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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
The funeral was held Wednesday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in DeKalb with the burial at Fairview Cemetery.
–News Bulletin news sources