Former Bradley AD, Thornridge boys basketball coach Ron Ferguson dies at age 89
PEORIA — Former Bradley athletic director Ron Ferguson died in the early morning hours Thursday at a Peoria senior care facility at age 89.
Ferguson had suffered from dementia the last few years. But he built an indelible legacy at Bradley and through a lifetime in sports.
The longtime coach and administrator took over as BU athletic director from Chuck Orsborn in 1978 and re-made the Braves athletic department through his reign, which ended in 1996.
One of the last things Ferguson did was hire Jim DeRose to coach a Bradley soccer program for which Ferguson envisioned big things.
“Ron just loved Bradley, loved Peoria,” DeRose said. “In the years after he left, he’d always reach out and ask if there was anything he could do to help me, anything we needed. What a great man to have in BU athletics.
“I wouldn’t be here celebrating 25 years if not for Ron Ferguson taking that chance.”
Ferguson — head coach of the iconic Dolton Thornridge boys basketball teams of the early 1970s — was a charter member of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and also a member of the Bradley Athletic Hall of Fame and the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame.
Ferguson set a high bar for athletic directors to follow after him at Bradley. And he did all he could to help them succeed.
“I will always be appreciative of the warm welcome Ron gave to me when I arrived at Bradley six years ago,” Bradley vice-president of intercollegiate athletics Dr. Chris Reynolds said. “During a lunch, his love of Bradley University and Bradley Athletics was abundantly clear as he recounted fond memories he experienced with our Braves sport programs.
“Ron is an icon throughout our community, the state of Illinois and the Missouri Valley Conference and his passion for Bradley Athletics serves as an inspiration to me and many others.”
Ferguson was a standout three-sport athlete at Harvey Thornton High School, helping the basketball team reach the Sweet 16 at Huff Gym in Champaign as a junior in 1948.
He studied physical education at Illinois with hopes of becoming a coach. After graduation and a stint in the army, he became an assistant coach in three sports at Thornton Junior College (now South Suburban College).
Ferguson was renowned as the coach of the Thornridge boys basketball team, which won back-to-back state titles in 1971 and 1972 and is regarded as the best team in state history. That team included Quinn Buckner, who went on to Olympic and NBA fame.
Ferguson went on from Thornridge to serve as assistant coach and assistant athletics director at Illinois State for three years, then moved to BU’s athletic helm.
“I was blessed to inherit a great situation from Ron,” said former BU athletic director Ken Kavanagh, who took over after Ferguson left in 1996 and now is in his 12th year as AD at Florida Gulf Coast. “Both Ozzie (Orsborn) and Fergie lived in Naples when I came down here, and I got to visit with them a lot, was blessed to have their friendship for such a long time.
“We had Peoria Day down here, because there were a lot of people from central Illinois in this area and they’d get together. Ron got talked into going to one, and at the end of the first banquet he attended, they announced he and his wife, Linda, were the new co-chairmen of the group. That’s just how he was, you could always count on him to be involved.”
Ferguson led Bradley’s basketball exit from the confines of Robertson Field House for the brand new and much larger Carver Arena.
On his watch, Bradley basketball returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years. He also spearheaded Bradley athletics into a new fundraising era and enhanced or built facilities for softball and soccer.
The soccer program and women’s sports were launched. He developed what is now the Braves Club and took athletic fundraising to new levels at the university.
Ferguson also pushed for Illinois State to join the Missouri Valley Conference, seeing an opportunity to save travel expenses and create a rivalry.
A heavyweight state-wide, he helped bring the state high school all-star basketball games to Peoria, and later, his expertise was invaluable in assisting the city land the Class A and Class AA state high school basketball tournaments for Carver Arena.
Ferguson moved from the athletic director’s chair in 1996 to assistant to the president, where he remained for three years before retiring.
“When I was AD, I wasn’t a desk guy sitting there going over the budget every five minutes,” he said in a 2013 Journal Star story. “I got out in the community. That’s what I was hired to do was be the front guy for the athletic department.
“I was very happy at Bradley and love Peoria. I was happy at Illinois State, too. I never had a job in my life where I was unhappy or got fired. I enjoyed every place I’ve been.”
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men’s basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.