Memory Lane: Ron Guenther

Memory Lane: Ron Guenther

EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE

This week: Ron Guenther's retirement as athletic director at Illinois was a hot topic a long time ago. Look at the date and headline below.

Date: June 8, 1997

Headline: Guenther on his last lap

By JIM ROSSOW

You worry when Lon Kruger's name comes up when the Kentucky job opens.

You fret about losing Mark Johnson to another wrestling program, Theresa Grentz to a women's professional basketball league. In a few years, Ron Turner may be the hottest item among National Football League decision-makers.

And how long will Craig Tiley last at the University of Illinois, considering his remarkable work with the men's tennis program?

Legitimate concerns, all of them.

Here's another one, a size or two bigger than the rest:

Who will replace Ron Guenther as athletic director?

Keep in mind he's not a lifer.

Guenther has made it clear he will one day soon pack up his briefcase and skip town, perhaps for another line up work or maybe a golf course, perfecting his short game and straightening out his drives.

On the watch since 1992, Guenther has reached the 50- yard line in his UI game plan.

"The shelf life of an AD isn't what it once was," Guenther said. "It's a job that can eat a number of people up."

He gets by on four hours of sleep each night. He is constantly raising funds, checking grades, hiring coaches. He'll need a break to catch his breath or risk turning blue in the face. Sooner than you think.

"I don't count on anything more than five years," he said. "Anything more than that is a little unnerving."

Guenther could leave tomorrow to applause. He's done enough in five years to merit a going-away party.

There are no scandals in the headlines (Michigan). There are new buildings on campus (Bielfeldt, Irwin Center) and more on the way (basketball practice facility, Illini Park). There is money coming in from previously untapped private wells. There are women's sports being developed in the latest step toward gender equity (soccer, softball). There are reputable coaches in place (Kruger, Grentz, Turner, etc.).

All accomplished in the trickiest of times for a Division I program in a conference that encourages athletic and academic scores many strokes under par.

"We are making progress," Guenther said. "But we have a lot of hard work to do."

Part 1 of the UI's strategic plan ... devised when Guenther took office ... is complete. Part 2 is underway. He'll stay on board until it's finished.

He's had offers to leave but has politely said no each time. His refrain will stay the same until the undertow that is football stops tugging at him. Road to recovery

The building of Bielfeldt and selling out the Assembly Hall for a UI women's basketball game rank among Guenther's top moments.

Flopping in football has no company at the bottom. It hurts like a blindside tackle.

"Everything we've tried to do we've pretty well accomplished," he said. "I wanted football to work so bad. That comes from the respect I had for Coach Tepper.

"I share in the responsibility."

Football is an athletic department's lifeblood. If it's down, so is revenue. If it's down, so are alumni. If it's down, so is morale.

Last year, it was down. So was Guenther who, as a former UI player, takes the struggles personally.

"It's the sport that really sets the tone," he said. "No other sport impacts the number of people it does."

Will Guenther's reputation take a hit if Ron Turner can't reverse football's direction? Sure. Turner is Guenther's hand- picked choice.

But Guenther is sure Turner will win. And, after checking Guenther's hiring track record, who's to argue?

"I feel better today about Ron Turner than prior to hiring him," he said.

This would make Guenther feel even better:

The successful programs stay that way. The graduation rates keep climbing. The contributions keep coming. The NCAA stays away. And Turner takes the football team to a bowl or two.

Then Guenther can fold up his blueprints, clean off his desk and move on to an easier way of life, satisfied all is in working order at his alma mater.

Who'll take his place?

Start worrying when the football team's healthy again.

 

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