The Illini will have a new chief. Athletic director Ron Guenther kept his department out of the red ink and the University of Illinois out of the NCAA penalty box for the bulk of his 19 years on the job. But during the last few years, his coaches and teams didn't win enough games to keep everyone happy.
CHAMPAIGN -- The Illini will have a new chief.
Athletic director Ron Guenther kept his department out of the red ink and the University of Illinois out of the NCAA penalty box for the bulk of his 19 years on the job. But during the last few years, his coaches and teams didn't win enough games to keep everyone happy.
With a new president in place and the university searching for a new chancellor, Guenther said Monday it was time to retire.
"Obviously, the decision to step down wasn't easy,'' Guenther said. "In my gut, the timing of this felt right.''
Interim chancellor Bob Easter and a search committee chaired by Larry DeBrock, dean of the college of business, will oversee the process of finding a replacement and making a recommendation to university president Michael Hogan, said university spokesman Jan Dennis. Hogan would make the final recommendation to the university's board of trustees.
Guenther hoped a new athletics director would be hired by June 30, Guenther's last day on the job, and the timetable is workable with the university, Dennis said. According to Guenther, the search is "wide open.''
"There's nobody that's been lined up. Let's put it that way,'' said Guenther, who will play no role in choosing his successor.
If the search for a replacement continues after Guenther's contract is completed on June 30, an interim athletic director would be hired, he said, but he was adamant that people associated with the athletic department would play a role in the hiring.
“I was concerned the department would not be able to participate in the succession plan,'' Guenther said. "They deserve a chance to do that. So I felt much more comfortable that this was the time to do it.''
Guenther skipped Illini Caravan promotional stops in Springfield, Decatur and Chicago last week after a Hogan told the Champaign News-Gazette that he wanted Guenther to stick around until the university hired a chancellor, then the new hire would be ready to hire an athletic director.
"I like working with Ron,'' Hogan told the newspaper. "We've had several meetings about him staying a little longer. Discussions are still ongoing. He's such a great AD.
"I'd want to see a chancellor in place before we make a change. I'm not crazy about making that decision by myself."
Guenther said Monday he hasn't spoken with Hogan in three weeks.
"I was taken aback when the article came out,'' Guenther said. "(Hogan) got out a little bit in front of it. We're all on the same page. It was a question on when to decide to do it.''
Guenther, 65, didn't rule out working as a special projects coordinator at Illinois, perhaps helping the university in its overhaul of Assembly Hall, a controversial proposal. Yet Guenther said Hogan and the university trustees were "committed to pushing that project forward.''
Guenther turned down a 2-year contract extension to remain as athletics director, he said. The Big Ten Conference office or the Big Ten Network may have an interest in Guenther.
A former Illini football MVP and academic all-Big Ten, Guenther took over a program with aging facilities, little money in the bank and a reputation for breaking NCAA rules. He spearheaded a department that multiplied its fundraising, overhauled its infrastructure and avoided major violations. The department finished in the black in the final 17 years of his tenure.
Illinois won 34 Big Ten titles under Guenther, reached the Final Four in men's basketball and played in six bowl games, including the Rose Bowl following the 2007 season. Yet Guenther came under fire over the last five years for football and men's basketball programs that were slipping down the pecking order in the Big Ten.
"People watching the past three or four months, there's good reason for optimism the future for basketball,'' Guenther said. "I feel real good about where Bruce is headed.
"Everything's in place here for football to have success. We're coming off of a bowl-game win. I feel very, very good about where we are in football. It still comes down to winning some games, but from the schedule to the facilities to the salaries and the budget, they have everything they need there to have success.''
Last week during the caravan stop in Springfield, Weber described Guenther as a coach's AD, and Weber had some anxieties about working for a new boss -- one that didn't hire him.
"My role in this whole thing is to give the coaches and athletes everything they need to win and graduate at the highest level,'' Guenther said.
Guenther spearheaded the $121-million renovation of Memorial Stadium plus major upgrades for nearly every varsity athletic facility on campus. He was instrumental in soliciting gift commitments totaling more than $300 million toward capital improvements. Endowment fundraising under Guenther's leadership went from $2 million invested to more than $40 million in 2011, with an additional $40 million pledged.
"During his tenure as athletic director, Ron Guenther has transformed Illinois athletics to a perennial top 20 program that is known for its integrity," said Easter in a prepared statement.
Guenther began his career as an Illini football player in 1963 as a freshman on the Big Ten championship squad featuring Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski that went on to win the Rose Bowl.
He earned team MVP as a senior in 1966, when he also was named second-team all-Big Ten as an offensive guard. He also was named first-team academic all-Big Ten and recognized as the university's outstanding senior in physical education.
He was named athletics director on May 14, 1992, after serving two years with the UI Foundation as director of major gifts.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
Rebuilding Illini athletics
Ron Guenther's major accomplishments as Illinois AD
-- Led the $121-million renovation at Memorial Stadium. The project was the largest overhaul on a stadium dedicated in 1924.
-- Rebuilt the south end of the campus. Guenther oversaw the construction of the athletic administration building, the basketball practice complex, an indoor football practice building, facilities for tennis, golf, softball, track and soccer. Built an academic center for student-athletes.
-- Changed Illinois' reputation concerning NCAA compliance. The Illini had one major violation in the last decade.
-- Balanced the budget. Illinois finished in the black in the final 17 years under Guenther.
What they're saying:
-- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany: "Ron Guenther's contributions at Illinois over the last two decades have been truly remarkable, unique and historic. Ron has built buildings, balanced the budget, hired good coaches, grown educational and athletic opportunities for student-athletes and demanded integrity.''
-- Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez: "The Big Ten Conference will miss Ron Guenther. No one knows better what the Big Ten is all about than Ron. He made a great contribution not only to Illinois, but to our conference."
-- Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber: "I've always said he's a coach's AD because of his own experience as a coach. He knew when to get involved and when not to be involved and was very supportive. I will miss his leadership.''