Robert J. Brigham, a World War II veteran whose connection to 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, died Sunday in DeKalb.
He was born in Marion, 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.
Brigham, 90, was a part of thousands of NIU student-athletes lives, starting when he returned to the university as an assistant football coach in 1955, through 11 seasons as the Huskies’ head wrestling coach and then as the leader of the athletic department from 1968 to 1987.
As AD, he lead NIU from the NCAA's College Division to the University Division (or major college), oversaw the Huskies’ admission to the Mid-American Conference in 1973, directed improvements to the 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.
"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 to 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 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.