Legendary Football Coach J.R. Bishop Dies

In 14 seasons, Bishop turned the Thunder into a CCIW powerhouse.

J.R. Bishop. Photo from Walter Neal (Chicago Tribune).

J.R. (Jarvis) Bishop, who coached the Wheaton football team from 1982 to 1995, passed away on Tuesday, June 21 at the age of 84. A mentor to countless coaches, faculty, and student athletes, Bishop is credited with rejuvenating Wheaton’s football program.

Prior to Bishop’s arrival in 1982, Wheaton football struggled for several years, typically winning only one or two games a season. The team’s struggles resulted in a rotating cast of coaches: Bishop was the fourth head coach in four years. Under Bishop’s direction, Wheaton compiled a record of 84-43-1. Many of his student athletes were later signed professionally and multiple players broke Division III records for passing, receiving, and total offense.

During four seasons, the team led Division III in passing, the result of a major shift in the program’s offensive strategy. Bishop’s accolades include winning CCIW Coach of the Year twice and 1995 Regional Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA). In addition, Bishop was inducted into the Wheaton Athletics’ Hall of Honor in 2005 and is the namesake of a McCully stadium press box.

In Bishop’s final season, the team achieved a 10-1 record, won the program’s first CCIW Championship since 1959, and clinched their first Division III playoff berth in Wheaton football history. They went on to defeat Wittenberg 63-41 in the first round, giving the program its first postseason win. According to defensive lineman coach Jeff Peltz ‘81, who was Bishop’s first hire, the players felt especially motivated to give Bishop a postseason win before he retired. 

As an offensive strategist, Bishop became famous for his emphasis on passing. His son, Keith Bishop ‘85, who played quarterback for Wheaton in the mid-’80s, set the all-time consecutive career 200-yard passing record in the NCAA. 

Players remembered Bishop’s humility. Former linebacker Chad Thorson, who Bishop recruited, remembers one game where Bishop was less than impressed with the team’s performance, even pulling some defenders out of the game. But on Monday of the following week, after rewatching the game tape, Bishop gathered the whole team together and apologized. 

“He valued relationships tremendously,” said Peltz, “and I’m not just saying among the football team.”

At a time when some questioned the cost-effectiveness of the football program, Peltz adds, Bishop “won a lot of those hearts over because of his temperament. And his love for conversation.”

Coach Peltz recalled how Bishop, a former English teacher and avid Bible reader, often chatted with professors, giving his own thoughts about books or theological topics.

“Faculty would go sit up in this conference room and just jaw,” said Peltz. “ theological questions or just to chew the fat, and I would go with J.R. just to sit and listen to him.”

Coach Bishop was instrumental in developing the football program’s culture of faith.

“The first change J.R. made after a couple years was that coaches could come to chapels, which I was happy about because, in my opinion, our football chapels are the next best thing to our games on Saturdays,” said Peltz, who is also the team’s spiritual coordinator. 

Football chapels, which take place in Barrows Auditorium at 4:45 p.m. on Fridays and are open to the entire student body, feature athlete-led worship, guest speakers and senior testimonies. Coach Peltz recommends that the student body attend these chapels, which are part of Bishop’s legacy, to see “the real side of Wheaton and football, not the high-octane antics of the dining hall.”

Athletic Director Michael Schauer knew Bishop first as a student and, later, as a colleague.

“The best way for me to describe the impact of J.R. Bishop on Wheaton Athletics is that he was a mentor to me, and I didn’t play football,” says Schauer. “He was just somebody who carried himself with a high level of integrity and was extremely fun to be around.” Bishop, according to Schauer, often repeated the phrase, “Do what’s right just because it’s right” in his Indiana accent. “It’s one of the things that I still hear in my own head 30 years later.”

At the end of the day, Thorson, the former player, says Bishop’s emphasis was not on winning or even on playing hard. “He didn’t care how you were on the field. If he recruited you, he cared for you like he was your dad.”

Grant Dutro

Grant Dutro

Grant Dutro is a sophomore Economics and Communication double major with a minor in English. Originally from Cincinnati, OH, in his spare time he likes watching movies, reading, exercise, and listening to music.

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