Guenther finishes off Illinois legacy

_A version of this article originally ran in the May 18, 2011, edition of The Daily Illini._

After 19 years, the Illinois Athletics Department has a new leader.

University of Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther retired from the position he had held since May 14, 1992, effective July 1.

“Obviously, the decision to step down was not easy,” Guenther said shortly after the announcement. “I also think that, in my gut, the timing of this felt right … I still feel like I have a lot of energy and a lot to still give. But at the same time, 19 years is a long time to be doing what I’m doing. Obviously, like I tried to say before, my gut said this was the time to move on. And I feel much better today than the day I was struggling with it.”

Guenther was the fourth-longest tenured AD in the country and the longest in the Big Ten Conference. He had recently been offered a two-year contract extension, but said he felt the timing was right to ensure a smooth transition for the department.

“I was hoping that I would be able to reach a personal decision based on a chancellor. But it was evident that that chancellorship was not happening fast enough, it wasn’t happening, it wasn’t happening on the time frame I had hoped,” Guenther said.

“Therefore, as we moved on through the year, I was concerned that the department would not be able to participate in the succession plan, that this might be handled with a search firm, and somebody without institutional history might be making a decision … I felt much more comfortable coming to the decision that this was the time to do it.”

During his 19 years as director of athletics, Guenther helped orchestrate the building of many new facilities, including the Memorial Stadium Renaissance project as well as the construction of the Ubben Basketball Practice Facility and Irwin Academic Center.

Illinois captured 34 Big Ten titles in that span as well as a Final Four appearance by the men’s basketball team and six bowl appearances for the football program.

Guenther was an Illini long before becoming AD, though, as a member of the 1963 Rose Bowl-winning football team. Playing offensive guard, he was named the team’s Most Valuable Player in 1966 while also earning Second-Team All-Big Ten and First-Team Academic All-Big Ten honors.

“Ron will be missed, but never forgotten,” University President Michael Hogan said in a statement to The Daily Illini. “He leaves a legacy of excellence, as an MVP-winning football player and as the guiding force behind one of the nation’s most respected collegiate athletic programs. We’re grateful for his many years of dedicated service.”

However, Guenther said he is most proud of the relationships and the attitudes that have been built in his time with the University.

“Many of the people that were colleagues with me are still here … Probably the culture of the department ranks No. 1,” Guenther said. “We’d come off some difficult issues with the integrity department, and I felt that that really had to be addressed up front. That had to be one of the deepest pillars that we could drive into the ground, and I think we’ve done that. Probably, without question, I feel that may be one of the areas that I’m most proud of.”

Football head coach Ron Zook called Guenther “one of the finest men I’ve ever been around” in his 30 years in college football.

“He’s as good a boss as I’ve ever had, and I don’t say that lightly,” Zook said in a press release. “He is the ultimate coach’s AD. He listens, he helps and he is always there — always — when you need him. I hope he will be around in some capacity for a long time, because when he is no longer involved, the University will have lost one of the brightest, most devoted and loyal administrators it will ever have. Nobody cares more about Illinois than Ron Guenther. This place is a much better place because of the time he spent here.”