Ron Guenther is in his 19th year as Athletic Director at Illinois. He is at a point in his career where he must decide how much longer to continue while simultaneously overseeing numerous ambitious projects to keep the Illini competitive within the Big 10 Conference and nationally.
Speaking with media Wednesday prior to the Michigan basketball game, Guenther admitted he has not yet decided whether to seek an extension of his contract when it expires in July.
"I know I've got a job until July 1. I've been discussing where we go from here with Bob Easter, who's our interim chancellor, and with Dr. Hogan, who's our president. We can't speculate any further than that."
Since the chancellor oversees the athletic director, does the lack of a new chancellor make the decision more difficult?
"A little bit. But I feel very secure. Obviously, I've been here long enough that that really isn't a factor. It's more a question of whether all the pieces I am looking for in terms of my next step, whether it's an extension of some sort or whether I want to try something else.
"I feel very good about it. I know what I'm doing; I've got a lot on the plate. We've been working toward the July 1 agenda, so I told everybody we'd work through this year."
Guenther made a major decision after the 2010 football season to work with head coach Ron Zook on obtaining top quality offensive and defensive coordinators to make improvements needed in the program. After a 7-6 season and victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl, Guenther feels secure enough to reward those coaches for their good work.
"We made some changes, and it was the right thing to do. We obviously had a good year. Market value drives the compensation."
Zook will now be paid $1.75 million. His contract was not extended beyond his present three years. Guenther said that will addressed after the 2011 season. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino's salary was bumped $50,000 to $525,000, while defensive coordinator Vic Koenning saw his salary improved from $325,000 to $342,000. Guenther expanded on these decisions.
"I think everyone is interested in what we are doing with Coach Zook. I think he deserved what we gave him, and I think the staff did too. We're not leading the pack, but we're certainly aggressive in the pack. I honestly feel we did the right thing to all the people and look forward to what they're gonna get done next year."
Guenther took some heat for his football decisions last year as some wanted Zook ousted. His foresight seems to be paying dividends. He must now evaluate the men's basketball program for similar problems. Expected to contend for the Big 10 championship, Bruce Weber's team has played below those expectations. Guenther said he is well aware of the situation.
"We all know. Our expectations and standards for our men's basketball program are high. When we're caught in a situation like this, it's not unique. I've got great confidence we're going to build out of where we're at. We've got six games left, and no one's gonna work harder than Coach Weber and his staff."
While it is highly unlikely Weber will be fired if he doesn't make the NCAA Tournament again this year, Guenther will evaluate the program in great detail upon the season's conclusion. That evaluation will not be for public consumption.
"All I can tell you is, as I dissect the program, I'm not going to get into personnel issues. As we look back, we understand where we're at, we understand why. You can't make those kinds of decisions right now. Let's look at the entire body of work. Then we'll go back and take a look at everything from staffing to scheduling to the recruiting.
"That will all be torn apart. But I've got great confidence in him and his staff to get to the bottom of it."
Women's basketball coach Jolette Law has even worse problems facing her program. Mired in the basement of Big 10 conference standings, some wonder if her time at Illinois is near an end. Guenther says there are modifying factors to consider.
"We know we've got issues there. I think she's addressing them. It's a very young team. She's a young coach. As I meet with her at the end of the year, we've got basically a freshman/sophomore squad. I fully expect that this thing will get corrected.
"Some staff changes affected us, we also had players that defaulted. We also had some injuries. There's a fine line between winning and losing.
"Ultimately I don't make the changes, the coaches make the changes by the success. We'll sit down at the end of the year and see where we're at."
By far the biggest item on Guenther's agenda is remodeling the Assembly Hall. It appears he is committed to that project whether he remains athletic director or continues in some other capacity.
"Yeah, that's been the one piece we've continued to talk about with the new president and the new board. I was very pleased that Dr. Hogan had us up on Friday, and we were able to brief him. We're in a phase here of educating everybody on where we want to go.
"It's back on the plate. We've got some stuff we've got to get done this spring, but hopefully it will put us back on track where we can attempt to take a look at that project with some kind of time line.
"A feasibility study is what we really need: what it is we're gonna do, at what cost and a time line as to how we're gonna get it done. Then we'll know if we've got a project or not. We've got to go back to square one to do that this spring."
There was a report at one time an Olympic Sports facility to replace Huff Hall was tied into funding for Assembly Hall improvements. He said that is not the case. The Olympic Sports venue is needed also, but apparently it will be considered separately. Right now, the Assembly Hall project occupies Guenther's thoughts.
"The study that we had in 2009 is the one we really needed. We've got a great building. It's really been maintained. We've had one company come in and look at it and give us some data. Now we're going to hopefully look at the project again. It's back on the plate.
"At Dr. Hogan's request, in March we're going to brief the board, an overview if you will, on what needs to be done in the process. If we get the go-ahead there, we can go back out with an architectural engineering request on a contest. We'll choose some firms to come in.
"The template we're going to use is exactly the template we used for the stadium. I think we have a very good template in terms of how to get the thing done. From that point, we can roll forward. Maybe by 2012 we can see some things happen. At the very latest 2013. It seems a long way a way, but it really isn't."
Several things must be changed to meet fan needs.
"We need to get the students on the floor. Then we've got to solve the problem of moving people up and down with elevators and escalators. We've got to improve the restrooms and concession situation. I think it can all be done, so I'm very anxious to take another look at it."
With those changes plus the addition of a few suites for those capable of affording them, there may be a reduction in seating capacity.
"It could, but I really don't know. It could go from 16,000 to possibly 15,000. You put some suites in, but that's a number that will probably be limited. The key is some way to entertain the premium-seating people. I think that's important.
"I think in our community, even with future growth, I'd rather have a tight ticket than worrying about whether a facility that's 22,000 in central Illinois. It could reduce the seating capacity, but we don't have a clue whether that's accurate or not."
A couple minor sport coaches have interim tags. There was some speculation Guenther chose that route in anticipation of his retirement to allow a new athletic director to hire his own coaches. However, Guenther is still involved in finding permanent replacements.
"We had some awkward timing in terms of some resignations and movement. I think when you get caught in those kinds of situations, it's hard to do a search for a track coach at a particular time. We had a situation in gymnastics that happened the same way. We're going to be addressing those situations as well this spring."
Fans irate with a lack of sufficient success in football and basketball have lashed out at Guenther as the scapegoat for their frustrations. He feels secure about his accomplishments and the overall direction of the DIA.
"I'm not worried about criticism, that happens. I've tried to let the coaches in our program have their programs. My role is the support of their programs. I make sure I do everything I can to give them the support."
Responding to criticism he is inaccessible and speaks publicly only on rare occasions, he joked how the large media contingent following the Illini program makes more frequent comment unnecessary.
"I don't think the public has to see me once a week or once a month to get the inside scoop. There's not much left uncovered by the new media today. The first thing I do is go to you guys to find out what's happening."
Guenther may be tiring of the complex grind of being athletic director at a major university. But it appears he still has many goals in mind for the future of the DIA. He will most likely continue to be involved in some capacity regardless.