From a 21st century viewpoint, Bob Brigham’s Northern Illinois University athletics résumé soars off any chart.
Brigham was the all-time, ultimate Huskie. That old-school term “favorite son” doesn’t do him justice. Neither does “blood in the bricks.” We’re talking human here, not a deity, so maybe “fixture”, “legend”, or “icon” suffice. Brigham’s death Sunday at age 90 is cause for serious reflection for every Northern Illinois alum and fan. Where would the present-day Huskies program be without his drive, determination and –most of all – vision? After all, this was the man for all NIU sports seasons.
Elevating Huskies football into the University Division (now NCAA FBS) in 1969. Leading the program into the Mid-American Conference in 1973. Upgrading facilities. Scheduling the school’s first Big Ten Conference football opponent (Wisconsin) in 1971. Envisioning the first marquee Huskies football game at Soldier Field (Miami, Florida) in 1987, although it never came to fruition. Understanding the key role of TV in college sports. Helping create the Athletics Hall of Fame in 1978. Pioneering institutional NCAA compliance.
Whenever I look at NIU’s vintage Victor E. Huskie logo from the Baby Boom era –commonly known as the “boxing Huskie” – I literally see “Dr. Bob” in every Cardinal and Black role: Student-athlete, assistant coach, head coach, athletic director, academician and special assistant to the president.
Loyal. Resolute. Visionary. Dedicated. Bulldog tenacious. Battle-tested. Examine that Huskie again. In the “ready” position. Standing firmly on his haunches. Eyes alert. Proudly wearing his “NIU” sweater.
Are we describing Robert J. Brigham or Victor E. Huskie? The answer is both.
Retired Capital (Wisconsin) Times sports editor and DeKalb native Joe Hart aptly called Brigham part of the late 1960s Northern Illinois “Holy Trinity,” along with former AD George “Chick” Evans and sports information director Bud Nangle during the aforementioned transition to the Division I ranks.
Right on, Joe. People inform me I’m “biased.”
Brigham’s NIU story began in 1946 after serving in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific theater as a submariner in World War II. Footballwise, it was an inauspicious start for the future NIU AD and Hall of Famer. Evans, the man synonymous with everything Huskies for 39 years, cut Brigham from the football team as a freshman.
The pattern was set for the next half century. Brigham got knocked down, fought back, persevered and prospered.
Earning varsity letters in football and wrestling, Brigham became a starter and developed into one of the greatest blocking backs in Northern Illinois history as a member of the famed “Pony Backfield” with rifle-armed quarterback Don Fortunato (free agent with the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals in 1949) and halfback Floyd Hunsberger (NIU’s first “major-college” honorable mention All-America pick in 1948).
Brigham established the school’s single-game (242 yards vs. Washburn in 1948), single-season (786 yards in 1948) and career (1,221 yards in 1947-49) rushing records. His NIU single-game rushing standard stood for 25 years until all-century fullback Mark Kellar broke it in 1973.
Nangle, who doubled as NIU’s SID and sports editor of the Daily Chronicle in 1948, constantly used to talk about Brigham’s historic performance in the 30-26 victory at Washburn for decades. Nangle passed away in 2006.
“It was one of the most courageous individual performances I’ve ever seen – anywhere,” recalled Nangle, who spent two decades on the sports staffs of the Daily Chronicle, Chicago Daily News and Toledo Blade. “Bob played with a serious knee injury and wouldn’t come out of that game. That was vintage Bob Brigham.”
Fast forward 20 years (and past many significant accomplishments as an NIU assistant football coach and head wrestling coach) when Brigham was named AD and chair of the physical education department on Sept. 1, 1968.
For two consecutive summers, Brigham and Nangle appeared before chairman Furman Bisher, the sports editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the classification committee of the Football Writers Association of America – the media-based group that then decided NCAA University Division status. On June 30, 1969, Northern Illinois joined Idaho, Pacific, and San Diego State at the elite level of college football.
I worked for Bud as a student assistant that summer. Both men were ecstatic at their alma mater’s accomplishment. Then the man who rushed for 242 yards vs. Washburn (think about it) boldly asked Wisconsin for a football game.
“While ‘Chick’ opened the door, so to speak, Bob is the one who took the program through it,” Nangle said years later. “One of his most enduring accomplishments was convincing [then-Wisconsin AD] Elroy Hirsch to play the Huskies in football [in 1971]. That got NIU into the so-called ‘big-time’ in football significance.”
Brigham followed suit and scheduled such “major-major” opponents as Iowa, West Virginia, Miami (Florida), Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas State and Northwestern. Scheduling the big boys was one thing, beating them was another. During his tenure as AD, Northern Illinois football went 0-12-1 vs. the Big Ten.
Brigham also pursued serious TV exposure. With deregulation in 1984, the Huskies season-opener appeared live on WLS-TV in Chicago, along with the Lee Corso coaches show every Sunday. In 1985 and 1986, SportsVision in Chicago carried five NIU games apiece. The TV age clicked “on.”
On Sept. 17, 1988, head coach Jerry Pettibone’s Huskies outlasted Wisconsin, 19-17, for NIU’s first victory vs. the Big Ten – one that CBS-TV’s Brent Musburger acknowledged on “The NFL Today” pregame the next day. Trainer (and NIU grad) Wayne Vaupel noticed Brigham in the hallway outside of the visitor’s locker room at Camp Randall Stadium after the historic victory.
“Get Dr. Brigham in here to lead us in the Huskie Fight Song,” Pettibone insisted.
Soon, crouched in front of the entire team, Brigham counted down “one, two, three ...” and the NIU postgame celebration was on. One of the toughest men ever to don a Huskies uniform had tears in his eyes.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Pettibone said earlier this week. “Dr. Bob was so happy.”
I’m proud to have been one of Brigham’s NIU hires. I can still hear him now.
“Korchek,” Brigham would say, using the Slovak pronunciation of my surname, “the Huskies are going right to the top!”
They have, Bob, they have.
• Mike Korcek is a 1970 graduate of NIU, and was the school’s head sports information director from 1984-2006. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.