Illinois Loyalty May 17, 2011
For honest Labor and for Learning we stand
May 14, 1992. I found out I was getting a D in PLBIO 102 – Plants, Environment, and Man – and that grade would drop my GPA just enough to put me on academic probation. See, I had slept through a 10%-of-my-grade quiz in April, and I was just dumb enough to never attempt to make it up (yes, really). I had a high C that was now a high D, but I figured I would pull my grade up with the final, get that C, and head off to summer. Ah, the brashness of youth.
That same day, Ron Guenther was named Athletic Director at the University of Illinois. I don’t remember much about the announcement or if I even cared at the time – I’ve just always associated it with the lowest point of my academic career at Illinois. From David Williams down the east sideline to Doug Altenberger from deep, I had grown up following the Illini, and it was this obsession that drove my entire high school career. I would do whatever it took to get accepted at Illinois, and then I would be sitting in the Orange Crush (yes, Crush) when Jamie Brandon hit a three to beat Michigan.
But I couldn’t make it through PLBIO 102 (and Jamie Brandon couldn’t make it through the summer bridge program), so now I was at a crossroads. Bring up the grades in the fall of 1992, or I was done. Anyone who knows me will tell you it was Deon Thomas and Jason Verduzco that spurned me on to three A’s and two B’s that fall, not some silly notion of academic achievement. I had been fiercely loyal to this school – to the point of basing my college selection around Memorial Stadium and Assembly Hall – and I simply could not go home. I would get the grades I needed to stay off academic probation. I’m loyal to you, Illinois.
Loyalty isn’t just the school song at Illinois – it’s a culture. People often speak of this fierce devotion, myself included. And as I reflect on the 19 years of Illinois athletics under Ron Guenther, I’m left to wonder if that culture has been detrimental.
Like men of old, on giants placing reliance, shouting defiance
From yesterday’s press release, here’s a list of the 5 longest-tenured athletic directors in Division I sports:
DeLoss Dodds, Texas – Fall 1981 – present
Gene Bleymaier, Boise State – February 1982 – present
Chris Hill, Utah – October 1987 – present
Jeremy Foley, Florida – March 1992 – present
Ron Guenther, Illinois – May 14, 1992 – present
The Sesame Street “one of these things is not like the others” song is playing in your head right now, isn’t it?
DeLoss Dodds has built the most financially successful athletic department in the country. Gene Bleymaier led Boise State football from Division II to Division I-AA to Division I (in 1996) to a top-10 football program in Boise, Idaho. Chris Hill has built Utah’s athletic department from small-conference also-ran to NCAA finalist in basketball and multiple BCS Bowl appearances in football – and now they’re off to the Pac-12. And Jeremy Foley is probably the most successful of all these Athletic Directors, with multiple national titles in both football and basketball under his watch.
Ron Guenther? Well, he built a lot of facilities, so he has that going for him. Which is nice. But if you show this list to any college fan in the country, from Georgia to Oregon, they’ll scoff at the inclusion of Ron Guenther. A 19 year reign usually means a wildly successful tenure in both revenue sports, especially football, the engine that drives every athletic program. And that is certainly the case at Texas, Boise State, Utah, and Florida. Illinois? We’re loyal.
That’s just it, isn’t it? If there’s one word that defines the Guenther administration, it’s “loyalty”. He gave Lou Tepper a contract extension when most AD’s would have let him go. Despite lagging recruiting, he stayed loyal to Lou Henson until he retired. He didn’t fire Ron Turner after a 1-11 season in 2003. He didn’t fire Ron Zook after a 3-9 season in 2009. And despite a .500 record in the Big Ten the past four seasons, he remained loyal to Bruce Weber until the end. And on top of all that, the Illinois administration remained loyal to Ron Guenther. Dodds and Foley were rewarded for their success with long contract extensions at Texas and Florida – Guenther was rewareded for his loyalty.
And it’s not just the revenue sports. Jolette Law has never been to the NCAA Tournament, but she received a contract extension last summer. So did baseball coach Dan Hartleb, who said at the time, seemingly taking from the Ron Zook and Bruce Weber quotebook, “Ron has been very fair and very good to me as a coach.” Throughout his 19 years, Guenther has remained stubbornly loyal to the coaches he selected, even to the point of promoting their assistants when they move on or retire. Fire a coach just because results are lagging? Che-he, che-ha, che-ha ha ha. He’s loyal to you, Illinois.
Our team is our fame protector
I firmly believe new University President Michael Hogan gets it. Athletic success in the Big Two sports can enhance a University’s overall reputation. And if the University of Illinois ever needed a reputation boost, it’s now. The admissions scandal claimed the Chancellor, the President, and most of the Board of Trustees, and Hogan is in charge of rebuilding. Having spent time at Ohio State and UConn, I’m sure understands the benefits of a thriving athletic department. With Ron Guenther’s retirement, he now has an opportunity to rebuild that side of the University as well.
Rebuild? Yes, rebuild. The football program of Red Grange and Dick Butkus was 88-132-2 during Guenther’s reign. The basketball program is mired in it’s worst 4-year stretch since the 1970′s. And to top it off, Illinois is near the bottom of the Big Ten in athletic department revenue. When Wisconsin and Iowa are tens of millions of dollars in front of you in revenue, you’re doing something wrong.
Did Ron Guenther build great facilities at Illinois? Yes. From the Irwin to the Ubben to the tower rising out of the west balcony, Mr. Guenther made facilities a priority – he secured the funding and he built the buildings. That will be his legacy – the loyal AD with the shovel in his hand.
But for the next AD, it needs to be revenue and wins. To see Illinois 9th in the Big Ten (and 35th nationally) in athletic department revenue is to see why the Illinois administration stayed loyal to Mr. Guenther for too long. The flagship university of the 5th largest state in the country should not, under any circumstances, fall this far behind. Think about that for a second – we’re the flagship university for the largest state in the Big Ten footprint, with more recruiting and revenue sources than nearly every other Big Ten school, and we’re 9th in the Big Ten in revenue, 28-45 under our current football coach, and 104-70 in hoops since Dee Brown left town.
Why? Because we’re too loyal. Loyal to an athletic director for 14 years beyond the time when he himself said he should probably move on. Loyal to coaches beyond the point where the vast majority of AD’s would have let them go. Loyal media, loyal fans, loyal coaches, loyal AD, all falling further behind the rest of the Big Ten. And it’s up to Chancellor Robert Easter and search committee chair Larry Debrock to find the person to lead us back.
On boys, for we expect a vict’ry from you Illinois.