TAMPA, Fla. — Mark Jennings’ fundraising career at the University of Iowa coincides quite nicely with the Hawkeyes’ rise as a football program.
Jennings, 66, joined the UI Law School as a fund raiser in February 1981. Later that year, Iowa won a share of the Big Ten title and earned its first Rose Bowl trip since 1958. That was the first of 28 bowl games over the next 35 years, and Jennings attended all but the 1984 Freedom Bowl.
Now the athletics department’s associate athletics director for donor and patron services, Jennings will retire on Thursday. He will remain as a department consultant but the Outback Bowl on Monday will be his last in a full-time capacity.
Through his many seasons, Jennings has witnessed plenty of highs and lows on bowl trips. He sat through one of the coldest bowls on record when the Hawkeyes lost 14-6 to Florida in the 1983 Gator Bowl. Temperatures dipped into the low 20s by kickoff and the wind chill sank below zero. Not far down the road in Orlando, Jennings watched the highest moment when quarterback Drew Tate connected with receiver Warren Holloway for a 56-yard touchdown on the game’s final play to beat LSU 30-25 in the 2005 Capital One Bowl.
But Jennings’ fondest memories start with his first bowl experience. The Hawkeyes had 20 consecutive non-winning seasons, and Jennings was part of the worst one. He served as a student manager in 1973 when Iowa finished 0-11. The day the Hawkeyes clinched that Rose Bowl berth remains one of the most memorable in school history, and Jennings still recalls it with a smile.
“(UI Foundation director Darrell Wyrick) called the local florist and ordered every rose in Iowa City and had them delivered to the press box,” Jennings said. “With just a couple of minutes left in the game, they were throwing roses in the press box, I’ll never forget that.
“It was euphoric back then. Fundraising at that point was the best because we hadn’t been to a bowl game in 100 years, or since 1958. So that was my first bowl game, and I’ve been to every bowl game except the Freedom Bowl.”
The most disappointing loss was the Rose Bowl defeat to UCLA following the 1985 season. Iowa was ranked No. 1 for five consecutive weeks in the middle of the season, entered the game 10-1 and had an outside shot at the national title. The Hawkeyes have lost all four trips to Pasadena with Jennings on board.
“I wish we would have won a Rose Bowl,” said Jennings, who wears a 2015 Rose Bowl ring on his right hand. “We were so good in ’85. We thought we had it going that year.”
The worst non-weather experience for Jennings was during a trip to one of the Hawkeyes’ two Sun Bowls in the mid-1990s. Both teams traveled to Mexico for a bullfight but their return trip to El Paso became an adventure.
“The border patrol stopped us,” Jennings said. “They came on searching all the buses and searching all the areas. I think what they wanted cash under the table to let us back in the United States. We sat in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, in Mexico, not knowing what the hell is going on, if we were going to make it back or not. We finally made it back.
“The Mexican police were really playing hardball with us. That was scary.”
As for Jennings’ preferred bowl location, it’s one that hasn’t had a Big Ten participant since 2009.
“If somebody said what is you very favorite bowl, it’s probably not going to be popular with the Big Ten, but the Alamo Bowls were just fantastic,” he said.
This is Jennings’ fifth trip to the Outback Bowl, a game he relishes. His favorite memory in Tampa came in the moments that followed a 31-24 loss to Florida after the 2005 season. Iowa LB Chad Greenway was whistled wrongfully for offside on an onside kick that negated Iowa’s recovery inside of the final two minutes.
“As we left, the fans were leaving the stadium and chanting ‘Let’s Go Hawks, Let’s Go Hawks,’” Jennings recalled. “It just rang out through out as the fans left the stadium. We got screwed on the onside kick. That’s a memory.”
This season and this bowl have been special, as well.
“I’ve said to a lot of people, in my 31 years in athletics — my 37 years with the university — this is the best November I ever remember,” Jennings said. “To upset Michigan; yeah, we’ve beaten Michigan before, but not when they were No. 3 in the nation and we were not ranked. Shut out Illinois at Illinois and then to pound Nebraska. I think this bowl game was probably the biggest shock of all the bowl games.
“No. 1, the first week of November, we didn’t even know if we’d go to a bowl game. And then to end up in a January bowl game, unbelievable. This is probably the biggest shock.”