Zook losing top ally in retiring Guenther

Quite a lot of folks will miss Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther, who announced Monday he will retire from his post after 19 years when his contract expires June 30.

But quite possibly no one will miss Guenther more than Illini football coach Ron Zook.

Guenther hired Zook at Illinois in December 2004 and has consistently supported the coach, even when few others did.

Most athletic directors would have parted ways with Zook after he failed to capitalized on Illinois' 2007 Rose Bowl run and went 8-16 the next two seasons. Many Illinois fans wanted Zook out and so did some top boosters.

But Guenther stood by Zook and gave him money to hire two talented coordinators (Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning). Illinois began to turn things around last fall, going 7-6 and winning its first bowl game since 1999. Guenther reaffirmed his belief in Zook by awarding the coach and his assistant raises in February, a move that raised a few eyebrows.

Zook's chief advocate is retiring July 1. Guenther said in a statement Monday that he has been working with chancellor Robert Easter on a succession plan. A search committee is being formed, and Guenther hopes his successor will be in place by the end of the summer.

What does this mean for Zook, whose contract runs through the 2013 season?

Coaches always prefer to work for athletic directors who hired them. Although you'd think Guenther will have a say in his successor, Zook still will have to prove himself to his new boss.

"In more than 30 years in this business, coach Guenther is one of the finest men I've ever been around," Zook said in a prepared statement. "He's as good a boss as I've ever had, and I don't say that lightly. 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."

Those are some pretty sincere comments from Zook. Guenther believed in Zook when few did, and their mutual affection is obvious. It'll be interesting to see who takes over and how the new AD interacts with Zook.

Guenther leaves quite a legacy at Illinois, where he served as AD since May 14, 1992. He's the Big Ten's longest-tenured AD and the fifth longest-tenured AD at an FBS program.

His greatest accomplishments came as a fundraiser, as he made numerous facilities upgrades, including the $121 million makeover for Memorial Stadium, the largest construction project in school history. He also oversaw the construction of the Irwin Indoor Football Facility.

A former offensive lineman at Illinois, Guenther was a big-time football guy despite serving as AD at what most consider a basketball school. His fundraising helped put the football program in a position to succeed, but the results haven't come. His coaching hires have raised some questions, and despite spurts of success (2001, 2007), the Illini haven't been a consistent winner on the field. I'm sure Guenther would like nothing more than to see Zook build on 2010 and make Illinois a force in the Big Ten.

Here are some of statements released about Guenther's retirement:

Guenther: "The last 19 years have gone extremely fast and a decision to retire has been very difficult. I personally want to thank all the members of the [department of intercollegiate athletics] as well as our colleagues in the academic community for their support. I have been fortunate to work with an extremely talented and loyal group. I will always be indebted. Additionally, the Illinois fan base is the best in the nation. I've always said we are fortunate to have individuals who have great passion and loyalty for the University of Illinois."

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany: "Ron Guenther's contributions at the University of Illinois over the last two decades have been truly remarkable, unique and historic. Ron has built buildings, balanced the budget, hired good coaches, grown educational and athletic opportunities for student-athletes and demanded integrity. And he has done it all with both a love for the university and a full awareness of how intercollegiate athletics is an integral part of the higher education mission. I will always appreciate his sense of collegiality and the value he placed on the conference. No other director of athletics enjoyed more friendships among Big Ten administrators than Ron, and we all look forward to continuing the relationships he has built over the last 20 years. On a personal note, I've had a lot of good friends in my time at the Big Ten, but there's no finer person than Ron, and I wish him and his wife Megan all the best in the future."

Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez: "The Big Ten Conference will miss Ron Guenther. No one knows better what the Big Ten is all about than Ron. He made a great contribution not only to Illinois, but to our conference."