Robert J. Brigham, a World War II veteran whose association with Northern Illinois University began in 1946 as a football player and wrestler and continued for more than 50 years, including 19 as the Huskies’ director of athletics, passed away Sunday morning, May 25th in DeKalb.
Brigham, 90, impacted the lives of thousands of NIU student-athletes, beginning when he returned to the university as an assistant football coach in 1955, through 11 total seasons as the Huskies’ head wrestling coach and then as the leader of the department from 1968-1987. In that role, he took NIU Athletics from NCAA College Division to University Division (or major college) status, oversaw the Huskies’ admission to the Mid-American Conference in 1973, enhanced NIU’s athletics facilities and saw multiple teams qualify for NCAA championships competition.
Many of the decisions Brigham made during his tenure as athletic director at NIU have had a lasting effect on the university he loved.
“Dr. Bob was a man with exceptional integrity and someone whom I considered as an important life lessons teacher and mentor,” said Cary Groth, who followed in Brigham’s footsteps as NIU’s director of athletics from 1994-2004. “He built the foundation for the success that Northern Illinois University intercollegiate athletics enjoys to this day. When I was younger, he afforded me many learning opportunities that helped me throughout my career. He was a great man and someone whom I considered a dear friend. God bless Bob and his family.”
Northwestern Vice-President for Athletics and Recreation Jim Phillips, another of his successors at NIU, said Brigham’s influence extended beyond DeKalb.
“We lost an icon, not only of Huskie athletics but the entire world of intercollegiate sport,” Phillips said. “Dr. Brigham was a pioneer and will be so deeply missed by all who had the pleasure of meeting him.”
Current NIU Associate Vice-President and Director of Athletics Sean T. Frazier is well aware of Brigham’s many contributions and expressed thanks and condolences on behalf of the current administration.
“Although I never had the honor to know Dr. Brigham personally, the legacy he left at NIU will never be forgotten,” Frazier said. “He is one of the true giants in Huskie Athletics history, and we are truly thankful for his lifelong devotion to NIU and his many, many contributions. My wife Rosa and I and the entire Huskie Family send our thoughts and prayers to the Brigham family today.”
NIU Hall of Fame coaches, many of whom Brigham hired and mentored, marveled at his loyalty and lasting contributions to the university.
“Bob Brigham was a man who dedicated his whole life to Northern Illinois University. You don’t see that anymore,” said former NIU head football coach Joe Novak, who knew Brigham as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator for the Huskies in the early 1980s.
“Not only was Dr. Brigham an outstanding teaching colleague, coach, and administrator, his contributions to the modern era of NIU intercollegiate athletics were invaluable,” said former NIU men’s gymnastics coach Hubert Dunn.
“The news of Bob Brigham’s departure comes with great sadness to me,” said John McDougal, NIU head men’s basketball coach from 1976-86. “I will be forever grateful to him for the opportunity to coach at the Division I level. As an alum and a Northern Illinois man, Dr. Brigham was a campus institution. He will be greatly missed.”
Former football coach Jerry Pettibone (1985-90) appreciated Brigham’s support and his integrity.
“Dr. Brigham gave me the first opportunity to be a head football coach,” he said. “He was completely supportive of me and my staff, our kids. He always had an open door policy. I looked at him as a second father. After he retired (as AD), he was ahead of the curve in the compliance area. Dr. Brigham always wanted to do the right thing and knew the NCAA rules backwards and forwards.”
NIU two-sport All-American and College Football Hall of Fame quarterback George Bork knew Brigham first as a coach, but, like all Huskies of his era, was well aware of his contributions to NIU. “Bob Brigham was certainly a legend in NIU’s athletics history,” Bork said. “Among his many accomplishments during his career, he was an assistant coach on Howard Fletcher’s National Championship football team in 1963. The fact that our home field carries his name speaks volumes for his many contributions to the university.”
Brigham was born in Marion, Illinois on March 2, 1924 and graduated from Chicago Bowden High School where he played fullback on the football team. He served on submarines in the United States Navy during World War II, seeing action in the Pacific. After leaving the service, enrolled at Northern Illinois University, where he tried out for the football team as a freshman.
Coach George “Chick” Evans, who was also NIU’s athletic director at the time, cut Brigham that year, but the education major was not deterred. He returned a year later, made the team and eventually became the Huskies’ starting fullback. As a member of the fabled “Pony Backfield,” he was one of the best blocking backs in school history and would leave NIU as the school record holder in single-game (242 versus Washburn in 1948), single-season (786 yards in 1948) and career (1,221 from 1947-49) rushing yards. His single-game mark stood for 25 years, until it was broken by fullback Mark Kellar in 1973. Brigham finished his playing career as a three-year letterwinner in football and also lettered one season in wrestling.
After graduating from NIU with his bachelor’s degree in education in 1949, Brigham began his career in athletics as a football and wrestling coach at Tuscola High School. While coaching at Tuscola, he took graduate-level classes at the University of Illinois and earned his master’s degree in 1951.
In 1955, Brigham rejoined the Huskies as an assistant football coach. A year later, he added duties as the Huskies’ head wrestling coach, a position he held until 1960, and again from 1962-68. He posted a record of 82-45-6 in dual meets and coached five individual national champions and 11 All-America selections. As a member of Hall of Fame football coach Howard Fletcher’s staff, he helped the 1963 Huskies to a 10-0-0 season and the College Division National Championship
Brigham took over for Evans as the Huskies’ athletic director and chair of the physical education department on September 1, 1968. His first major accomplishment came a year later when the NIU football program moved up to the “University Division” (now Football Bowl Subdivision or FBS). Brigham added football games against Wisconsin, Iowa, West Virginia, Miami (Fla.), Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas State and Northwestern to the Huskies’ schedule. Four years later, the program gained stability when the Huskies were admitted to the Mid-American Conference.
Brigham also led the charge to upgrade NIU’s athletic facilities during his tenure and many of the Huskie programs reached new heights. The 1981-82 Men’s Basketball Team won the MAC tournament title to advance to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and the 1972 Huskie baseball and 1973 men’s soccer team competed in their respective NCAA Championship Regionals. In addition, the NIU men’s golf (1976), and men’s gymnastics (1982 and 1983) teams qualified for the NCAA Championships. Meanwhile, the Huskie football team earned its first MAC Championship and major college bowl appearance in 1983 when they played in the California Bowl.
In 1987, Brigham became special assistant to the president. In that role, he managed the university’s compliance obligations until his retirement in 2001. Two years later, the playing surface at Huskie Stadium was named “Brigham Field” in his honor. He entered the NIU Physical Education Hall of Fame in 1987 and was inducted into the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1989. In 1991, Brigham received the F. R. “Bud” Geigle Outstanding Service Award from the NIU Foundation.
Former NIU sports information director Mike Korcek reminisced about working for two of the great names in Huskie athletics history in Brigham and Hall of Fame SID Bud Nangle.
“Bob Brigham was the ultimate Huskie. He devoted 50 years to his alma mater. What’s the saying? ‘Favorite son.’ From student-athlete to coach to administrator to special assistant to the president in compliance, what an unprecedented and impressive run. All-Northern Illinois from head to toe. Bob hired me as SID in 1984 when Bud Nangle retired. He’d use the old Slovak pronunciation of my surname, `Korchek, this is how the Huskies do this.’ How lucky was I to have influential mentors like Dr. Bob and Bud — two NIU giants.”
Brigham is survived by his wife of nearly 65 years, the former Gertrude Fish, a 1949 NIU graduate from Western Springs, Illinois, the couple’s two grown sons, Robert, Jr. (Alina) and David, grandchildren Samantha Homes, Vera, Ben and Alex Brigham, great grandchild Mason Minnegan, and his sister Georgia Colwell of Huntsville, Ala. In addition to his lifelong devotion to NIU and the Huskies, Brigham followed the Chicago Cubs and Chicago Bears, loved to play golf and enjoyed visiting with his family and friends in DeKalb.
Brigham’s son, Bob Brigham Jr., gave perhaps the greatest tribute to his father on behalf of he and his brother.
“My brother and I have the two best parents in the world,” he said. “We grew up in a home where no matter if we did well or failed, we were always loved and supported. Our father also taught us, `you’ll learn more from failure than success.’ We’ll miss him more than you can imagine.”
Members of the community are invited to attend the services for Dr. Brigham, which will begin on Tuesday, June 3rd with the visitation at Anderson Funeral Home in DeKalb. The funeral will be held Wednesday, June 4th at Westminster Presbyterian Church in DeKalb with the burial at Fairview Cemetery. Friends and family will gather at Faranda’s in DeKalb afterward to celebrate Dr. Brigham’s life. (Times to be determined.)
Dr. Brigham Career Timeline
1946 – Enrolled at Northern Illinois University
1947-49 – Member of the NIU Football team (fullback)
1949 – Earned bachelor’s degree in education from NIU
1951 – Earned master’s degree from University of Illinois
1955 – Returned to NIU as assistant football coach
1955-56 – Named head wrestling coach
1963 – Earned doctorate from University of Indiana
1968 – Named the Huskies’ athletic director and chair of the physical education department
1987 – Named special assistant to the president of NIU
1989 – Inducted into the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame
2001 – Retired from NIU
2003 – Playing surface at Huskie Stadium named in his honor