CHAMPAIGN — Now that Mike Thomas has carried out his sports version of Donald Trump — "You're Fired!" — the question is asked: What would Ron Guenther have done?
In nearly two decades as AD, Guenther was renowned for his loyalty to coaches he hired. Would he have gone for the trifecta of Ron Zook, Jolette Law and Bruce Weber?
This opinion will be attempted without Guenther's input. Since his retirement in June and the hiring of Thomas in August, I've run into Guenther once in seven months, exchanging greetings at Gene Vance's visitation. Nor, contrary to public perception, did I see him frequently before that. What follows will be my thoughts on how a reasonable administrator would have responded, taking Guenther's loyalty tendencies into consideration along with the coaches' style, record, recruiting prospects, gate appeal and perceived momentum.
Zook at dead end
Guenther has been criticized for keeping Lou Tepper and Ron Turner a year too long.
Let's look closer. Tepper turned out solid defensive units but lost nine games by six points or less in his first three seasons. His losses in a 7-5 campaign in 1994, his third year, came by 1, 6, 5, 4 and 6 points. The Illini were in every game. That gave him status ahead of the 5-5-1 campaign in 1995, and Tepper was retained amid a growing discontent even as Michigan drew 70,000 here and two others topped 65,000. He had only one year remaining on his contract when he was fired after the Illini slipped to 2-9 in 1996. Nothing totally illogical there.
Turner was retained one year too long. He showed positive signs with an 8-4 season in 1999, beating Michigan and Ohio State ahead of a 65-21 bowl rout of Virginia. He had real cachet after a 10-2 title run that included seven straight wins in 2001. Like Zook, he couldn't beat Missouri, which set him back in 2002-03, and the 1-11 disaster of 2003 should have ended it. Guenther gave him another year, and another 3-8 disaster followed.
Which brings us to Zook. The 2007 upset of Ohio State and the Rose Bowl trip provided the same cachet that buoyed Turner in 2001. After the 3-9 season of 2009, I believe Guenther seriously considered a change and tested the marketplace. He discovered, as did Thomas this year, that the hot-shot cadre of logical coaching prospects don't have particularly high regard for Illinois.
Even so, Guenther should have pulled the plug. It was a mistake not to start over, and for a time he leaned that way. Instead, he fooled media and fans when he took a novel turn, providing the funds and influencing Zook to turn over the offensive and defensive leadership to two high-priced (by UI standards) coordinators. Guenther's scheme appeared to work with the Illini showing dramatic improvement as Mikel Leshoure ran wild in 2010, and the 7-6 season was actually better than the record when taking into consideration the triple-OT loss at Michigan and the 25-23 misfortune at Fresno State. The 38-14 Texas Bowl rout of Baylor looks even better after seeing then-outplayed quarterback Robert Griffin III win the 2011 Heisman Trophy.
Weighing in on a Guenther decision after the 6-0, 0-6 season of 2011 would be his own job status. Would he have made a change if he was on the verge of retiring? President Michael Hogan was viable and involved at the time. Would he have pushed for change?
Those considerations muddy the water. But in the end, whatever personal feelings Guenther might have had, and regardless of his pattern of resistance, he would have had to change following the 27-7 final-game collapse at Minnesota. Even if it was an admission of his own mistake, he would have been obliged to take into account an outraged fandom, dwindling attendance, faltering recruiting, a collapse of Paul Petrino's offense, and Zook's dismal failure in his chief responsibility of special teams. Zook wasn't the right guy.
One down, two to go.
On the women's side
One question as it relates to Law is whether an administrator wants to take on two hirings in basketball simultaneously.
But if you separate the women, you only needed to attend a game and watch opposing players look around and wonder where the fans went. In the process of five sub-.500 Big Ten seasons, Law had lost the folks to a point where it did not appear she could get them back. The lethargy became overwhelming. And this attendance breakdown was particularly noticeable for those fans who also attended the upbeat volleyball matches at Huff.
Guenther might have given Law another year. Her team showed signs, however spotty, of improvement in February. After a 0-7 start in the conference race, the Illini went 5-4 before bowing in the first round of the conference tournament, 68-53, to Michigan. With the top five scorers returning, something tells me Guenther would have given her another year. That's a weak guess. He would certainly have felt pressure to make a change, but it wouldn't have come easy for him.
Just a matter of time
Assuming the longevity of his own job played no part, Guenther would have reluctantly, conceding to strong pressures from donors and fans, fired Weber.
Coaches Lou Henson, Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Weber himself built expectations that were unrealized in the post-Dee Brown period that shows one NCAA victory in six seasons. When this team lost 12 of the last 14, virtually collapsing in emotional distress during the tailspin, the hole became too wide and too deep to be superficially covered.
A year ago, to avoid the anticipated bumps in this road, Weber was advised to take both the Missouri and Oklahoma jobs. He chose his own fate, declining to take over a dashing Missouri squad similar to his 2005 club.
Should Guenther had fired Weber sooner? No, and for the following reasons:
(1) Weber led the Illini to undisputed Big Ten titles in 2004 and 2005, their first such accomplishments in a half-century. The run to the title game showed he could coach at the highest level if provided with the right players.
(2) So there were funds stored in the Weber bank when he lost Jamar Smith and had difficulties with Shaun Pruitt in the 16-19 season in 2008.
(3) The Illini recovered to 24-10 (11-7 in the Big Ten) in 2009 and 21-15 (10-8) in 2010, and like the Cubs — Wait till next year! — began to anticipate Mr. Basketball award winners Brandon Paul and Jereme Richmond in UI jerseys. They'd be great with fellow juniors and sophomores in 2012. Except they weren't.
On Thursday morning, Guenther would have seen the same dismal picture that Thomas faced. Illini Nation had spent the last half of the season in an uproar. Assembly Hall seats were left empty, and the players had ceased to respond to the coach. Some of the losses were embarrassing. The one difference maker, Meyers Leonard, is poised to turn pro. Recruiting has produced one marginal incoming player while Michigan State continues to hit the jackpot, Indiana has a Top 5 class, Michigan is getting 6-foot-10 Chesterton (Ind.) All-American Mitch McGary, and so on. Every Big Ten team has more and better talent on the way. And right or wrong, if/when Leonard leaves, the national and Midwest analysts will project Illinois deep in the conference's lower half.
So Guenther, facing this, would have gritted his teeth and done what had to be done.
Should it have been done sooner? No, Weber deserved this season to see how a fresh, revamped squad would develop after Mike Tisdale, Bill Cole, Mike Davis and Demetri McCamey graduated. The need for change became clear when Richmond and Crandall Head departed, when Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey faltered, when it became apparent Leonard would turn pro, when an overrated freshman class didn't meet expectations, and when rivals jumped so far ahead in attracting the next class.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.