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CHAMPAIGN – Ron Guenther took a quick dive Wednesday into the river of unanswered questions consuming the UI athletic director and his major sports.
Based on body language and comments at a well-attended news conference, my feeling that the athletic director will re-up beyond July 1 changed from 90 percent yes to 50-50.
Flip a coin. After 19 years, he appears to be wavering. Previously, Guenther had said he would delay a decision until a new chancellor is named. Rather than wait for that to happen, which is too far in the future, he said Wednesday he'll reveal his intentions within two or three weeks. President Michael Hogan and the UI administration need to know for planning purposes, particularly if he intends to leave.
But the anti-Rons, who criticize him for the shoddy record in football and the slippage in basketball, should not yet form to rush the court. He is still in the decision-making stage.
"It would be difficult to walk away from the people I work with," he said.
Referring to the Assembly Hall, which he discussed with the athletic board Wednesday, Guenther expressed hope once again in getting it off the ground in a weak economy. But no naming rights have as yet been secured, and it may be wishful thinking to set the spring of 2012, little more than a year from now, as the starting point.
"I wouldn't launch this unless I felt the staff could carry on without me," he said. "And I don't have to be the athletic director to assist in the Assembly Hall."
Put your own interpretation on those words. Clearly, he doesn't want to dump it in the lap of a new athletic director when it is still in the embryo stage. So if his words lead to conjecture, as is the case, it must be obvious that a great deal is running through Guenther's mind.
Raising the profile
Yes, Ron Zook will get a raise to $1.75 million but no extension beyond his three seasons, and all the assistant coaches will have two-year contracts ... Paul Petrino going from $475,000 to $525,000, and Vic Koenning being boosted from $325,000 to $342,000.
"We'll look into extending Zook's contract after next season," said Guenther, acting as though he'll still be in the position to do so.
"Last year we took a hard look at the football coaching situation and what we could do, and Ron Zook did an exceptional job in putting the new staff together. We got a bowl victory, and I think it helped our recruiting. A 7-6 record looks a lot better than 6-7. Now we'd like to string them together.
"We have some momentum, and we have eight home games next season. With the stadium renovation, we are targeting seven home games for the future."
Guenther mentioned the fragile line between winning and losing, "a line that the fan base never gets ... there are the close calls, academic casualties, physical casualties ... parity is here. And the Big Ten is getting stronger with Nebraska coming in.
"This was the first staff that had everything it needed to win, from the physical plant to a budget that allowed me to pay for the best assistants. It's not like we can't get it done at Illinois. We can."
Close not counting
Guenther emphasized "there'll be no change over there," in reference to basketball coach Bruce Weber. Nor did the AD indicate anything resembling the basketball staff shakeup that took place in football last year.
Asked to pinpoint the problem, Guenther said:
"It came down to getting the right kids. We went to the championship game (in 2005), set our sights on some top prospects, and we lost our way. I go back to that team that competed with toughness and swagger, a team that could grind it out.
"At this point, we don't have a junior class, and the seniors have not performed to expectations. We are frustrated and disappointed, particularly in losing so many close games. That brings about another issue, which is a lack of confidence. The really good teams win close games.
"It hasn't been a lack of effort. They work very hard. Bruce is a great human being, and I think he'll figure it out. Yes, we'll sit down and discuss things after the season. We do that whether it is a good year or a bad year. Bruce will look at everything."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.