By Dave Wischnowsky–
(CBS) The University of Illinois is on the clock.
But it’s Bruce Weber and Ron Zook who can hear theirs ticking.
At about 5 p.m. this evening – or whatever time it is that Ron Guenther boxes up his Illini coffee mug and leaves his office for good – Illinois will be without an official athletic director for the first time since 1992, when football coach-slash-AD John Mackovic decided to go off and mess with Texas.
Yes, it’s been a long time.
Guenther, the dean of Big Ten ADs – and the scourge of many frustrated Illini fans, who blame him for allowing the football program to underachieve and the basketball program to falter under his watch – retires today. On his way out the door, Guenther will hand his reins, on an interim basis, to senior associate athletic director Terry Cole, who himself will be retiring on Aug. 15.
So, at some point this summer – once the school hires a chancellor first – Illinois will have a new AD permanently seated inside the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building in Champaign.
And Weber and Zook sitting uncomfortably on the hot seat.
Ever since Guenther announced his retirement six weeks ago, I’ve had orange-and-blue-blooded friends asking me how I thought his departure would affect the Illini football and basketball programs.
I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about it, and here’s what I’ve determined will be the likely impact of Guenther’s retirement on Illinois pigskin and hoops:
Or incredibly minimal.
Not satisfied with that answer? Well, sorry, but the truth is that, right now, the futures of Illinois football coach Ron Zook and basketball coach Bruce Weber have nothing to do with the next AD. Rather, they have everything to do with Ron Zook and Bruce Weber themselves.
The 2011-12 school year in Champaign is shaping up to be one of the more interesting in recent memory as both coaches of the school’s glamor sports will essentially be conducting a season-long tryout under what will be an incredibly watchful (and, likely, highly critical) eye of a new AD.
If they win, they’re (likely) still in. But if they don’t, well…
On Wednesday, the Sporting News unveiled its “Preseason Top 120” for the college football season and slotted Illinois in at an unfavorable No. 59, putting Zook’s squad behind every Big Ten team except Minnesota and Indiana. Earlier this month, Lindy’s Magazine also projected Illinois for 10th place in the conference.
Considering that Illinois boasts a whopping eight home games this season and returns standout sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase as well as crack coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning, I find a 10th-place prediction to be startlingly low – even with the early departures of Mikel LeShoure, Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson to the NFL.
To be certain, Illinois fans’ expectations far exceed those of the college football pubs. So, if Zook’s team does finish 10th and somehow misses a bowl game for the fifth time in seven years, he will (and should) be sent packing. However, if the Illini fare well this fall – I’ll personally find anything less than 8-4 a disappointment – Zook will almost certainly be back for 2012, perhaps even with a multi-year contract extension.
Meanwhile, over at Assembly Hall, Weber is in a similar situation. This past spring, the embattled basketball coach finally got the March Madness monkey off his back, winning an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since Dee Brown and James Augustine were seniors in 2006. However, a 2010-11 basketball campaign that started with a slew of seniors and Final Four aspirations still ended up as a major flop.
This coming season, Illinois adds seven newcomers, including six freshmen, to a team that will feature just a single senior (Bradley point guard transfer Sam Maniscalco) and no proven big men.
Maligned for years for his inability to recruit, Weber has brought in three consecutive highly touted classes and one could argue he deserves the chance to fully develop them (I probably would). However, if Illinois again fails to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in 2012 – it would be the third time in five years – one could also argue that he should be dismissed (I’d probably understand).
The Illini basketball season looks like one that might require patience. However, in Champaign, that commodity has just about run out. And it’s unlikely that a new athletic director, surely itching to stamp his mark on a program, will arrive with much of it.
But, nevertheless, once an AD is named, there’s only one game that he’ll be able to play this year.
The waiting one.
Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.