Less than two years out of college, Austin Sparrow stays true to his coaching pedigree while leading Campbellsville-Harrodsburg to lofty rankings and expectations
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
HARRODSBURG, Ky. — Born to coach.
Some people are so natural at working the sidelines that they seem to have been coaching from the cradle. But Austin Sparrow can say he literally was born on the basketball court — well, almost — and the men’s basketball program at Campbellsville University-Harrodsburg is seeing the results.
Ranked No. 9 in the latest National Christian College Athletic Association Division II poll, the Pioneers defended their home court, knocking off No. 4 Great Lakes Christian, 67-58, Friday night. It was CU-Harrodsburg’s first win ever over the Crusaders.
Saturday, however, No. 2 Johnson University visited Harrodsburg and held off a late Pioneer rally to claim a 72-67 win. After the weekend split, CU-Harrodsburg stood at 11-10 on the year and 6-3 in NCCAA play.
Friday’s win was another in a list of accomplishments Sparrow is amassing at the new school located in his hometown. And he’s piling them up as one of the youngest college basketball head coaches in the nation.
“That’s all I ever wanted to do,” Sparrow says of his place on the bench. “It was instilled in me at a young age. It’s a way to use your leadership skills to teach others how to be leaders.”
At 24 and less than two years out of Lindsey Wilson College, Austin Sparrow also believes he’s on a path that God has prepared.
And he really was almost born on the sidelines.
Austin’s father, Casey Sparrow, had just been named the head coach of the girls’ basketball team at Anderson County High School with his wife, Lisa, serving as the top assistant when Austin decided to enter the world.
“Truth be known, I went into labor at Bellarmine College Team Camp,” Lisa laughs. “We got home on Saturday afternoon and I had him on Sunday night. The athletic trainers kept saying, ‘We tape ankles, not deliver babies. You need to sit down.’”
Anderson made some regional noise — the 1997 team won the program’s first regional tournament game in nine seasons — during the Sparrows’ three-year tenure and Austin had a front row seat for all of it.
“He would sit at the end (of the bench) with a team manager,” Lisa Sparrow remembers. “We recruited our managers on who could change diapers and watch Austin during practice. We didn’t need them to do basketball stuff, just play with him and keep him off the court. He always wanted to run onto the court to his dad!”
Austin kept seeing the game up close when his parents moved on to Covington Holmes where they led the Lady Bulldogs to the state semifinals in 2002 and coached a Miss Basketball, Erica Hallman.
Even when Austin’s father left coaching for administration — Casey Sparrow would eventually become the principal of Bondurant Middle School in Frankfort — he would still be around some of the best as Lisa Sparrow started coaching boys’ basketball as a member of Billy Hicks’ staff at Scott County High before returning to her alma mater, Mercer County.
Austin, an only child, could not help but develop a love of sports that has taken him on an unlikely path back to the town he calls home.
While he’s making his name as a dynamite basketball coach, he was never a hardwood star at Mercer, scoring just 133 points in his varsity career according to Kentucky High School Athletic Association stats. He’d also played four years of football at Mercer but track was his ticket to Lindsey Wilson College.
While playing a pickup basketball game on campus, a member of the basketball coaching staff happened to see Sparrow’s game. He extended an invitation to join the junior varsity basketball team, setting in motion the events that would lead Sparrow home.
That two-year stint as a student assistant could have led to more at Lindsey Wilson. After graduating in 2019, he could have returned as a graduate assistant, but he also had an offer to do the same at CU-Harrodsburg. “With Harrodsburg being my hometown, I felt like it was a great opportunity to come back home and mentor people from back home and be able to help build a program.”
To say the program is building is a major understatement. It’s a rising power in a world where there’s little publicity and crowds usually consist of family and a few friends. However, Harrodsburg has taken to the hometown team led by the hometown young man. Games are broadcast on local radio and multiple sponsors have thrown support behind the program.
The irony is that Sparrow had no idea he would be in the position of leading the Pioneers when he came home. The school parted ways with his predecessor not long before the start of the 2019-2020 season, and Sparrow, who had been expecting to work as a grad assistant, found himself in charge.
“When I took over the program, there was a lot of work to do,” he remembers. “I was coming into a program that was rough. There was no gym, no practice uniforms, no travel gear, no shoes, no backpacks. I just let God provide all that.”
And He has provided. The Pioneers moved into a sparkling new on-campus facility last January and play their home games on the Whitaker Family Court. The travel budget has included trips to New Oleans last year (playing NCAA Division I McNeese State and Nicholls State) and a trip to Lexington, Virginia this year to take on VMI. There has also been an exhibition game against Eastern Kentucky.
On the court, the Pioneers bring back memories of Casey Sparrow’s girls’ teams at Anderson County and Holmes. They like to run as this year’s team routinely scores in the 70s and 80s when playing similar-sized colleges. The Pioneers like to press, often creating havoc in the win over Great Lakes Christian Friday night.
The Pioneers will play a lot of man-to-man defense but will also employ some zone presses. “We want to play with pace,” Sparrow says. “We want to play under control. We want to speed the other team up to make them as uncomfortable as possible. On offense, we like to run in transition. We don’t want to set up and run 20 to 30 plays a game. If we can get fast break layups or a couple of fast break corner threes, we will take them.”
It’s working on the court, but Sparrow’s influence might never be measured on the stat sheet or in wins and losses.
A stint coaching AAU basketball following his graduation from Lindsey Wilson convinced Sparrow that he should pursue a career in college coaching, but he added something when he returned home.
“I think I started out with the goal of I have got to be a Division I basketball coach in order to be a successful coach,” Sparrow admits. “I think the day I took the graduate assistant job at Campbellsville University-Harrodsburg was the day I started letting God lead my life.”
Sparrow had been coming to grips with his faith for sometime. He’d watched his father battle cancer for five years before the dreaded disease finally claimed him during Austin’s senior year at Lindsey Wilson. Casey Sparrow was only 47 years old.
He admits to being “out of touch with my religious background” before the illness.
“What he was going through with cancer was a very difficult time for me. When he passed, it was a wakeup call. I know he is in Heaven and is in a better place, but it took me a really long time to come to grasp that.”
Austin’s mother believes the ordeal of watching his father battle cancer has made the young coach wise beyond his years. “Austin had to grow up fast,” she says. “His dad was diagnosed his junior year of high school and died his senior year of college. Since that point, he stepped up in all aspects of life. He had to grow up and take on responsibilities with high school and college that were far above and beyond what a typical young adult does. Sitting with his dad in hours of chemo and doctor visits, I’m sure they had some great talkies about life and responsibility.”
And those lessons, even more than running the fast break or the 2-2-1 press are being passed on to the Campbellsville-Harrodsburg Pioneers.
He talks regularly with mentors such as Lindsey Wilson coach Chris Starks and Asbury University coach Will Shouse. A local pastor, Paul Gibson of Harrodburg Baptist Church, serves as the team’s character coach and has introduced Sparrow to Nations of Coaches, a ministry to help coaches manage the daily stressors of the job.
And he’s simply letting Christ shine on his team. His core values are Faith, Family, Education and Basketball and the team often attends worship together at an area church. Sparrow, only a year or two older than some of his players, is available to help his players walk with Christ. “I tell the kids when they come in, ‘I am not looking to be your father figure. I am looking to walk hand-in-hand with you for whatever you go through . There are those guys who need me to lead them and there are those who just need me to walk with them.
“I have some players on my team that I think sometimes need me. And that’s awesome.”
And nine Pioneers, including seven this year, have been baptized since Sparrow took over the program.
It is fitting that the Pioneers warm up with t-shirts that are screen printed with “Climb the Ladder.” They are doing just that on the court CU-Harrodsburg has been ranked all season, a first for the school.
But the rankings are only part of the story.
“When I took over as head coach, one of my main goals was we might not win, but we are going to have the reputation of a good program,” Sparrow says. “We are going to make sure that when a kid comes into our program, when they leave, when they graduate, they have learned important life lessons and they are proud to be from Campbellsville University-Harrodsburg, that they are proud to graduate from that school.
“If wins and notoriety come, we want to be leading by our faith and showing our faith. We want to do the right things on and off the court.”
It’s all part of that decision Austin Sparrow made in the summer of 2019 when he accepted the call to come home. He didn’t know what to expect but believed God had opened a door.
“If I did not let God lead in that moment, I would not be in this seat right now,” he says. “I have talked with my mom and talked with the Lord that I don’t know what the next step is going to be.
“But I do know that it will be led by God.”
Born to coach? Perhaps.
Or maybe Austin Sparrow was born again to coach.