For more on UI football, click here to read Bob Asmussen's latest chat.
Dear Coach Zook,
Here's the best deal you'll get this week. Beat Michigan on Saturday and all is forgiven. OK, maybe not all, but a long overdue triumph would certainly take pressure off you and your boss.
This is the stadium, remember, that was dedicated with a 39-14 defeat of the Wolverines. Red Grange ran wild. It was here that the Illini upset Tommy Harmon & Co., 7-0, in 1936. It was on this snow-covered field that Tommy O'Connell passed to Rex Smith for a 7-0 win in the UI's last undefeated season of 1951. There is history in this series, but it is long-ago history. Now, all these decades later, we look back on a single home win – 16-6 in 1983 – in the last 51 years.
Imagine how a victory would uplift your athletes and your fans. And imagine what it would do for your guy, Coach Guenther. In what might be described as psychological transference, the heat has switched from you to the athletic director. By coming out publicly for you in the midst of a nine-game losing streak against I-A teams, he has taken a position opposed by more than 90 percent of Illini Nation.
If this tailspin isn't turned, at some point you'll be able to take your millions and go to the next stop in your quasi-military career. It'll be your 12th station since 1980. You're accustomed to it. But Ron Guenther LIVES HERE. This is his home. He was a teammate of Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski, the Illini MVP in 1966, the director who cleaned up the mess left by Neale Stoner, the visionary who changed the look of the south campus and renovated Memorial Stadium. He succeeded Ray Eliot and Dike Eddleman as Mr. Illini.
But now, after announcing his determination to retain you another year, his legacy is changing. He is the center target on the dartboard. Irate fans are firing up Internet Web sites while planning all manner of insults from bumper stickers to paper bags with punched eyeholes.
Ron, you have chastised me because, in your view, I "don't believe." That's true, although I "believed" the Illini would be improved over last season. But my job is to follow the team, not to believe in it.
The present uproar is, for me, similar to the Chief Illiniwek case.
When Chief Illiniwek danced at halftime, I seldom paid attention. I watched or I didn't watch, it didn't matter. My strongly felt support was based on what I consider the unnecessary punishment of the thousands who take the Chief seriously. For many of them, his dance aroused a deeply felt emotion, almost a religious-type experience. I felt for them. But, personally, my feelings were related by a relative who once said, "I never understood why so many people revere the Chief, and I never understood why the opponents care."
Once again, when the overwhelming majority of fans feel strongly about something, I believe they should be listened to. And, ultimately, they WILL BE listened to because the unrest is enormous and, down the road, the sale of tickets will be impacted.
Guenther is in a financial bind at a bad economic time. It would take nearly $2 million in buyouts for ousted staff next year alone (and $1.3 million for three years thereafter) but, if losing continues under this staff, the athletic department would probably lose that much in decreased football sales in 2010.
With an excellent advance on season tickets, the budget won't be hurt in the short term. Saturday's crowd will be good. And they're selling the sightline-challenged five front rows for Northwestern. But don't count on a big turnout for Fresno State on Dec. 5, and those pondering next year's sales are reminded that, in Ron Turner's last 10 home games, the Illini drew 55,000 once (for Michigan) and showed numbers as low as 38,688 and 41,458. We could be headed there again in 2010.
Ron, my greatest concern is saved for last. You probably haven't considered this, but Guenther is not the last word on the UI campus. In order to receive approval for everything he does, his decisions must be reasonable and easily justified.
Up to now, that has been the case. But if the team continues to fizzle – again, this could change with a win Saturday – this mess will land on the desk of Stan Ikenberry in little more than five weeks. As interim president and chancellor, he has far bigger fish to fry. He is baby-sitting a revamped Board of Trustees. Still-unfunded Lincoln Hall drifts along with little outcry. All manner of problems abound. But it is football that stirs the innards and captivates his constituency. Sure, it is a case of misplaced priorities, but that's the way it is.
If the season ends 1-11, this legendary president will find himself in the crosshairs of a can't-win situation. If he doesn't overrule Guenther, a furious Illini Nation will think he isn't engaged and is willingly permitting a mistake to be carried out. He would become the dartboard and his legacy impacted. And remember, he LIVES HERE, too. He is part of the community. No one is more respected.
If, on the other hand, he overrules Guenther, he could face a dilemma in the athletic department. How would Guenther react? How would that affect fundraising and the Assembly Hall plan? And if the coaches are fired, who chooses the successor? Will Guenther stay beyond December 2010 or, if he intends to step down, what is the timing (December? April?) for the start of that search? And with all these decisions little more than five weeks off ... oh, think about it.
There is only one good answer. Turn this losing stampede, Coach Zook. Give Illini Nation a week to smile. This is becoming much too grim.