The search committee looking to replace University of Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther will accept applications until Friday for the chance to run the downstate athletic empire. Guenther, the ex-jock turned bean counter, will step down at the end of June after almost two decades at the helm.
The mandate of Guenther’s successor must be to find a way to put a winning football team on the turf of Zuppke Field. As an alum of Illinois, it infuriates me that my alma mater’s major programs are, at best, afterthoughts that aspire to relevancy. Harsh words, but this fact should slap anyone in the face who dares to yell I-L-L: In the past 20 years, Illinois football has not had back-to-back winning seasons.
Lou Tepper certainly couldn’t do it. Ron Turner didn’t. Ron Zook has yet to produce two in a row. The last coach to pull it off was John Mackovic who is the most recent Illinois coach to have an overall winning record -- and who left Illinois for Texas 20 years ago.
In the last two decades, Illinois has gone winless in the Big Ten three times (1997, 2003, 2005) and won two or fewer Big Ten games six times (1996, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2009). The brutal 1997 season, Turner’s first, produced an 0-11 overall record, a feat Illini Nation had not witnessed since 1969.
Why Illinois finds itself bereft of even football mediocrity is one of the great unexamined tragedies of college sports. Of the nine states now containing Big Ten schools, Illinois has the largest population and the largest metro area (Chicago) from which to draw players. Yet turn on the TV any given Saturday, and the starting lineups of teams from Michigan to Florida and back are stocked with Chicago-area football players. The excuse that Champaign is too far or too boring to attract talent is absurd. Last time I checked, Iowa City and West Lafayette were not the entertainment capitals of the Midwest.
Guenther has earned accolades for (among other things) balancing the budget, coming up with money to renovate Memorial Stadium and keeping his sports relatively scandal-free. Yawn. While not losing money certainly is an accomplishment in big-time collegiate sports, what Guenther failed to deliver in 19 years was a consistent winning football program.
I’ve read time and again that Guenther felt keenly the trials and tribulations of the team he used to play for. But his passion never translated to hiring a coach who could build a dynasty in Champaign. The new athletic director must bring a semblance of lasting success to the football field and basketball court.
Illinois fans seem content to make surprise trips to the Rose Bowl every 20 years or so, if only to endure the Pac-10 having its way with our teams. It’s been 47 years (and counting) since Illinois beat anybody at the Tournament of Roses. Let’s not wait another quarter century to chalk up a win in Pasadena.