It must feel strange to suddenly receive an Achievement Award — the highest honor bestowed by the Varsity I — Friday night after 19 years of determining who deserved to be the recipients.
But Ron Guenther’s world has changed in many ways since he stepped down as Illini athletic director July 1, 2011. Always a confidant of Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, he has been a point man on conference expansion, bowl contracts, football officiating and, in his words, “whatever Jim wants me to do.”
Moving forward, Guenther is on the ground floor of a dramatic NCAA overhaul as the five major conferences move toward establishing their own governance.
Delany is fresh from a Dallas meeting of major commissioners in which he emphasized that “college football and basketball are not minor leagues for the professional sports” and said further that “a restructuring plan in major college sports must be in place by next spring to create better balance educationally and more options, including increasing the value of athletic scholarships. The major conferences need the legislative autonomy to push through some major changes.”
“I know where we want to go, and we need to have the directors more involved in the process. We went through two leadership changes in the NCAA where the governance structure moved toward presidential control. The directors, who were working hands-on with the issues, were too far removed.
“I think you’ll see the governance structure change when the major schools have the votes to deal with issues affecting them.”
Rutgers and Maryland will join the Big Ten next year, and Guenther was deeply engaged in that unexpected development.
“We ran out of options,” he said. “That was not what we started to do. Jim had challenged me to come up with ways to increase the conference value, and I worked with the Pac-12 to put a collaboration together whereby we would play a 12-game series with them in football, staggered over the first three weeks of the season. We’d then be able to capture all three time zones, thus increasing our TV dollars. Unfortunately, right at the end, the Pac-12 pulled the plug because some institutions had contracts they couldn’t break.
“The challenge then was how do we increase our revenue? I looked at the population base going east. Once we take the Big Ten brand into New York, with that population and the good high school programs ... give this 10 years and we’ll see.
“This is so different from what we thought we were looking at. But I like our strategy. There were some other ACC schools that showed interest, but that didn’t work out.”
Guenther always has been close to Delany and worked with him for a decade in helping bring the BTN to fruition. They privately discussed Guenther’s move to the conference office for several years before he stepped down at Illinois.
“My role has evolved,” Guenther said. “We dealt with a lot of institutional control issues when Penn State’s problems came up that first year. That took a lot of time. And we redid all our contracts with our bowl partners.”
Most recently, his close relationship with the director of officiating, Bill Carollo, brought him into evaluations of coach Mark Dantonio’s claims of missed interference calls in the Michigan State-Notre Dame game. It appears some mistakes were made.
‘So many challenges’
Does Guenther miss Illinois? Let’s put it this way: There were “considerable withdrawal symptoms.”
“You’re going 60 miles an hour for 19 years and then it changes,” he said. “I miss the interaction with my colleagues, both inside the department and elsewhere. There were so many challenges. There are headaches, and there are the public perceptions that exist. It was time for me to do something different.”
Guenther estimated that 75 percent of his time as AD was raising money. At the same time, he noted a major change in that “we’ve been slowly sliding to a point where TV revenue outweighs gate receipts, and that is incredible. And that gap will continue to get greater. That is quite a transition.”
Money, money, money. Guenther took over a budget in 1992 that amounted to roughly $15 million. He was instrumental in securing commitments of more than $300 million for capital improvements — he changed the face of the south campus — and $80 million for endowments.
The budget under AD Mike Thomas is nearing $80 million and soon will rocket past that figure as conference TV revenue soars toward $30 million and beyond.
“I don’t think people realized how far we had to come facilitywise from 1992,” he said. “We got the indoor football facility first, expanded the office complex and weight training. We were in a catch-up mode. Where we sit today, we have a renovated stadium, a strong physical plant and the money to invest. We were just getting things on the drawing board when Ron Turner became coach (1997). I think we can compete, even if we have to attract athletes from other areas.”
Illini football failures, and the inability to dig deeply into Chicago’s talent pool, always will stick in Guenther’s craw. A graduate of Elmhurst York, he succeeded Jim Grabowski (who also will be honored Friday night) as Illini MVP in football.
“When I first looked at Illinois, Dick Butkus was the Pied Piper,” Guenther said. “He was that good. He was maybe the best player in the country. When you get a guy like that, he can attract others. It’s true in football, and it’s true in basketball. I brought that up because it could be happening with a quarterback like Wes Lunt. Looking at what Bill Cubit is doing on the field, he’s the right guy to lead the offense.”
Illinois reached the Sugar Bowl with a Big Ten champion in 2001 and played in the Rose Bowl after upsetting No. 1 Ohio State in 2007, but Guenther reflected the feeling of Illini Nation when he said: “For me, in looking back, the hardest thing was our inability to sustain success after we had success.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.