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Ron Guenther made mark as a builder

FILE - In this Aug. 31 2010 file phoIllinois athletic director RGuenther talks with mediChampaign Ill. In news release Monday

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)

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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.

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