Tate: That's a chunk of change

Tate: That's a chunk of change

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.

New blood

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 ltate@news-gazette.com.

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Other

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Moonpie wrote on August 01, 2012 at 11:08 am

More fluff from the Sleepy Gazoo. But let's hope Obi Wan Tate is right that Beckman's squad will be good.

chuckles wrote on August 01, 2012 at 2:08 pm

As a beancounter (Accountant) I can appreciate fiscal restraint, but as a football season ticketholder WIN baby WIN so I will want to go to Memorial stadium in November!

Jam wrote on August 01, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Change is good for any organization.  After awhile people get lazy, run low on ideas, or perhaps have burned to many bridges.  Installing fresh creative minds with new enthusiasm should be of great help to the UI Athletic Department.

TheGallopingGhost77 wrote on August 01, 2012 at 5:08 pm

With B1G Leader's schools facing so many sanctions, now is the time for the Illini to strike in the realm of college football.  We have a veteran class right now + our loaded 2013 class as of right now.  If we can at least get to a bowl game this season, it will be considered a success, and then we can get more high profile recruits. 

peterborich wrote on August 01, 2012 at 10:08 pm

That's more like it Loren!  Back to the Guenther love-fest and Mike Thomas/Tim Beckman/John Groce negativity convention. Got worried there for a second that we might see two semi-positive columns in a row.... WHEW....

Nice Davis wrote on August 02, 2012 at 2:08 pm

There's no negativity in this column, just realism about the fact that (A) the Illini aren't expected to be near the top of the league in football or basketball and (B) the new coaches will ultimately be judged on how successful they are on the field/court.

The only consistently negative one around here is you.

blmillini wrote on August 03, 2012 at 11:08 am

Glad to hear it!!!  We needed to cleanse the department of the culture of accepting losing.  I doubt we would allow it in academics, why we would accept it in athletics? 

This reminds me a little of what the Cubs appear to be doing.  After 100+ years of losing they are finally figuring out that they need to change to a culture of winners, not losers.  You absolutely need people that hate to lose in an athletic department. 

It is especially fun to watch Thomas show an understanding that marketing the program and putting a winner on the field is the real way to build revenue, not cutting cost.

walker wrote on August 04, 2012 at 6:08 pm

that's your problem borich, you worry too much.  And are clearly bothered by what  LT says (or doesn't say) on just about a line for line basis, especially if it is a different opinion than yours.

have you ever thought about the possiblity of not reading his articles anymore since they cause you so much heartburn ?