Always it is “Illinois Wesleyan,” not “Wesleyan” or “IWU.” And never is it “Wezleyan,” as some insist on pronouncing it.
There is a reverence to how Dennie Bridges says it, as if this school of 1,900 students is a mentor or loved one or trusted friend.
Once, during an interview in his office, Bridges looked across the desk at Pantagraph sportswriter Randy Reinhardt and said, “Wesleyan is a school in Connecticut. This is Illinois Wesleyan.”
Others embrace their alma mater. Bridges embodied his long ago.
That won’t change.
Bridges announced Tuesday he is retiring as athletic director on July 31, ending a 51-year association with the school as a three-sport athlete, record-setting basketball coach and A.D. But on Aug. 1 and every other day, he will be the biggest supporter and advocate “Illinois Wesleyan” has.
Retirement changes what you do, not who you are. It just happens that for Bridges, the two are uniquely intertwined.
Our association with him in the Pantagraph sports department has been one of mutual respect. A native of Anchor and an athlete at Octavia High School, Bridges grew up reading Fred Young in these very pages. Not long after, he was playing at the school Young loved and supported, then coaching in a place named in Young’s honor (Fred Young Fieldhouse).
Bridges has routinely given us his time and cooperation, as head basketball coach and, since 1981, as A.D. While coaching, he faithfully called after road games when we could not send a reporter. He did it win or lose, but with a 667-319 career record, it was mostly after a win.
We got stories and he got coverage. More important to him, “Illinois Wesleyan” got coverage. The goal was never to be Division I, but simply a model Division III program.
He wound up contributing to and overseeing a national championship caliber program in multiple sports. Yet, you never lost the Division III feel.
Bridges coached in a sport coat, dress pants and a shirt with an open collar. There was no necktie or fancy suit. He was there to instruct and inspire, not impress.
Besides, he was representing “Illinois Wesleyan.” Wasn't that impressive enough?
After every home game, Bridges would welcome the Pantagraph reporter into the locker room. Two cups of Pepsi on ice were on the bench, one for him, the other for you.
It was relaxed, informal … and about as far from a Division I postgame as you get.
Even before Bridges stepped down as basketball coach in 2001, he was a fan of any athlete in “Illinois Wesleyan” green and white. That only intensified when he stopped coaching.
That was clear in the four years my daughter played softball for IWU (we’re allowed to abbreviate). On nearly every home date in that span, Bridges was there for at least part of the game(s).
Meanwhile, not far away in Shirk Center was a guy named Mike Wagner, who has been at the school since 1992 and serves as Associate Athletic Director/Director Shirk Athletic Complex.
Formerly an IWU assistant football coach and coordinator of strength training, Wagner has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the athletic department for several years. A four-year football letterman at rival Augustana, Wagner is now a Titan to the core.
The release regarding Bridges’ retirement said “a national search” would begin immediately for his successor. How about looking down the hall?
Wagner is ready, capable and deserving.
So was Bridges when he took over as A.D. for his former coach, Jack Horenberger. Like Horenberger, his name has become synonymous with IWU athletics.
That is, “Illinois Wesleyan” athletics.