Athletic director Guenther’s contract extended by 3 years

By Wes Anderson

Ron Guenther isn’t slowing down any time soon.

During the last 16 years as the University’s athletic director, Guenther has overseen a period of unprecedented change. Last week’s decision by the Board of Trustees to extend his contract into 2011 allows the Illinois alumnus to continue to reshape varsity athletic programs in Champaign.

The deal includes an increase in base salary to $600,000 per year and a $100,000 “retention incentive” if Guenther, 62, serves through the remainder of the contract. The former Illinois football letterman is currently the longest-tenured AD in the Big Ten.

In a statement from the University, Guenther said he was “very pleased with the extension” and called this “an important time for the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics.”

The Daily Illini’s requests for an interview with Guenther were declined by the DIA, as Guenther is busy preparing to travel to this weekend’s Final Four in San Antonio, Texas.

In 2006, Guenther received a similar extension that ran through the end of 2008. This two-year span was arguably the most hectic of Guenther’s stint as AD. The firestorm created by Chief Illiniwek’s retirement in 2007 coincided with a period of heavy expansion and growth for many varsity programs.

“We have many projects to accomplish over the next three years … I look forward to meeting the challenges that face intercollegiate athletics today,” Guenther said.

The renovation of Memorial Stadium, dubbed “Illinois Renaissance,” has been the most notable undertaking of Guenther’s tenure – and the most expensive. The $120 million project added seating to the north end zone and is currently reconstructing the press box and west balcony.

After its scheduled completion this fall, the project will have radically altered the appearance and modernity of the 84-year-old stadium.

Other programs have seen similar improvements to their respective facilities recently. Illinois Field, home of the Illini baseball team, has been resurfaced with low-maintenance FieldTurf before this season, and plans are in place to increase seating capacity.

The men’s and women’s golf programs now have the ability to practice through the winter following the construction of the Demirjian Indoor Golf Facility, which was completed last August.

The new buildings and enhancements to existing facilities are set to coincide with similar improvements in national competition. In some instances, the results are coming quicker than expected.

A football program previously confined to the Big Ten cellar has been turned around under head coach Ron Zook, whom Guenther hired in 2005.

The Illini went 9-4 last season and earned their first Rose Bowl berth since 1984.

However, not every program has enjoyed such resounding success in recent years. After the Illinois basketball team’s historic run to the national championship game in 2005, a program that seemed poised to join the ranks of the national elite has sunk in the Big Ten standings.

This season’s 16-18 record broke the Illini’s eight-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances and was their first losing season in nearly a decade. Head coach Bruce Weber, once considered a seamless replacement to predecessor Bill Self after his early success, struggled in his fifth year with the team.

In addition to the Illini’s recent struggles on the court, Assembly Hall has aged in comparison to the nation’s top basketball venues. Built in 1963, the once ultra-modern facility with a capacity of 16,618 will be in need of a makeover in the next few years. Among other amenities, the building lacks elevators and luxury suites.

A major project at Assembly Hall – either a renovation or an entirely new arena – is slated to be Guenther’s next major undertaking.

“All one has to do is take a look at the record of accomplishments under Ron’s tenure to appreciate the job he’s done,” Chancellor Richard Herman said in a statement. “(He) will provide his visionary leadership for our next major project, the renovation of Assembly Hall.”

It has been estimated that such an endeavor would cost anywhere from $90 million to $110 million.

Having expressed his intention of retiring at the end of the extension, Guenther has three years remaining to solidify his legacy at the University.