Brigham Field at Huskie Stadium
It was only fitting that Northern Illinois University intercollegiate athletics honored Robert J. Brigham, the man who carried the Cardinal and Black colors for 50 years as a student-athlete, assistant coach, head coach, director of athletics, and special assistant to the president before his retirement in June, 2001.
If anyone embodied the growth of Huskie sports in the late 20th Century-building a program from the College Division days in the mid-1940s to National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1-A status in the late 1960s and beyond, it would be "favorite son" Bob Brigham. This Northern Illinois athletics icon was there for every step of the way.
The Brigham Field announcement was made by former NIU Director of Athletics Cary Groth prior to the 2003 opener vs. Maryland.
"It is a natural and an overdue tribute to Dr. Bob," Groth said. "I cannot think of a more loyal and devoted Northern Illinois alum. He served his alma mater with distinction, dignity, integrity, and perseverance. You really cannot say enough about his many contributions to NIU intercollegiate athletics and this institution. We all felt this was the most appropriate way of recognition."
Brigham's ties with Northern Illinois began in 1946 after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Actually, it was a less than auspicious start for the future NIU Hall of Famer. The man who was synonymous with the Huskies for 39 years and turned out to be his predecessor as athletics director, George "Chick" Evans, cut Brigham from the football team in his freshman year. As he did for the next half century, Brigham persevered and prospered.
In his student days, he would earn varsity letters in wrestling (1) and football (3). Brigham became a starter and eventually one of the greatest blocking backs in Northern Illinois gridiron history as a member of the fabled "Pony Backfield." Eventually, he set 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 single-game rushing standard stood for 25 years until All-Century fullback Mark Kellar broke it in 1973.
Upon graduation from NIU in 1950, Brigham began his coaching career in football and wrestling at downstate Tuscola High School. His 46-year run at Northern Illinois started in 1955 when he returned to the DeKalb campus as an assistant football coach. Promoted to head wrestling coach in 1956-57, he would post an 82-45-6 won-lost-tied record in dual meets and produce five national individual champions-all of whom would eventually make the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame-and 11 Huskie mat All-America selections. Brigham's best wrestler turned out to be Hall of Famer Roy Conrad who ruled the 177-pound bracket at the NCAA Division I Championships in 1960 and at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in 1961. He served as an assistant under Hall of Fame head football coach Howard Fletcher on NIU's 10-0-0 College Division National Championship team in 1963.
Named AD and chair of NIU's physical education department on September 1, 1968, Brigham followed in the administrative footsteps of the legendary Evans, who was considered the patriarch of the Northern Illinois intercollegiate athletics program for his 39-year tenure (1929-68). Brigham's first major accomplishment as the new AD was the elevation of the Huskie football program to what the NCAA then called "University Division" (now 1-A) status in 1969. In the same vein, he would upgrade the institution's scheduling-which, in football, would include such "major-major" opposition as Wisconsin, Iowa, West Virginia, Miami (FL), Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas State, and Northwestern-and then gain admittance into the Mid-American Conference in 1973.
"While 'Chick' (Evans) opened the door, so to speak, Bob is the one who took the program through it," recalled Northern Illinois peer, fellow Hall of Famer, and sports information director emeritus Bud Nangle. "One of his most enduring accomplishments was convincing (Wisconsin AD) Elroy Hirsch to play the Huskies in football (in 1971). That got NIU into the so-called 'big-time' in football significance."
During the Brigham tenure as AD, Northern Illinois would also enhance its athletics facilities-including the installation of the state's first major-college AstroTurf field in Huskie Stadium in 1969. In his time, the program would receive NCAA regional tournament bids in baseball (1972), men's soccer (1973), and men's basketball (1981-82), NCAA national team berths in men's golf (1976) and men's gymnastics (1981-82 and 1982-83), plus a major bowl appearance (1983). In 1987, he began handling the university's compliance responsibilities as a special assistant to the president until his retirement at age 77 in 2001.
A native of Marion, IL, and a graduate of Chicago Bowen High School where he was an All-City fullback, Brigham received a bachelor of science degree in education from NIU in 1949, a master of science degree from Illinois in 1951, and a doctoral degree from Indiana in 1963. He was inducted into the NIU Physical Education Hall of Fame in 1987 and the school's Athletics Hall of Fame in 1989. In 1991, Brigham received the F. R. "Bud" Geigle Outstanding Service Award from the NIU Foundation.
Brigham is married to the former Gertrude Fish-a 1949 Northern Illinois grad from Western Springs. The couple- who have two grown sons, Robert, Jr., and David-enjoy retirement, travel, and, of course, follow the Huskies.