Oct. 9, 2010: The third-largest game in Dix Stadium history. And when the raucous crowd of 24,221 stormed the field to reclaim the Wagon Wheel as the Golden Flashes defeated the Akron Zips 28-17, one thing was abundantly clear: Football fans had returned to Kent State.
The excitement was just what new Athletics Director Joel Nielsen hoped for when he arrived last May. Within weeks, he launched the ambitious 90KSU, an initiative to attract at least 90,000 attendees to Dix Stadium games during the 2010 season. It was part of a larger plan to make football a priority for the Athletics department, with the aim of soon bringing home the first Mid-American Conference championship in the sport since 1972.
“It’s important that we strive to be competitive at the highest level in each of our 18 sports,” Nielsen says. “But there’s something special about a successful football campaign. It raises the national visibility of Kent State and all of Intercollegiate Athletics — and winning on a Saturday afternoon has a unique way of rallying the support of our fans, alumni, donors and the entire Kent State community year-round.”
For alumnus George Jenkins, ’63, that was the right message.
“Almost every sport at Kent State competes for the MAC championships, and last year we won the Reese and Jacoby trophies,” says the former Golden Flashes captain about the awards given to the conference’s top men’s and women’s programs. “But one program lags behind all the other programs. And I want to see football compete for championships like all the other sports.”
His latest contribution just may help that process along.
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George Jenkins arrived at Kent State in 1959 as the first in his family to attend college. As he tells the story, he intended that playing football and graduating with his bachelor’s degree would be great accomplishments. But his university experience changed that thinking.
Jenkins discovered that he excelled not just on the field, where he played quarterback and safety, but in the classroom. And he also found he was a natural leader, developing those skills as president of the Blue Key honorary, Varsity K and his fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega. But what truly changed his life trajectory were two constitutional law courses taught by James Olsen. After watching him achieve in the classes, the professor told him that he should attend law school.
“I said, ‘That’s just way beyond my reach in terms of academic experience and economic ability,’” Jenkins says. “But he just kept after me and kept after me. He finally said: ‘Take the law school aptitude tests, and if you do well, will you apply to law school?’ And just to placate him, I did.”
His scores were good, and after further prodding from Olsen, the student ended up at the University of Michigan — which led to a 42-year law career, including a stint as the first assistant attorney general for the state of Ohio.
“It became the foundation for my whole career,” says Jenkins, who is also a past trustee of the university. “It’s a classic story of a professor motivating a student to expand his horizons and stretch as hard as he can stretch — changing his whole life.”
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When Jenkins first thought of giving back to his alma mater, he immediately knew that he wanted to make a contribution that would honor both sides of his university experience.
“My interests were in promoting something that would help student-athletes be both students and athletes while at Kent State,” he says.
What he settled on was funding the construction of the Academic Resource Center, which provides student-athletes with space and staff members to assist them in progressing toward graduation amid their packed practice and competition schedules. Jenkins contributed the lead gift, while additional significant contributions from alumni John and Joyce Farrell and Judy Devine, among others, have created a supporting endowment and made possible an expansion. The facility is named for Jenkins and his wife, Gina.
“I feel so strongly about helping student-athletes succeed because of my experience,” he says. “Without the academic side of Kent State and without the motivation of Dr. Olsen, I wouldn’t have become a lawyer and I wouldn’t have been so successful. So I needed to give back to athletics, but also to academics.”
This summer, Jenkins made a new Centennial Campaign commitment in support of Athletics Director Nielsen’s plan to revitalize the football program. The gift will be used to acquire the resources needed to pursue a long-sought MAC championship — and bring excitement back to the campus and Dix Stadium.
“George’s gift underscores his strong belief in the importance of private support, when it comes to an academic support building or providing resources to maintain a Division I football program,” Nielsen says. “His gift to benefit the Football Enhancement Fund has served as the catalyst and motivator for others to follow his lead.”
Jenkins, whose total commitments to Kent State exceed $500,000, has specific goals in mind for his latest contribution.
“Football has been down so long that it needed to be jumpstarted,” he says. “And I wanted to be one of the people to help Joel and his staff re-energize the program.”
Based on what he witnessed during the Oct. 9 Battle for the Wagon Wheel, he’s already pleased with the results.
“The best illustration of what I want this gift to achieve is the difference in the games prior to Homecoming and what I saw at Homecoming,” Jenkins says. “It was the third-largest Kent State game ever. Students were there and engaged. The stands were full and the fans were enthusiastic. And we were victorious on the field.
“That’s what I’d like to see each and every Saturday.”