Tate: Guenther 'couldn't have worked any harder'

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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 ltate@news-gazette.com.

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BaytownILLINI wrote on June 13, 2011 at 7:06 am

Mr. Guenther,

Thank you so very much for your hard work and loyalty to this wonderful university. We can never thank you enough for all that you did. May God bless you and I hope you have a wonderful retirement. Thanks once again.

pblillini wrote on June 13, 2011 at 8:06 am

Sometimes it's not about working hard, it's about working smart. That is an apparent challenge for Guenther. Thanks for the effort Ron, too bad the results were so poor.

ui1969 wrote on June 13, 2011 at 9:06 am

From one who was there during the slush fund days, thanks for keeping the integrity of the University foremost in your mind. Its good for the university and good for the young men and women who choose it. Enjoy your 'retirement'. Say hi to Hank for me. Old SF friend.

JimOATSfan wrote on June 13, 2011 at 9:06 am

Joining 'BaytownILLINI' in saying thanks for an excellent term as AD. Enjoy whatever you choose to do next. Go Illini!

Martin09 wrote on June 13, 2011 at 10:06 am

Let's see;Last in the BIG TEN Conference in fund-raising,10th out of 11 in revenue,the down-sizing of Memorial Stadium,61st out of 65 in football wins among BCS schools during his tenure and 1 NCAA win in Men's basketball since the 05 season.Throw in extended contracts and a women's basketball program on life-support and you have in my opinion very little to celebrate in regards to the successes of the the Ron Guenther era. The state in which he has left the DIA is nothing to celebrate. Good-luck to his successor, he or she inherits a less than ideal state of affairs!

oandb wrote on June 13, 2011 at 10:06 am

RG makes over $500,000 a year. he should work hard. The thing which he shouldn't do is run the major revenue sports into the ground. Unfortunately he did. His hiring decisions in the major sports have been awful at best. His marketing non-existent. Fund raising non-existent. Good riddance.

illiniphil85 wrote on June 13, 2011 at 11:06 am

Face up to it Loren, there will always be a major black mark on RG's tenure, success of the two revenue sports.

pblillini wrote on June 13, 2011 at 11:06 am

Reminds me of this quote from Christmas Vacation during the scene when Clark can't get the Christmas lights to turn on...

Art: [sarcastically] Beautiful, Clark.

Frances: Talk about pissing your money away. I hope you kids see what a silly waste of resources this was.

Audrey Griswold: He worked really hard, Grandma.

Art: So do washing machines.

jjohnson wrote on June 13, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Class shows, Ron has it; lack of class glares at you -- read some of the comments above.

rsaavedra wrote on June 13, 2011 at 12:06 pm

one of the biggest losers of all time. i can't believe you kept your job for so long. pretty telling and indicative of how pathetic the University is.

wake up people! oh, and another really bad article.

ehorton wrote on June 13, 2011 at 12:06 pm

re: ron g

bill self's comment was: "illinois does not have a good athletic director, they have a great atletic director."

he knows vastly more than most of the yahoos commenting above.

jjohnson, you are on target, as usual.

by the way, how many big ten basketball titles and/or co-titles did we have under ron's tenure?

ed horton

DaisyJ wrote on June 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm

not how hard you work, ...but what the results are.

IlliniHimey wrote on June 13, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Loren:

Barf.

Please.

If you are going to be repetitive, then so will I.

This whole notion of, "....he put coaches in a position to be successful." is such a line of garbage. It really is.

Is it really that simple? Just any schmo into any position, and you are off of the hook for that person's success? That is how you portray it, so again, is that really all it takes?

He kept Tepper way too long.

The McCaskey's sold him a bill of goods on Turner.

In his sleep, I believe he is still extending Grentz' contract.

Sorry for the segway to women's basketball, which I really don't care about.

If you just focus on football, the A#1 driver of any athletic department, I can not fathom how you can continue to spew your drivel regarding Guenther's success. It just floors me.

If Ron Guenther, Inc. was a manufacturer, and he continually failed/bombed with the customer that amounts to 50% of his revenues, SOMETHING would have to change. Either fire the lead sales person, fire the account manager, or lose the customer and become a shell of what you once were. As an OWNER, Ron would have the right to shrink the company.

That is the problem.

Ron does not own the Illini athletic department, as much as that narcissistic person feels that he should.

19 years of absolute football misery, and we are now to commend him for a hard work ethic?

Good lord.

Martin09 wrote on June 13, 2011 at 5:06 pm

I hope that the new AD expands the number of sports on the Urbana campus. Currently we have 19(the 2nd fewest in the Conference]almost exactly half the number that OSU has. We desperately need Men's and Women's hockey as well as Men's soccer! We also need an AD who is engaged in the community and attends all of the programs games under his or her control,not just his favorites.Hopefully the next AD will not be just an administrator who operates in such a small circle.The result of this style of leadership has yielded a smaller stadium, fewer sports and diminishing revenue[as compared to all other Conference members]

johnnycpars wrote on June 13, 2011 at 5:06 pm

No credit from me for "working hard". That is what he was supposed to do. He got paid insanely well to "work hard". I care about winning programs and he was responsible for hiring coaches in football and basketball that have led us to a "mediocre" existence in these sports. Thanks for the buildings... i prefer some good coaches though over new brick and mortar.

Tom Menacher wrote on June 13, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Tate has always had a blind spot where RG is concerned. I appreciate that RG gave everything he had for the UI and as an alum truly loves the institution, but I can't grade RG more than a C for his tenure. While there has been the occasional successful fb season, overall, the football record under him has been mediocre, and this has made fundraising much harder than need be, and has also had a negative effect on the other sports. True, he generally kept the ui out of the ncaa crosshairs (except for the mason 'incident'), and did have some success in new construction and refurbishments, although with consistent success in fb, I believe we would have a fully remodeled memorial stadium, the assembly hall project would already be complete, and the minor (less major?) sports would be in better shape. I'd like to say he has generally been a class act in the way he comports himself, except I can't forget the national write-up he garnered when he had a nervous breakdown at a ui bb game a few years ago, which gave the school he loves a black eye. All-in-all, a "C", I don't doubt rg gave it all he had, but I'm ready to see what the next AD can do.

plaza21 wrote on June 13, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Guenther is a classic tax and spend liberal. Thinks constructing buildings is success, forget results or revenue.

Athletic Dept in the black? Yeah, thanks to taxing the students that no other university has to do.

You'd have to be really bad at business not to make money when you have the flagship university of a huge state like Illinois. Yet, Mr. Guenther managed to do it.

Bad executive.

Bad coaching hires.

Lack of vision.

Sorry Mr. Tate.

You arent convincing anyone that this guy deserves anything more than a two word salute:

GOOD RIDDANCE!

the happy hacker wrote on June 13, 2011 at 11:06 pm

I'm with pblillini and oandb. We're talking about a guy who cut programs he didn't care for (men's swimming) and boosted ones he did (men's golf). He peaked years ago and he is leaving only about 10 years later than he should have. Had Guenther handled the Bill Self recruitment by Kansas better, we might have multiple NCAA basketball championship banners hanging in the Assembly Hall.

Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

kkupfer wrote on June 14, 2011 at 1:06 am

All you who know so much about how RG failed, I hope youre sending in your applications for the job. Show us what you know, get in there and make it better if your so smart and have all the answers. Come on, go to the board and tell them you want the job because you know what to do to run a "smart", "successful" program and bring us winning teams. Do it, or shut up!!!

illinifaningeorgia wrote on June 14, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Of the 20 comments to date, 30% think Guenther did a good job, the other 70% based their opinion on the results of the football and basketball programs.

Count me in with the latter group.

the happy hacker wrote on June 15, 2011 at 7:06 am

fuwsf, with this one exception, we make a point never to respond to crazy.