UI, Missouri sack football series

CHAMPAIGN – Ron Zook's Illini will open the next two football seasons against Missouri in St. Louis.

"After that, there will be a hiatus," UI athletic director Ron Guenther said.

The series, like the basketball Border War, is good for the cash register. But it has been a disaster on the scoreboard (4-0 favoring Mizzou) and a hindrance to the desire to schedule seven UI home games.

"Both Missouri and Illinois have agreed to call off the St. Louis series," Guenther said. "Eventually, we might resume it on a home-and-home basis, or perhaps return to St. Louis, but we have been leaning toward games on campus at some point in the future.

"This has been a big-time game that draws good income and TV coverage. With all that said, since we want to get to seven or eight home games, you have to evaluate the neutral game."

To reach "seven or eight," the Illini must pay ever-increasing guarantees for nonreturnable games, and they find themselves competing with rivals that draw 90,000 or 100,000 fans and can more easily afford those guarantees.

"The suite and season ticket-holders deserve the seventh home game if we can get it," Guenther said.

But with the St. Louis game set for 2009 and 2010, it won't happen before 2011.

Not all Rose-y

Illinois would be in the thick of Derrick Rose's academic mess if the Chicago Simeon star had chosen the UI instead of Memphis. But now, perhaps, we better understand why Illinois really never had a chance.

"We understood what was going on (with Rose) all along," Guenther said. "The sport of men's basketball has issues that the NCAA has been trying to address. There are many tentacles to the problem, so there is no magic bullet to solve it. It has been a focal point for discussions in this conference for more than 10 years. We've had task forces looking into the AAU, the shoe money, the agent.

"One of the reasons I feel so strong about Bruce Weber and his staff is that I know they're going to do it the right way. Nothing that has happened in the Rose case has been a surprise to me."

Academic fraud may not involve Memphis, since the grade changes, transcript alteration and reported stand-in test taker are being traced to Simeon. But Memphis was caught off base in allowing nearly $2,700 in expenses to brother Reggie Rose, who handled Derrick's recruitment and apparently made airplane flights with the team. Now that it's all over, Illinois is better off that Rose chose Memphis.

Sign of the times

Illinois once had a shoddy reputation due to frequent run-ins with NCAA regulators. Dating back to the "slush fund" in 1966, these missteps were justified by the wrongdoers as "trying to keep up with the Joneses" and were never supported by upper administration. In fact, the "slush fund" was made public by then-President David Dodds Henry. And then-Chancellor Mort Weir acted decisively in dealings with Neale Stoner and Mike White.

The more recent basketball hires of Kelvin Sampson at Indiana and John Calipari at Kentucky demonstrate a striking upper-level disregard for integrity because they were done with the knowledge that those coaches ran programs that were under investigation at the very time they were being interviewed. Calipari's previous program, UMass, had also been penalized. And public opinion would have made it impossible for Kentucky to hire Calipari if it had become known in March what the Kentucky administration knew privately.

Now we learn that, in his determination to earn his monstrous eight-year, $32 million salary, Calipari must chop 17 committed scholarships to 13 as he "oversigns" to meet the demands of a fanatical fandom. Actually, it sounds worse than it is because several Wildcat squadmen weren't planning to return.

At Illinois, Guenther explains: "It is permissible for us to oversign by one in basketball. What we don't know is that Kentucky obviously understands that some members of the returning squad aren't coming back. We got in that situation with Frank Williams when we didn't know whether he was turning pro or staying here.

"Everybody, and that means both families, involved in the oversigning has to be on the same page, the one going out and the one coming in. I've never seen it quite as extreme as what's happening at Kentucky."

Raising the bar

Weber will see his salary increase to $1.5 million in January, and assistant Jerrance Howard has been boosted to $180,000, not counting bonuses, with an extremely rare (for assistants) four-year deal. Guenther explained:

"The marketplace determines values and it had moved. I told our staff, 'You're only worth, in any of our positions, what the market wants to give you to move. Then the institution determines your value at Illinois.'

"Jerrance is a young coach and has been able to develop relationships with kids. Bruce is still closing the deals, and his development of players past and present played a role in his raise. Look at the progress our sophomores made since their freshman year.

"I had several discussions with Bruce, and I wanted to give him security in recruiting and in the coaching position. Our department is trying to hold down expenses, but we'll do what we have to do to be competitive. The scholarships that we need to compete, and the coaches needed to coach them are at the forefront of what we do. I felt good about our discussions and I felt it was a fair raise. It puts him in the middle (of Big Ten coaches). I feel great about Bruce Weber running the program."

Weber said Howard had received overtures the last two years, most recently from Kentucky, and "we don't want to go through this every year. Jerrance has created some excitement and we needed to keep him here."

A fine figure

Prepare yourself for one of the most eye-popping and spectacular statues you've ever seen. The bronze giant weighs 2 tons and stands, from toe to helmet, 12 feet, 8 inches, and shows Red Grange in full stride with the football under his arm. Sculpted by UI graduate George Lundeen in Colorado, it'll be placed above the steps on Memorial Stadium's west side, lighted at night, and will be in the middle of the grand entryway when it is someday finished. Warren Hood says it is still undecided which way Grange will face.

"The parking lot has yet to be finished," Guenther said. "We have re-grassed it and put our portals in, but the entryway has yet to be completed. Eventually we need to spruce up the lot area and the entryway."

Guenther continued:

"Our default rate on suites has been minimal, and we are cautiously optimistic ... staying conservative in our financial plan. We had a waiting list in the colonnades area, and we've been able to replace those who couldn't stay with us."

Because of the ongoing recession, it appears that the east side, horseshoe and Assembly Hall projects are "on hold."

"That's not quite right because we have continued the planning process," Guenther said. "I know what we want to do on the east side, but a financial plan must be completed. We have to do a survey to see how many people would be interested in a colonnades area. We're not considering suites."

An east side remake including outdoor club seats would conservatively cost in the neighborhood of $35 million.

Hall 'on hold'

"The Assembly Hall financial plan is more complicated, but we are moving toward a point where we intend to do something in the future," Guenther said. "It will take a significant amount of money up front, which might include a naming opportunity. You can't break out enough suites and club seats in the Hall to drive the kind of money that it will cost."

Since these plans necessarily will cover many years, well beyond Guenther's current contract, the question arises whether he will be on hand to see it through.

"Let's not put that much importance on me," he said. "The key is that I have a capable staff of external people and administrators who have been with us a long time. If our group stays together, we can succeed. So while we are temporarily on hold – it would be foolish at this time to do a feasibility study on suite interest in the Hall – we will continue to work with our fan base. We understand what is going on in the country."

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

 

Gone ... for now
The latest incarnation of the Illinois-Missouri football series will end after the 2010 game. Here are three things Illinois beat writer Bob Asmussen will miss about the games:

DOME AWAY FROM HOME
As venues go, they don’t get much better than the Trans World/Edward Jones Dome. Temperature controlled? Check. No wind? Check. Comfy seats? Check. Easy access? Check. There are plenty of hotel rooms in St. Louis and endless great places to eat. It feels like a bowl game, with a shorter drive. Illinois basketball fans remember the Edward Jones Dome as the site of their only NCAA title-game appearance.
CROWDED HOUSE
Like with the basketball series, the idea is to split the tickets between the two schools. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, with at least a 60-40 Missouri edge in the stands. Still, like with the basketball game, there is constant noise, no matter who is performing well. The fans (left) get into the event, poking fun at each other before and after. And the crowds have been large enough to justify the folks in St. Louis wanting the series to continue.
QUALITY COMPETITION
Though it isn’t the best setup for the two coaches, the game has been among the most attractive on the opening week of the season. In 2011, when the schools schedule Middle Tennessee or San Jose State, it won’t provide the same oomph. Since the series resumed, Missouri has been a national title contender and Illinois has gone to the Rose Bowl. The long summer has had a “look forward to” date that won’t be there starting in 2011.

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IlliniHimey wrote on June 01, 2009 at 12:06 am

Well, on the job since 1992, and he finally woke up. Only took him 17 years to realize that Illinois has no business playing Missouri in football, ESPECIALLY in St. Louis.

Now, watch him try to schedule USC for the next 5 years.

MarkHoekstra wrote on June 01, 2009 at 8:06 am

I am glad the best AD in the country finally realized how much damage he has done to the football program with his asinine scheduling. Not to mention how much having just 6 home games has hurt the local economy.

CecilColeman wrote on June 01, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Since taking the job, Ron has preached "The 'I' stands for 'Integrity'. And it does.

What a shame that a couple of so-called fans cannot see what a tremendous asset his tenure as AD has been. Then again, if I owned a motel in town (or one of the dumpy restaurants) I'd probably want all twelve games to be at home.

Himey and Hoekstra - get a life!

DUnationwide wrote on June 01, 2009 at 6:06 pm

I have been to the past 2 games in St. Louis and plan on going to the next two and I always enjoyed them. Living in Southern Illinois I see a lot more of this rivalry and it is a huge one. For some reason there are people who live in Illinois that are Mizzou fans. Go figure.

I understand why it has to end but I will miss it. Hopefully they can bring it back in a few years.

Illini1973 wrote on June 02, 2009 at 11:06 am

Out of one side of the mouth comes ‘on hold’ for facilities which will put us on top for attendance, recruiting, and $. On the other side of the mouth comes ‘we want to get to seven or eight home games’, i.e., cupcakes. Well, let’s start lining up the direction schools or my preference, Louisiana-Lafayette Sisters of the Blind. That game should put 35K butts on the boards and keep us off national TV. This extra home game can get us ready for the Motor City Bowl which we will have to ‘eat’ 25K tics because nobody wants to spend Xmas in Detroit. Sorry to see, Illinois is not ready to play with the Big Dogs.