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Dennie Bridges sits in his office Tuesday after he announced his retirement from Illinois Wesleyan University. Bridges, the school's athletic director, has been associated with the university for more than 50 years.

A partially devoured cake sat in the common area of the Shirk Center athletic offices late Tuesday morning. The frosting, beneath a picture of Dennie Bridges as an Illinois Wesleyan basketball player, sat undisturbed.

That's where it started.

And even when Bridges' retirement becomes official on July 31, the love affair between a university and a student-athlete turned coach turned athletic director will continue.

Bridges announced his impending retirement Tuesday. The fiesty, former three-sport standout will leave a legacy of more than 50 years at his alma mater.

"The time to retire is when you no longer want to do what you're doing. If that were the criteria, I would never retire because I enjoy what I do," Bridges said from his corner office at Shirk. "I enjoy being around the coaches and student-athletes. But a realist says 65 is when most people retire. I'm a bit past that."

A 1961 IWU graduate, Bridges will turn 76 in February.

"Dennie Bridges has provided extraordinary leadership and service to Illinois Wesleyan over a long career, first as men's basketball coach and then as athletic director," university President Richard Wilson said in a statement. "Dennie and I have worked together for the past decade, and I could not have been better served by an athletic director."

Bridges played basketball, baseball and football at Illinois Wesleyan before beginning his coaching career with three years at Plainfield High School. He returned to IWU in 1964 as head tennis coach and an assistant to basketball coach Jack Horenberger.

Taking over for Horenberger as basketball coach for the 1965-66 season, Bridges amassed a 667-319 record over 36 seasons. His win total ranks fifth among Division III coaches and 38th regardless of division.

Horenberger was more than a coach to Bridges. He was a friend and a mentor.

"Coach Horenberger and I have been in charge of athletics at Illinois Wesleyan for 70 years," Bridges said. "Coach Horenberger was a wonderful man. I still make decisions based on what Coach Horenberger would do. Things have changed dramatically, but basic values are the same."

Bridges, who recruited future NBA all-star Jack Sikma to IWU in the 1970s, has been Titans' athletic director since 1981. During the Anchor native's tenure, Shirk Center and Fort Natatorium have been built, swimming returned for men and was added to the IWU sports landscape for women. Men's and women's soccer, women's cross country, women's golf, and men's and women's lacrosse have been added as varsity sports.

By his own admission, Bridges became a more involved athletic director after stepping down as basketball coach in 2001.

"Sometimes I would be on the way to practice and signing off on things happening in other sports and maybe not giving them enough attention," he said. "When I quit coaching basketball, I really put a lot of effort into the other sports, particularly the women's side. I think I've done a fair job promoting the women's sports."

Since coaching the Titans to the 1997 NCAA Division III national championship, Bridges has watched IWU bring home national crowns in women's indoor track (2008), women's outdoor track (2008, '10), baseball (2010) and women's basketball (2012).

With women's basketball coach Mia Smith battling cancer during that title run, Bridges became intimately involved with Smith's team and was prepared to take over if Smith's illness kept her off the bench.

"When you talk about the thrills and excitement I've had here, I doubt there is one more exciting than traveling with Mia through her cancer year to the national championship," Bridges said. "That was unbelievable."

Bridges is proud of his coaching staff, which includes IWU alumni in football coach Norm Eash and men's basketball coach Ron Rose as well as non-alums such as Smith, baseball coach Dennis Martel and volleyball coach Kim Nelson-Brown.

"I was always praised as a great recruiter in basketball. I think I've done the same thing as AD, hiring great coaches who stay at Illinois Wesleyan," he said. "They come here and they're happy here. I think continuity is a big thing."

Bridges' devotion to his university extended to his family. His children, Angie, Steve and Eric, are all IWU graduates and former Titan athletes.

"(Wife) Rita and I say that is one of the triumphs or our life, that our kids could get an Illinois Wesleyan education," said Bridges.

A national search for Bridges' replacement will begin immediately.


Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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