Everywhere you turn there are new faces in UI offices
Change can be good. Ask any Republican. Ask any Cub fan. Ask anyone who lives and dies with Illini football and basketball.
If change will help the latter, it is happening in the extreme. All new coaches! Some might call this chaos. Others view it as overdue. And that's just part of a shifting Illini landscape. Since Ron Guenther retired as athletic director 13 months ago, the department has seen more than 50 members depart.
Administrators, coaches, secretaries, market specialists, fundraisers, etc. More than 50!
That doesn't include familiar faces like Shawn Wax, Andy Dixon, Mike Hatfield, Cassie Arner and Dick Barnes, who parted ways earlier. And we should include the team physician, Dr. Jeff Kyrouac, and longtime Guenther aide Tom Porter as well.
Gone are Guenther's high-level administrators Terry Cole, Dana Brenner and Vince Ille, development veteran Steve Greene, sports medicine director Al Martindale and strength coach Jimmy Price. Gone is football administrator Adrian Melendez and all of Ron Zook's nine-man staff except Keith Gilmore. Both basketball staffs were wiped clean.
Gone are centuries of combined institutional memory. Some, like Ille, found promotions elsewhere (North Carolina). Timing affected others like Martindale and Brenner, who left before July 1 to avoid changes in the retirement pension system.
And lest we forget, fundraising could be impacted with the passing of major contributor Clint Atkins, and the interest-shifting decision by Flex-N-Gate's Shahid Khan to pour millions into the purchase of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
So, is all this bad? Was a two-decade operation becoming stale? Did the department need a breath of fresh air?
Guenther, who now works for the Big Ten and attended meetings of the athletic directors in Chicago last week, ran a stable UI operation that kept its head above water.
While annual profits were modest, it is noteworthy that the department was one of only 22 listed in the black in 2010-11.
The budget has grown to more than $70 million, gifts for capital improvements amounted to $300 million over two decades, and endowment fundraising has gone from $2 million to $40 million. Academics and compliance were strong points of the Guenther regime, and sports like volleyball and men's gymnastics and golf have become dominant.
But the major sports have been up and mostly down. As a result, first-year AD Mike Thomas watched as late-season slumps demanded the replacement of three head coaches, a highly unusual development in a single year. And one-sided contractual agreements required the DIA to pay the salaries of various departed coaches, that multi-year number well over $7.2 million as it includes not only the big names but less-known recipients like football's Mike Gillhamer and basketball's Gary Nottingham.
As part of the shakeup, Thomas hired Jason Lener from Miami (Ohio) for the No. 2 slot, and will welcome Tulane's Maria Woods as senior woman administrator next month. The workload has become more diversified for associate directors Tom Michael and Warren Hood, both of whom have responsibilities related to the proposed Assembly Hall renovation.
Just win, baby
Guenther provided a foundation in terms of facilities and compliance. But when all is said and done, when the new Thomas lineup settles into full working mode this fall, it'll boil down to the same important issues: (1) win football games to attract attendance and (2) win basketball games to satisfy the demand.
The underlying problem is that the Illini are starting well back in the pack in the two prominent sports, and have fallen from the lineup of universities that are popular with the nation's elite high school athletes. Few outsiders in the "have not" category are able to make the jump into the "haves."
If Tim Beckman and John Groce can't crack that barrier, they'll find it difficult to field consistently title-contending teams in a conference boasting national title challengers.
Regardless of internal upgrades, regardless of how well everyone in the department does his/her job, we know how most fans will judge the Thomas regime. It isn't fair but it always boils down to winning games in the money sports.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.