Former Naperville Central, Wheaton College coach Bishop 'saved Wheaton football'

  • Former Wheaton College football coach J.R. Bishop died Tuesday in St. Charles.

    Former Wheaton College football coach J.R. Bishop died Tuesday in St. Charles. courtesy of Wheaton College

  • J.R. Bishop

    J.R. Bishop

Updated 6/21/2022 6:14 PM

Jeff Peltz recalls very clearly something J.R. Bishop said often.

"He had a phrase, and everybody that knows him will know this phrase, and that is: 'You know the difference between right and wrong. Do right,'" Peltz said.


Bishop, who coached football and taught English at Naperville Central High School and then coached at Wheaton College, died Tuesday morning in St. Charles at age 84.

"He was a godly man," said Peltz, Bishop's first coaching hire when he took over at Wheaton College. "He loved his church, he loved Jesus, and he loved football. And he felt that football really parallels with life and all you have to do in working hard and working with people and getting a team together and just the struggles of football. Every game has its ups and downs, and you have to work through that as a team."

Bishop coached at Naperville Central from 1979 to 1981, where his quarterbacks included his son, Keith, and former NFL player and coach Sean Payton.

"He was very highly regarded among high school football coaches," said Andy Nussbaum, who coached with Bishop at Naperville Central and whose four brothers played for Bishop at Wheaton College. "But I think even more he was just a tremendous individual. He was warm.

"Now he was a football coach. So he could get fiery. But the character traits he exhibited are something you would want our son to play for."

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Bishop took over the Wheaton College football program in 1982 and turned the program around. Wheaton, then known as the Crusaders, went 84-43-1 under Bishop. He retired as head coach in 1995 but remained on the staff as an assistant coach through the 2005 season, trading jobs with Mike Swider.

Wheaton led NCAA Division III in passing four times under Bishop.

"He was a master of the passing offense," Peltz said. "Especially in Division III, he was ahead of his time when it came to the hot read. When a linebacker or defensive back was blitzing and the quarterback would look and see that, just drop it to the receiver that was uncovered at the moment. So he came in with an offense that was not easily defended in the CCIW when he started. It helped turn our program around really quick."

He was named coach of the year in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin for the 1991 and 1995 seasons. In 1995, Wheaton won its first CCIW title since 1959 and earned its first NCAA playoff berth, going 10-1.

"Wheaton football was spiraling downward (and) was, I think, in danger of the school discontinuing the program," Nussbaum said. "J.R. in a very real sense saved Wheaton football."

He is in Wheaton's Athletic Hall of Honor. He also is a member of the Indiana Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame; he coached at Franklin and Lawrence Central high schools in Indiana. Including his three seasons at Naperville Central, he went 126-63-3 in 20 seasons as a high school coach.

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