I'm Moving To Champaign
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23 years, 1 month, and 13 days. That's how long I was at my former job. I say "former" because Friday was my last day. Why my last day? Because my wife and I are leaving St. Louis and moving to Champaign. This post might be a little long.
Honestly, I'm not sure where to start. There are around five different stories to tell. Maybe this one needs to be a collection of vignettes.
I didn't apply to colleges - I applied to Illinois. My fandom, fueled by my father, had made my college choice for me long ago. The only question was whether I could get in.
I've told the story several times, but the only reason I studied in high school - the reason I took the ACT so seriously and spent time doing those massive ACT Review books - was to somehow gain admission to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Major? That was secondary. I was going to major in Block I and Orange Crush (yes, with a "C" back then), so I just needed to get in.
I took the Pre-ACT (or was in the pre-SAT?) my sophomore year of high school. As part of that practice test, there was a career survey. 80 questions, rank 1-5 how much you'd enjoy solving problems in your career/how much you would enjoy doing creating something. When I got my Pre-ACT results (I was nowhere close to a score that would get me into UIUC), the career survey said "Landscape Architecture". I had no idea what Landscape Architecture was (planting trees?), but I immediately went to my high school guidance department to see if Illinois had a Landscape Architecture program. They did. It's settled - that's what I'm doing with my life.
I met with my guidance counselor - my tennis coach's wife - and asked her what I'd need to do to get in to Landscape Architecture at Illinois. She said that it was a good choice for me because it was one of the easier programs to get into (HEY) and that I would need to either get my grades up or get a 30+ on my ACT.
The "get your grades up" thing didn't really work. I've written about this before, but I m dum. The only thing I have going for me is that I'm a really good guesser. Ask me to solve for X or tell me to conjugate a verb and I'm all DURRR. But a multiple choice test like the ACT? I can tell what answer they're trying to trick me with, which means I can find the correct answer. Even though I don't know Avogadro's Number or even realize there's such a thing as cytoplasm. I guessed my way to a 30 on the ACT and got into Illinois on the number.
I guess this is probably the first time you're learning that I'm a Landscape Architect. Well, was a Landscape Architect until last Friday. I graduated with a Bachelor's of Landscape Architecture, moved back to the St. Louis area, worked at one firm for eight months before I was laid off, lucked into another job four days later, and was at that job for 23 years, 1 month, and 13 days.
And it only took me 22 years to figure out that the Pre-ACT was wrong.
Easiest Test I Ever Took
I broke up with my girlfriend my senior year of college (editor's note: his girlfriend dumped him) and I needed a job to fill my lonely nights. I looked in the News Gazette and they had a classified ad for a "Scoretaker" in the sports department. They needed someone to come in during the evenings, take the calls from high school coaches ("Paxton-Buckley-Loda beat Georgetown-Ridge Farm 23-9 and here were the scoring plays") and input them into the computer so that they could appear in the paper the next day. I'm sure that's all done on the Internet now, but back then, the paper needed Scoretakers to take all of the calls.
I applied for the job and set up an interview. Jean McDonald was the sports editor at the time, and my interview would be with her. She informed me that her start at the News Gazette began as a Scoretaker, so this job held special meaning. She asked me a few questions about my availability in the evenings (I probably told her - through tears - that I was recently dumped and had all the time in the world), and then she asked me to take a test. She needed to make sure I had basic sports knowledge.
The test was amazing. It was all stuff like "how many quarters in a high school football game" and "how many fouls before you're disqualified from a college basketball game?". I joked about that test for years. "I'd been studying for that test my whole life. Could all of my college tests please ask 'who was the Michigan State head coach when they won the national title with Magic Johnson'? Because if so I'm gonna be Dean's List." Prescient.
I got the job. And it became a huge part of my senior year (OK, my two senior years). After six months as a Scoretaker, one of the agate shooters left and I was moved up to that job. I still say this today - it was the greatest job of my life.
Agate shooter was the term for the guy who put together the "Scoreboard" page in the paper (the agate page). Because the News Gazette wasn't a morning paper at the time (Saturday was a morning paper, so Friday nights were on deadline, but during the week it wasn't), my job was the prepare all of the statistics for the agate page (NBA Standings, local bowling scores, tennis scores, baseball box scores, etc). I was a night owl (at the time, I don't think I ever went to bed before 1:30 am), so it was the perfect job. It's useless to do the job at 9:00 pm because you have to wait for the west coast games to be over so that the NBA Standings are correct, so you go in at 10:30 or 11:30 and work until whenever.
And what's your job? SPORTS STATISTICS. Who would ever get tired of this job? I'm waiting to find out if the Mariners beat the Angels so I can update the AL standings and in the meantime I'm researching the tennis scores from the Italian Open on the AP wire. Pre-internet, it was sports statistics heaven.
I also got to fill in as a "reporter" during an Illini basketball game in the spring of 1996, my final semester. One of the two writers covering the game was sick, so Bob Asmussen took me along to help him do interviews after. I remember two things about that game (Purdue vs. Illinois). One, when Matt Heldman hit a big three I stood up to cheer and Bob pulled me back down by my collar, telling me that I wasn't allowed to cheer from press row, and two, I got to interview Purdue's Roy Hairston after the game while Bob interviewed the Illinois players.
It's weird, right? Five years to get my degree yet that one night revealed to me what I wanted to do with my life.
The seed planted in the spring of 1996 didn't really break the soil until 13 years later.
In those years in between, I met my wife, got married, adopted her boys, and raised an instafamily. In 2005 - the day Juice Williams verballed to Illinois - I got married and immediately became the father of 9, 11, and 13 year-old boys. The first four years until the oldest went off to college were just a whirlwind of youth sports and high school. My theory: two sports schedules can be managed by two parents - three makes it more or less impossible.
It was during this time - you're in your 30's, you're spending every waking moment either working or parenting, and you need a hobby - that I started the blog. Everyone has a friend in IT, and my Friend In IT set up the original blog for me. In February of 2009 I wrote about the football recruiting class and A Lion Eye dot com was born.
The first year was hit or miss. My oldest son, getting ready to go off to college, went to Camp Rantoul with me in 2009. I remember that fall - oldest went off to college, my wife was no longer working nights at the hospital (she was a floor nurse at the time) - where the parenting side began to slow down a bit. And as that slowed down over the next few years, (especially when my middle son went off to college) the blog increased and I began to write more and more.
It's weird, especially now, to look back on those first years of blogging. In 2020, it's easy for me to connect all of the dots - I worked at the News Gazette, I caught the bug that night when I interviewed players, I started the blog, now I've quit my day job - but when I started the blog I didn't ever intend for this to be the road. I did it because I had started reading other blogs and thought "hey, I can do that". I didn't plan on being in the press box, I didn't plan on traveling to cover the team - I just wanted to start writing about the Illini.
As it grew, it started to get really expensive. I think it was 2013 when I researched it and realized I had spent more than $6,000 on hotel rooms and travel and a new laptop and other miscellaneous costs. That's when I flipped to IlliniBoard and we started the subscription side of things. Other people joined me in writing as well, and I needed to pay them for their services (and their travel), so I basically had to start the subscription side of things to cover all the costs of my hobby. A friend once made the correlation between what I was doing and what his uncle did racing dirt track stock cars. You start this hobby, and you make $300 finishing third in some race and it feels great, and then you add it all up and realize you spent $14,000 trying to win a $1,000 prize. More or less, that's what this has been for me.
Because of that, the paywall is leaky and the cost never changed and the subscriptions were never set to auto-renew. I didn't even really ever promote subscriptions (only in August, really). This wasn't a business, it was a hobby, and I needed to make sure I didn't take money from my family in order to go play Johnny Sports Reporter. You've all been very generous, and my travel has been covered (as well as this laptop I'm using right now among other things).
Again, I really didn't have this "I have a website where I write and others write with me and we cover all facets of the Illini" in mind when I started this. I had the bug, I finally acted on it, it grew and grew. That's really it.
And if I'm being really honest, I didn't even intend for today to be some "OK, now is the time - I want to quit my job and write full time". It just kind of... happened.
Would You Consider A Job In Champaign, Illinois?
I went to Subway for lunch. I'd usually bring my BMT back to the office and eat at my desk, but that day I ate at Subway. I finished my footlong, jumped in the car, and headed back to the office. My wife called, and I answered.
"Are you sitting down?"
"Yep - I'm driving."
"OK, well try not to veer off the road."
"My old manager just texted me and asked if I'd consider a job in Champaign."
She's no longer a nurse - she's been in medical devices for seven years - and now a job opportunity popped up in Champaign. It's exactly what she wanted to do next in her career, but it would require a move, and my wife has been in the St. Louis area since she was 12 years old. I've been in the St. Louis area basically my entire life save for five years in Champaign. I mean, we had kind of talked about me writing full time some day, but was this really happening? Champaign, Illinois? Could we really ignore the fact that this job was in Champaign?
It moved fairly quickly after that. She submitted her resume and it didn't take long before she had an offer. We drove to Champaign one weekend and drove around some neighborhoods so we could get a feel for what living there might be like. On our way home - at the TGI Friday's in Effingham, to be exact - we made the decision: we were moving to Champaign. She accepted the job and is currently at corporate headquarters going through training. My last day at work was Friday, this week I'm getting our condo ready to go on the market, and then, at some point in the next few weeks, we're making the transition from St. Louis to Champaign.
What's that? How do I plan to make an income? Oh, right, that's probably important. My answer is... I have no idea. Well, I have some ideas, but really, I have no idea how this is going to work. The cart is clearly in front of the horse at this point. My wife accepted the job, she got her start date, and then it was one big "uh, what now?" for me.
Luckily - and when my wife gets a "would you consider Champaign, Illinois" text I don't think we can just say this was "luck" - we're in the midst of this reformatting with Piano Software shutting down the service we used to track subscriptions (TinyPass Go). Brumby has been working on what's next, and this timing gives us the perfect opportunity to say "OK, if I'm going to make a run at doing this full time, what do subscriptions look like when the content increases fivefold?" This should probably be its own subhead.
Honestly, right now, all I know is that we're moving to Champaign. I don't think I can say "forever" because, well, look at what just happened. My wife's career trajectory is pointed skyward so I'm pretty sure she's going to be CEO of GloboDynoCorp some day. GloboDynoCorp might be headquartered in Champaign, but it also might be headquartered in Toronto. So I'm approaching this whole thing with the understanding that this might be permanent and I'll be buried next to Zuppke in Mt. Hope Cemetery or my wife might get a job in Mumbai in six years.
Either way - wherever this journey takes us - we both agreed (at the TGI Friday's) that it was time for a career change for me. I'm 47 years old and I finally realized that the Pre-ACT was wrong. It should have said "writer".
What kind of writer? Once again, no idea. I know I'm going to write hundreds of thousands of words about Illini sports in the years to come. I know I'm going to expand what I do fivefold, covering every story from every angle. I'll be at every press conference and every open practice. I'll cover golf tournaments and wrestling meets and softball games and tennis matches. I'll finally be able to do the podcast (and might record 100 episodes the first year). Perhaps most importantly, for my favorite thing in the entire world - Illini football training camp - I'll no longer have to take vacation days nor get a hotel room. I'll be at every single practice every single day, driving from my home just minutes away. The coverage you expect when I'm at camp? Multiple posts per day, both written word and recorded interviews? That's pretty much going to be every day now. Well, every day starting some time in March.
And you have my wife to thank. If you want to know what love is, it's this: sitting at the TGI Friday's, the deciding moment was when she said "I want you to have this". She's willing to take on the majority of the financial responsibility for our family while I try to get a business off the ground. To chase my dream. I'll probably get the meme wrong, but seriously, find you somebody who loves you like that.
My emotion as I write this? Fear, mostly. My wife and I just jumped and reached for the trapeze bar, not knowing if either of our grips will hold. I forgot to even check to see if there was a net. She's at training now, and I no longer have a job, so... hope our grips hold. There's absolutely no turning back.
I should probably also mention that there's a chance this whole thing is a spectacular failure. Or, at the very least, the whole thing fails but you don't really realize it because we live off my wife's income while I play pretend reporter. That was easily my biggest hesitation with this whole thing. What if "reader-supported fan-blogger" isn't really a thing (it's not - look around the country) and this whole move is just ten more years of playing pretend?
In my conversations with my (former) boss about the blog, that was always his point. "Do you think you can make what you make here with your 'hobby'?" In our last conversation, he actually laughed about it. That was quite motivating, but let's be honest - the odds are well in his favor that he'll be able to load up a "told you so" the next time I see him.
I mean, there are all kinds of examples of dudes in their 30's and 40's who have this "I'm going to quit my job and sing on Broadway!" moment and then three years later they're back at their desk job trying to get their family out of debt. There's a lot of Arrested Development happening here, I think. "No, it never works. I mean, these people somehow delude themselves into thinking it might. But... but it might work for us."
Still, when you've started a blog as a hobby and it's grown as it has and you realize you wanted to write all along, not be a Landscape Architect, and then life presents your wife with a career-advancing job in Champaign, you have to do it, right? We had to do it. There's no real decision that we see here besides "we have to do this".
(But it might work for us.)
How can you help? More on that in the next few weeks. Online subscriptions have changed a lot in the six years since we started doing this, so what you'll see will be a lot like those that you've grown accustomed to. There are going to be other ways I plan to make money besides just subscriptions - through the podcast, an IlliniBoard store, I'm planning to write a book - but subscriptions will be the biggest part of it. Again, more on all of this in the coming weeks.
I thought about waiting to announce until we had all of that set up - you don't announce a fundraising campaign without the ability to raise funds immediately - but I think I'm happy that there's no way you can pay me a single dime today. As I've always said, I want this to be an arrangement - you pay me directly to get you Illini information instead of some "you'll never believe what this recruit said click here click here" scenario. (And yes, I'll absolutely regret this paragraph when I realize that I'll have to do some recruiting and I'll have to develop some sources or else you'll wonder what you're paying for.)
All of that stuff will come out in about two weeks. For now, just know that the move is underway and soon there will be a new way to support IlliniBoard. And yes, if you have a current subscription, it will still have the same expiration date + two additional months once the service is up and running.
What won't it be? Well, I can tell you it won't be recruit-centric. As I've said many times, as a fan, I should never contact a recruit to discuss his decision (and I never have). Basically, it's right on the edge of an NCAA violation. Fans calling recruits under the guise of a "recruiting interview" and sneaking in their own pitch for Illinois is basically the single grossest thing I could do from the fan side of the media landscape. I'll never do it. I might write some stories about some recruits and their backstory, and I'll contact them for that, but you'll never see "is he thinking about pulling the trigger? GET INSIDE" from me. A fan should never, ever do that. That needs to be left in the hands of a media organization.
(It was then that everyone realized that a college sports site without recruiting nuggets behind a paywall was doomed from the start, but no one had the heart to tell Robert because he was on a roll.)
Again, this section here is a bit premature. I don't really know what it will look like yet (that's what these next two weeks are for), so I really shouldn't be talking about it yet. Just know that there will be new ways for you to support the site. And a ton more content.
I guess I also probably shouldn't go overboard in promising "a ton more content". I've never really tested the capacity of one person writing about one team. I just know that the 50 hours per week spent driving to and performing my job will now be spent on the Illini, so I can't see how it won't increase "fivefold". But then again, I should probably think about burnout and trying to do too much too soon. We're nearly 4,000 words in and I'm babbling now. I should close.
When talking to my sister several years ago, she reminded me of something I had completely forgotten: when I was a kid, I told people I was going to work at Sports Illustrated. My reasoning? So I could get into all sporting events for free. The way she and my mom tell the story, I came out of the womb sports-obsessed. To the point where I was ten and telling people I was going to work at SI. Not long after that, the Pre-ACT lied to me and I spent 24 years as a Landscape Architect.
But now I've found my way back. To sportswriting and to Champaign. This is who I'm supposed to be, and I can't wait to get started.
See you in Champaign.