FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2010 file photo, Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther talks with the media in Champaign, Ill. In a news release Monday, May 16, 2011, Guenther said he will retire after his contract runs out June 30, 2011. (AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Robert K. O'Daniell)
Updated: June 18, 2011 12:38AM
It was in the fall of 1996, and Lou Tepper was losing another brutal game at Michigan State. The difference was, this time I knew the embattled Illini football coach had crossed the point of no return.
While I knew that athletic director Ron Guenther would have to fire Tepper at the end of the season, I took no joy in that. But I had a job to do. And so, I told the sports information director that I was going to “bury his coach’’ and that I needed a comment from Guenther, even if it was no more than, “It would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time.’’
Somehow, my message — it probably wasn’t the best choice of words — was relayed to Guenther as that I was going to bury Illinois. Which was too ridiculous to contemplate.
Guenther, who declined to comment, was sitting six feet way in a glassed-in radio booth, which only made me more angry. I wrote some harsh things about him along with concluding that Tepper, who was a good man in many ways, wouldn’t be back.
When Guenther fired Tepper several weeks later, he virtually borrowed some lines from my stories.
Some months later, Guenther and I had a sitdown. We cleared the air, patched things up — and we never had another problem. We understood each other.
He understood I was doing my job, and I understood that he was a terrific athletic director who balanced the budget while building a boggling array of facilities for Illinois athletics.
A state-of-the-art basketball practice facility. An indoor football practice facility. A major renovation of Memorial Stadium. An academic center for athletics. Countless upgrades for non-revenue sports.
That will be Guenther’s legacy. He was a builder, and he did everything with the utmost fiscal responsibility.
His detractors will say he could have done better on the most important coaching hires at a Big Ten athletic department — football and men’s basketball.
My response: That’s the way it worked out, to a degree. But his hires looked pretty good at the time they were made — and they adhered to the principles he brought to his complex job.
If Guenther, a former Illini football player who touched every base working his way up the ranks, had a flaw as AD, it might have been that he cared too much. No one has more passion for Illinois athletics, and for doing things the right way.
There was a moment at the 2007 NCAA tournament when Illinois played Virginia Tech in a first-round game. Knowing how much he cared, I kidded him about having a cup of chamomile tea before the game.
In rebuilding a department that was in turmoil after basketball-related NCAA sanctions and the abrupt departure of football coach/AD John Mackovic, Guenther was thorough and visionary.
As Illinois moves forward, its new athletic director will owe a lot to Guenther for leaving him an athletic department that’s well-positioned for the future.
Nobody cares more about Illinois than Guenther. And nobody cares more about doing things the right way.