began providing live streaming of state championships. Sparks also oversaw new student leadership and scholar athlete programs.
Of all of his accomplishments, Sparks is most proud of providing more opportunities for student athletes.
"You stand at Xfinity or Washington College or M&T Bank Stadium when it's hushed as the national anthem's playing," he said of the state championship venues for boys basketball, field hockey and football, "and you think about all the excitement and the people there to watch and the participation of the kids who have those opportunities and it's kind of neat to know you had a small part in putting that thing together. It's a quiet satisfaction."
Sparks receives high praise for his ability to treat everyone around the state equally when it came to Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City.
"This is a very diverse state given all the different areas," said Earl Hawkins, director of athletics for Prince George's County and past-president of the MPSSAA
"Ned did a good job keeping everybody on the same page, making sure everybody felt their voice was heard and what was best for everybody is what he would do. He got insight from all areas, but he did what was best for the state."
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When Baltimore City joined the MPSSAA in 1993 — a controversial move because it meant changes to many boys sports, including the end of the MSA and of the Thanksgiving Day City-Poly game — Sparks could not have been more welcoming, said Bob Wade, who became city coordinator of athletics three years later.
"Since I stepped into this position, he's been nothing more than a gentleman as far as Baltimore City is concerned," Wade said. "To me, he's a very fair man. He does what's best for students. He thinks things through, whatever the issue and he does a good job coming up with the best possible solution. He's very good at putting people together, on committees to come up with any type of amenable solution to any type of conflict."
One of Sparks' greatest contributions on the national level came in boys lacrosse, where Maryland was far ahead of most states.
"Lacrosse is not sponsored in every state association," Tenopir said, "so we had to lean on Ned and, for that matter, Maryland in regards to the sport of lacrosse and leading our rules committee."
Said Sparks: "We had kids playing lacrosse and no rule book. Each state took the college rule book and made its own adaptations to it, so we needed a high school rule book. They said, 'Great let's do that.' Next think I know — 'You be the chair of that.' It was interesting to do that and produce a book for student athletes geared toward JV and varsity players, not necessarily athletes recruited for the college level."