My first reaction to Guenther is that he ran a clean department that had excellence in non-revenue sports. Under his watch the Illini became the only school outside of Florida, California and Texas to win an Men’s Tennis national championship. I think that is pretty cool. There also seemed to be a steady flow of national champions in track and field, wrestling and gymnastics. The volleyball and soccer programs seem strong as well. Most ignore these achievements, but I think it is a source of pride that Illini athletics seems to be pretty well-rounded.
Under his tenure Memorial Stadium underwent major renovations. The entire football experience has been improved (although the ILL-INI chant is not as cool with the new alignment of the students). Before the economy went belly-up, there were plans to renovate the Assembly Hall, and the practice facilities – which play a major part in recruitment – have also been improved.
On the field three seasons stand out: the 2001 Sugar Bowl football team, the 2005 Final Four basketball team and the 2008 Rose Bowl football team. All three provided great memories and lasting records, but ended up falling short of championships. And in the end, I feel like that is going to be the most enduring feeling over Guenther’s tenure – coming up short.
The football and men’s basketball programs have been frustrating to follow over the last 19 years. They show signs of improvement and glimmers of excellence, only to slip back into maddening mediocrity. Bruce Weber and Ron Zook seem like decent guys, and I appreciate their character, but I think the University of Illinois deserves better than decent. It should be possible to have both character and championships. While the athletic department seems to have character, the Illini don’t have enough championships. Is it too much to want both?
Maybe in the current climate of college athletics it is too much to ask for. I’m glad the Illini didn’t run out and hire Tom Caliparri or Kelvin Sampson. But it would be nice to hire a college basketball coach that knows how to beat a zone defense. It would be nice to have football coaches that help players get better over four years instead of recruiting high school all-stars that never reach their potential.
There are some Illini fans that are celebrating today. I’m not one of them. I believe that Ron Guenther is a decent guy and ran a decent program. I just think the Illini deserve better.