- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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If you read Adam Rittenberg's excellent Big Ten football blog (one of our altogether excellent College Football Nation blogs, all of which you probably read; and if you don't, well, get it together), then you read Adam's timely reaction to Illinois's announcement that longtime athletic director Ron Guenther has decided to retire. The retirement marks the end of Guenther's 19-year career, for one, but as Adam wrote yesterday, it also marks a major shift for Illinois football coach Ron Zook, whom Guenther has tirelessly supported even at Zook's most unpopular moments.
This is a college hoops blog, though, so we don't much care about Zook.* We're much more interested in what Guenther's departure means for Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
More specifically: Does losing Guenther -- who has supported Weber through several spates of unpopularity within the Land of Lincoln -- put Weber's job in greater jeopardy in the coming seasons? Will a new athletic director be nearly as supportive?
There's an easy answer here: It's too early to say. Weber's team, like Illinois's athletics program, is in transition. The coach loses three key seniors in the post-2011 era, all talented but inconsistent players (Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis) that came to define their team's talented but inconsistent performance over the past two seasons. In their place comes a bevy of homegrown talents, products of Weber's successful recent forays into local recruiting.
In some ways, Weber has come full circle. In the early years, Weber was criticized by some Illini fans as a stern defensive coach who couldn't recruit top talent. Lately, he's been derided as a guy unable of melding talented teams into winning squads. One or both of those titles is unfair. Which is exactly why he needs more time under a new athletic director -- time he is certain to get, and rightfully so -- to iron out just what his new-look teams are made of.
That said, the past few seasons -- consistently disappointing in their ratio of talent to wins -- have shaken plenty of Illinois fans' faith in their head men's basketball coach. Weber's 2010-11 season proved especially challenging. Through it all, Guenther had his coach's back, squashing any notion that Weber's job was in jeopardy:
“I feel very confident that Bruce can get this thing figured out,” Guenther said on Feb. 17. “He’s a wonderful coach and a great human being. He will do the right thing at the end of the year.”
Judging by the comments Weber made to media yesterday, the admiration ran both ways:
"He was so good to us," Weber said. "When you needed help he was there. He was a coach before. He knew when to come in, when not to, when not to bug you. Sometimes just let you talk and vent. He understood."
No coach likes to survive his athletic director. Frequently, when new ADs are hired, they seek to put their stamps on the most high-profile programs in their stables, especially when those programs are purportedly underperforming.
Will a new Illinois athletic director do the same with Weber? Not right away. Weber's seat isn't that hot. His teams haven't been that bad. Still, Illinois fans are an impatient, hungry bunch. They want to win. When they don't, they get frustrated. (Making them like pretty much every other fan base in the country, if not larger than most.) In the past, Weber has been able to face those tough times secure in the knowledge that his athletic director had his six. In the past, Illinois fans have known that Guenther would support his hires -- even to a fault.
Will a new athletic director do the same? History tells us otherwise. It will be on Weber to buck the trend in the coming seasons.
*Except, of course, when Zook is water-skiing. That photo remains a classic.