Rossow: Stakes high for Illini AD in football
He'll tell you how special it is to see the women's soccer program kick off its inaugural season, how electric it was to see the women's basketball team sell out the Assembly Hall, how extraordinary it was to see the wrestling program become a national power.
He'll tell you all 18 sports at the University of Illinois tug at him with equal ferocity, that he can go hoarse just as easily at a Saturday swim meet at IMPE as a men's basketball game at Iowa.
Ron Guenther does not play favorites.
"I share my ups and downs in all the sports," the University of Illinois athletic director said. "I really mean that."
But you sense Guenther holds football in a different light. He played the sport. He coached the sport. His department's budget depends on the sport.
Football is to Guenther what hockey is to Howe.
So when the program's down – and 2-9 is subterranean – he's down. As an alumnus with a rooting interest, as an athletic director with a financial interest.
All of which makes today so pressing. His hand-picked answer to the problem, Ron Turner, makes his debut against Southern Mississippi. It is the first curve in a long test-drive for both coach and AD.
So far, so good
Guenther's track record for hiring coaches at Illinois is spotless. No other Big Ten athletic director has been as proficient.
But his most critical choice has yet to call a play. If Turner fails to revive football – and history is working against him – Guenther deservedly will feel the sting, too.
"It's a partnership, as it is with any coach," Guenther said of his relationship with Turner. "We have a shared responsibility to make this thing work."
He does not pound on Turner's office door every morning, demanding immediate success. But the new coach realizes how essential it is to speed up the healing.
There are students stewing over fees. There are fans staying home in droves. There are recruits choosing other programs. UI football can't languish in the repair shop or it becomes another Missouri or Purdue.
Here's the UI's problem: Ailing football usually requires an extended recovery time.
One seven-footer can rescue a basketball team. A couple pitchers can bail out a baseball team. Turner needs another recruiting class or two.
"It's hard to be patient, but we're talking a minimum of a three-year situation here," Guenther said. "You need three classes to come through before you can really evaluate a program."
Putting it all on the line
One popular line of thought in the college ranks is that an athletic director should be given only one chance to hire a football coach. The sport being the biggest moneymaker around, it's that important of a decision.
In the Big Ten, there's not an AD who's hired more than one coach. Then again, most of the ADs are recent hires, including Guenther, who came on board in 1992.
"Football is just the biggest of the big," Guenther said. "It affects everybody."
So here's the plan: Survive this season, recruit some marketable athletes and mold a bowl team. Five years from now, Memorial Stadium won't be such a hollow place.
The thought pleases Guenther, who will head to campus today confident and relaxed. A year ago, he was fidgety while trying to sort out the growing mess that was Lou Tepper's regime.
He wound up firing Tepper, hiring Turner and hoping for the best.
For all his sports, he'll remind you.
Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette.