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Most of today’s high school basketball stars don’t know Bob Jennings.
That’s a shame.
Jennings, better known as “Red” throughout his nearly 90 years, was one of the first great boys’ basketball coaches in the Cedar Rapids-Marion area, maybe all of Eastern Iowa. Maybe all of Iowa.
In his 18-year coaching career, Jennings won 330 games at Immaculate Conception and Regis. That’s an average of 18 wins a season. His teams lost just 77 games, or just over four per season.
His 1962 Regis team was the first from Cedar Rapids to win a state title and the ’63 team finished third.
As impressive as those numbers are, that’s not all there is to Jennings’ legacy. Like many coaches of his era, Jennings was tough, but fair. He treated players with respect — when they deserved it — and was tough on them, star or sub, when needed.
This summer, myself and others on staff are going to take a look at some of these coaches, the men and women who molded many of today’s coaches and parents. We’ll try to find out what made them successful and why their legacies have endured so many years later.
Jennings, who turns 90 on Tuesday, was in the hospital when I reached him Friday. He’s been battling pneumonia.
“When you get to be 90, they want to watch you pretty close,” he said with a laugh after a nurse gave him instructions.
In typical fashion, “Red” deflected the attention from himself, noting his assistants and the junior high coaches were just as responsible for the success of his high school teams. He talked about my late father, Jack, who coached many of those I.C. and Regis stars when they were in seventh or eighth grade. He talked about my late father-in-law, Jack Byrne, one of his “all-time favorite” players.
He also talked about his coaching days, after some prodding.
“Great memories,” Jennings said. “The second team I ever coached at I.C., my brother, Don, was the point guard.”
He said that team finished 23-1 had to endure some “boos” because of its success.
“If you’re winning, you pay the price,” he told those players. “Those boos you hear are respect.”
Winning, you see, was very important to Jennings. The score mattered, after the game and after your playing days had ended.
“We wanted to be winners because in life you set your goals high,” he said.
There was never a win-at-all-cost attitude, though. Jennings had rules that had to be followed, like no smoking or drinking. He said during his third season “there was a certain place (in Cedar Rapids) I wouldn’t let them go.
“If anybody goes there, you’re out for the season,” he told his players. After a loss, two starters decided to test that rule. He kicked them off the team.
“It’s nice to be popular, but you’ve got to set rules,” he said. “My God it paid off, but it was tough at the time.
“From then on, I never had a problem.”
Jennings retired from coaching in his 40s and became athletics director at Prairie High School.
“It was a great time in my life,” he said.
But his passion was coaching.
“Coaching and teaching,” he said. “I enjoyed that the most. I enjoyed being around kids that age.”
I have a feeling those players enjoyed their years with Jennings, too. Even the ones who got kicked off the team.
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