Tate: Guenther 'couldn't have worked any harder'
CHAMPAIGN — In 2 1/2 weeks, Ron Guenther's main concern will be keeping his tee shots out of the trees and rough.
"I made a shoulder adjustment the other day and I thought I had it," he smiled Friday, "but it (driving accuracy) was gone the next day. I was erratic again. I may go to a 3-wood."
This is a more relaxed athletic director than we've seen at Illinois in the last 19 years. There he stands in his Bielfeldt office, surrounded by plaques (one honoring the 2003 NCAA tennis champs), Rose Bowl pictures, a framed shot of a Bob Zuppke team, dozens of autographed footballs and basketballs, and all manner of memorabilia (a bad word in Ohio, but that's another story).
He's still deciding which of them to retain as keepsakes and what the next athletic director might want to display.
He'll officially be gone July 1, and associate director Terry Cole, who remains until Aug. 15, will serve as interim director while Larry DeBrock's search committee waits for the naming of a new chancellor, presumably in July. The AD committee is currently in a four-corners stall while Dan Parker's search firm checks out elite prospects. The plan is presumably to locate a seated director and pay big bucks for him/her to move.
A busy body
My quest Friday was to identify the athletic director's typical day. Of course, it doesn't exist, not for a guy who rises regularly at 4:30, works out, arrives at his office by 6:15, conducts staff meetings, sets aside one day each week for fundraising (he was in Effingham and Arcola on Thursday), checks in with the chancellor's office weekly, has regular development luncheons, swings through the offices and hits team practices. If there are games, he attends when possible.
Currently, he is preparing a file for his successor, offering his best thoughts and recommendations.
"No two days are the same," Guenther said. "Any management position requires multitasking, and 25 percent of what happens each day walks in the door unannounced. This is all about problem solving. It might be Tom Michael with an admission issue, or Ron Zook calling to discuss something. This time of year, there are critical budget and salary decisions to be made. Susan Young and I are structuring the budget based on assumptions and setting the salary pool."
Just prior to my arrival, Guenther met with Gary Friedman, new AD at Illinois State.
"He just started on June 1," Guenther said. "One of the first things he asked was, 'Can we get a football game?' I told him that I prefer to keep the money in the state for the I-AA games."
To hear his critics, Guenther's legacy will be the performance of coaches who didn't win enough games. Important as it is, hiring coaches is a tiny part of a complex job.
Assuming a 60-hour week, and it's more in the fall, Guenther probably spends 40 percent on external contacts and fundraising, 25 percent on internal issues, 10 percent on Big Ten matters with commissioner Jim Delany, 25 percent unplanned and 25 percent on team practices, games and travel.
If that comes to 125 percent, that gives you an idea what the job entails. He's on overtime by Wednesday.
"I've enjoyed it, but there is little time to yourself," Guenther said. "There has almost never been a day in 19 years that I didn't check into the office."
On the straight and narrow
You've read about Ohio State. You know the trouble the Buckeyes are in.
Guenther learned about the devastation a lack of compliance can cause when he was a star guard and the team's most valuable football player in 1966. Shortly after the end of that season, coach Pete Elliott was forced to resign in the "slush fund" scandal. Elliott's staff was splintered. All the players were traumatized.
"That had a big impact on me as a young man coming out of school," Guenther said. "The truth is that those issues were taking place everywhere, and Illinois paid the price. And I became aware of things again as a young football coach at Boston College. I was discouraged by some of the elements I came into contact with.
"I understand that you can only control what you can control. But I think it all starts with the culture and the hire. A high-integrity coach will recruit high-integrity athletes. When I see things happen, I have to question to some degree the culture."
Guenther served for a time under an athletic director, Neale Stoner, who had special external skills but had multiple NCAA and Big Ten run-ins, and was ultimately forced to leave. That was another reason for Guenther's vigilance and his expansion of the compliance department.
"We've gone to extremes," he said. "We have a lot of people throughout the community who keep us aware. And we've had some things come up that we had to nip in the bud. In the last 24 months, issues with agents have become difficult to get a handle on.
"Things like the Kansas ticket issue, the academic fraud at Minnesota and the Ohio State problems were surely known at some level in the chain of command. Somebody in the department had to know if guys were making car deals or selling memorabilia.
"Integrity is important because we are the branding tool for the institution. We don't want a Fab Five (Michigan) to come along and destroy 15 years of work."
A few remaining questions
Q: The construction manager and the architect-engineering firm for the Assembly Hall are expected to be named in late July. Dana Brenner says he has some outstanding candidates. Will you assist in the project?
Guenther: The option to return is there, but that depends on the new director. I don't want to be seen as someone looking over his shoulder. If I can be of assistance, I will.
Q: In pouring $300 million into buildings, which project is your favorite?
Guenther: I don't have a single favorite. I think it would be the totality of them, whether it was the Irwin Academic Center or the Demirjian Indoor Golf Facility. Football now has everything needed to be successful. And we are looking to expand the Ubben practice courts for basketball. It is the collective group that I'm most proud of.
Q: What is the toughest part of the job?
Guenther: The toughest aspect is keeping everything in perspective and reminding yourself what you're doing and why. The new media has created new concerns, and you can't let yourself be mired down with the small percentage of critics. The job is to keep focus on the big picture and trust your plan.
Q: Any unfinished business?
Guenther: I don't think so. I feel good at what we have achieved. I know I couldn't have worked any harder.
Q: Weren't you against the idea of hiring a search firm to locate your successor?
Guenther: I didn't operate that way, but I understand why they're doing it. I may be in the minority in thinking the way I do.
Q: Any regrets about declining the two-year extension?
Guenther: I strongly considered it, and I was leaning that way at one point. But the timing wasn't right. If Bob Easter had been extended as chancellor, I would probably have stayed.
Q: Any job offers coming in?
Guenther: Actually, I've had a number of them. But I'm not going to make any decisions for a while. I'm going to sit back and see what happens.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.