The wind howled Wednesday like a winter hurricane.
Out in the country the gusts get a long running start, and with few trees or buildings to slow its dead-on sprint, it’s like standing on the finish line at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when Helio Castroneves blows by.
It was an appropriate weather event because the University of Illinois football program is being buffeted by strong winds, too, and as the week moves along, we all wonder if athletic director Ron Guenther is battening down the hatches or if he’s already bailing water from the storm.
Whatever he’s doing — and in typical Guenther style, he’s doing it in dead-quiet secrecy — it is storming.
Coach Ron Zook just completed his fifth season on the job. His record at this point is 21-39. That includes one winner, a 9-4 season in 2007, and four losers, including 5-7 in 2008 and 3-9 in 2009.
The most recent season was a punch-in-the-eye surprise, a major underachievement that has everyone — fans, major donors, media, players, prospective players and, perhaps, Guenther — evaluating and re-evaluating a program that seems to have run amok.
The Sporting News rates Illinois No. 3 on its list of the five college football programs that did the least with the most in this decade.
The team’s most heralded recruit — tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz — has reneged and says he’ll attend Iowa. Other recruits are backing off their verbal commitments and telling friends they’ll look further.
At least three current players — tight end Hubie Graham and wide receivers Cordale Scott and A.J. Jenkins — are said to be transferring.
Back on Oct. 24, Guenther stepped out of his suite at Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium and offered some very brief remarks to an impromptu pack of reporters. Basically, he said there would be no change “at the top” of the program, meaning he planned to bring Zook back. There would be changes, he said, meaning changes elsewhere on the coaching staff.
But since the season ended on Saturday, we’ve heard nothing. No firings, no secondary endorsement, no indication that the program is headed in any particular direction.
This is not unusual. Guenther likes to operate in a vacuum, away from scrutiny. He tends to emerge when he has something major to announce.
But Louisville has hired Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. Notre Dame is moving along on its search. Kansas is hunting for a coach and reportedly has interest in Minnesota’s Tim Brewster, a former Illini tight end. The gears are in motion.
In order to bring Zook back, one of two things has to exist.
One, Guenther has to have been told that the cost of a buyout won’t wash right now with a new administration and Board of Trustees. OK, if that’s the directive, Guenther’s hands are tied. His decision is one based on finances.
Or, two, Guenther truly thinks Zook can fix the program’s problems and can make considerable headway on doing so between now and next season.
I’d say the financial stuff is a possibility. But I do not share the optimism about a fix in 2010.
I wish Guenther had made a decision to overhaul the program back in October, done so the instant the season ended and was introducing his new head coach today.
Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t think Guenther should have a hand in the process. They believe Guenther has helped create the problem and therefore shouldn’t be the person in charge of fixing it.
For that to happen, the administration would have to view the importance of football in a much more urgent light than it does. As I’ve said before, this isn’t Michigan or Alabama. The administration cares, but not that much. Not so much as to shove Guenther aside, let him continue as a facilities fund-raiser, and hire a new AD who would oversee coaches.
That would be aggressive. That would be bold. And that’s not going to happen.
No, I think this responsibility is being left to Guenther.
What is Zook’s greatest asset? It’s his ability to recruit. And if the situation has deteriorated to the point that he can no longer do that effectively, what’s the point in keeping him?
Maybe Guenther has already reached that conclusion. Or maybe he intends to stay the course.
Sometimes silence is golden. In this case, it just stands in the way of us knowing.
Mark Tupper covers Illini football for Lee News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.