IlliniBoard At 20
Happy Birthday! One more year and we can drink.
On July 30, 2000, while everyone was talking about the upcoming Republican and Democratic Conventions to nominate George W. Bush and Al Gore, John Brumbaugh launched a little website called IlliniBoard out onto the world wide web. Will Ron Turner build on the MicronPC.com Bowl? Why did Najeeb Echols pick Quin Snyder over Bill Self? Talk about it on IlliniBoard dot com.
I figured the best way to do this was just to go back through the full history with Brumby. You old people may know the history of the IB, but younger readers probably don't know that we go back 20 years. So here's a long back-and-forth with Brumby. We'll start with my first email to him:
I'll start with my own experience because I'm never able to remember the exact timing of everything. I know that IlliniBoard was born at the beginning of the message board explosion, but I can't remember when I found it. Here's how I remember it:
I know when I found my first message board: summer of 1997. I know that because I remember the first topic I discussed with people there: would BYU shooting guard Robbie Reid transfer to Illinois? Reid picked Michigan in the summer of 1997, which means that I was discussing Robbie Reid from my apartment in Maplewood, Missouri on my (get this) WebTV system. That's right, use your TELEVISION and connect to the INTERNET.
The message board I found at the time: the Big Ten Fan Forums (BTFF) which were, I believe, put up by the Big Ten Conference. Actually, I think they lived on the Big Ten's official website? I went by StLouisIllini and I spent several years there discussing Illini football and basketball with other Illini fans (as well as other Big Ten fans - I remember that Iowa posters would wander over to the Illinois board to talk smack).
The BTFF eventually went away, I believe, because they were just so hard to moderate. You'll never believe this but trolls on the internet ruined the fun for everyone. I discovered IlliniBoard not long after that (wasn't in called IlliniHoops at the time?), so let's start there. Why did you decide to start it? Did it have anything to do with the BTFF getting shut down or did you have the idea long before that?
I can't say when the idea first came to my head, so I doubt there was one major genesis point. My Illini sports discussion history starts around the same time, though probably closer to the fall of 1997 (I think) when I was on newsgroups and found the Oskee email list. From there it probably just grew. I don't know when I first saw IlliniHOOPS or the BTFF, but I was more active on IlliniHOOPS as just a poster for probably two years. The BTFF shutting down really didn't impact me as I wasn't on them that much at the time.
Like all good internet stories from the late 1990s and early 2000s, IlliniBoard was started in my parent's basement. At the time, web development was new, and I wanted it to be my career so I needed to learn. I had thrown around building a bunch of different websites, but the only thing I really cared about was Illinois sports. So I built something related to it. At the same time, I was talking with Dave who was running IlliniHOOPS and he didn't have the time to run a website. I was a 21 year old nerd, I had nothing but time as my days consisted of beer, watching sports, and programming. So he, along with Mike Pegram (the unknown hero of IlliniBoard) allowed me to use the message board that already existed for IlliniBoard's message board and that was the start of IlliniBoard.
Peegs! I didn't know that part.
So when you started it, how did you get the word out? And what did it look like in its infancy? Just a single message board?
I had the best marketing possible, the message board never changed links. It was the same address as what IlliniHOOPS had. And on illinihoops.com, Dave put a message redirecting people to IlliniBoard.com. So I didn't have to do marketing, and there was already a built in audience that Dave had created.
As for what it looked like initially, here is a screen shot from the Internet archive:
Ugly, and that logo is bad. But if you can see from the screenshot, the Illini Football team was in both Top 25 polls!
Initially, there were two message boards: Basketball and Football, and that was it. It was all people really wanted to talk about at the time.
I remember that look. That's around the time I found the site, so it must have been early. I started out posting as "StLouisIllini" but then quickly moved to "OrangeRoughy" (possibly when the first Scout move was made?). We'll get to that in a bit.
So you have a message board for football and a message board for basketball. As I recall, fairly early on, you were writing some columns (and maybe others were writing some articles?). What was that transition like (from user-led content to Brumby-written content). Maybe it wasn't as quick as I'm remembering. Maybe it didn't even happen until the Scout move?
Let's walk through that time period. From simple message board to "site with articles here and there plus two message boards" to joining with Scout.
Yeah, I used to write a bit early on. I don't remember how much, probably something after every game. It was all manual to do and write. There were some people that would write other stories, but nothing major on the site when it started in 2000. It was a one-man show even down to me waking up every morning and creating the Daily News page manually by clicking links and seeing stories. Nothing automated. To me the site was always two pieces, the message board and then the website. The message board was always 100% user generated. The web site was always me generated with the occasional helper, basically someone that wrote to me offering to write something. That was probably the same from 2000 - 2003, in what I would call the original version of IlliniBoard.
That original version was one of what I consider the OGs of college sports message boards with sites like Peegs.com, Duke Basketball Report, UNCBasketball.com, TigerBoard, Phog.net / RockChalk.com, Gator Country, and some freaking LSU site that kept sending Tiger Bait to me. I am sure there were more, but I don't remember them now. At the time, there was also Rivals.com. They went bankrupt (like everything Jim Heckman seemed to run), and out of them came the "new" Rivals.com and then Scout.com.
Starting probably in the Fall of 2001, Scout.com and Rivals.com consistently reached out to me to join their network and I always refused. I wanted to do it on my own, it was more fun for me. That all changed in the Fall / Winter of 2003, or the day that Shaun Livingston committed to Duke over Illinois. It was the first point that I really saw the vitriol that could be spewed at someone on the Internet, and I didn't like it. I shut the message board down for a few hours and it changed how I thought about things.
It was then that I made the decision that I wanted nothing to do with recruiting ever again and if IlliniBoard was going to grow, it needed to cover recruiting. Enter Scout.com. Now I had national people to do recruiting for me, and a co-runner of the site who would be following recruiting so I didn't have to. I thought it would work well for me...
I remember the Livingston fallout. I think all Illini fans around at the time remember that. In fact, that's around the time where I quit message boards for a year and a half. Same thing - the vitriol suddenly smacked you in the face and, at least for me, you had to have this "do I really want to participate in something like this?" moment. For maybe 18 months, I decided it just wasn't worth it for me.
That changed with the 2005 team. I started peeking in at the IB again and the vitriol seemed to be gone. That February I jumped back into the conversation. That also might have been when I dropped "Orange Roughy" and just started posting as "Roughy".
I remember those months as the best time to be an Illini fan on IlliniBoard. #1 basketball team, Jay Bilas giving you a shoutout during an ESPN broadcast ("Brumby diggin' it in Champaign"), you showing up on that "Top Ten Illini Personalities" list in the News-Gazette. The halcyon days, I believe they're called.
As I recall (and I'll probably get this wrong), you didn't like being with Scout anymore, so you went back independent. And then after a few years of that, when life began to get busy for you, you moved IlliniBoard over to the News Gazette site (when they started HQ in 2008, right?). Let's go through that time period next.
Obviously the 2004 - 2005 season was a lot of fun, but to me that was less about the message board and the site than what was going on, on the court. I actually think the 2003 - 2004 season was where IlliniBoard came into its own as a community. I don't even know all of the specifics because I was living in Kansas at the time, but I do remember someone, I think it was illinibrew, setting up buses to bring fans to road games during that season culminating in the game against Purdue that clinched the Big Ten title with Luther Head's shot (at least I think it did that was a long time ago). That to me showed me the other side of the Internet, the way it brings people together with a common purpose and can do so much good. It also showed me that IlliniBoard was no longer this small community of people, it was a representation of the Illini fan base.
The whole 2004 - 2005 season to me is an absolute blur. I don't remember much of it, just that it was fun as a fan. I can tell you where I was when they lost to Ohio State, but that is only because I was with my brother and sister in law after my nephew had a surgery. The loss didn't hurt at all as I held him in my hands in the hospital. I am so glad that happened because (1) my brother and his wife got to get out their for a few hours and (2) I didn't really care about the game. As for being called a Top 10 Illini Personality, I give all the credit to my friendship with Brett Dawson that still exists to this day. If it was any other writer, it wouldn't have happened. But I do remember talking to him before the season saying anything less than the Final Four and I would be disappointed.
To me the Jay Bilas thing was funny because it was another reminder at how big these Internet Message Boards were getting. I think Jay got some shit on IlliniBoard because he didn't have Deron in his top five point guards in the country. So he then saw what people were saying, reached out to me and posted a bit. He did an online chat with us one night. Looking back, there is no way ESPN would let anyone do that now not on a Disney platform. Then I was actually at the Missouri game that night. I didn't hear what Bilas said live, because I was digging it in St. Louis. But I had a phone full of texts at the break and was told what happened. Amazing still. I don't think my wife would believe I was spoken about on ESPN.
In 2006-2007 with IlliniBoard, it had become more than me and now there was money involved and it was about someone else, too. Kedric Prince was involved from the time I moved to Scout and more as the time went on. And it didn't feel right to everyone that I was not fully into driving as much revenue as I could. I didn't help one lick with recruiting which drove subscriptions, and it wasn't right. So when my contract expired, I just left the site and went and built a new version myself. That version was just me, having fun with a message board. It lasted a year and a half and it was getting to be too much work on top of my day job. That's when the News Gazette came in. I wouldn't have to do any writing, reporting, or anything there was a whole newspaper behind it. I would just have the message board and stuff I wanted to tinker with. Server costs would also go away (which at that time were much more expensive than they are now and I was paying out of pocket with no ad revenue or anything) and I could just mess around on the Internet again.
Long story short, it didn't work out for us, but mainly because at the last minute they decided not to use my message board structure and go with a different one. It was their choice at the end of the day based on our agreement, but I thought they made a mistake. But from there, the IlliniBoard sort of took a hiatus until that contract was up. It was probably a good time to take one though as I was super busy at my day job anyways for quite a while and I wasn't having fun with it any more for quite a few different reasons, but mostly the product on the basketball court.
I guess I can pick up the story from there. As IlliniBoard went on "hiatus" until that contract was up, I started my blog (alioneye.com). First post was November 2008 (which I later took down), then I officially launched on football Signing Day 2009. It was just a few posts at first, but once Camp Rantoul rolled around that summer, I started "covering" the team. In 2010 I worked up the nerve to ask for a press pass but it was denied (I get it - I was just some guy). So I covered the team "from the stands" in my horseshoe season tickets.
You and I had "known" each other online (as Brumby and OrangeRoughy) for maybe eight years at that point, and I think it was our mutual friend Keno who played the "you guys should merge your websites" game. As I recall, those discussions started during the 2012 football season and by the time the 2013 basketball season was finished we had a general plan.
This doesn't get discussed enough (but it should): I got my press pass because of your 10-year relationship with the DIA. You were a known entity, so I was no longer just some random guy writing words on the internet. The 2013 season, writing for IlliniBoard dot com, was my first in the pressbox.
I should also note that when we started this latest phase of IlliniBoard, we had never met in person. We'd talked on the phone, we had known each other on message boards for a decade, but we had never met (until NYC in 2016). Ah, the wonders of the internet.
So, anything I missed between 2009 and 2013?
Not really. That is the gist of it. Though I would say the first press pass that IlliniBoard ever had was yours. I never had a press pass in my time covering the team. I always would watch from the stands or on TV and wrote based on that. In a weird sense I never considered myself a member of the press but looking back that is what I was. It just wasn't my job.
I would say the only real thing you missed from 2009-2013 is I moved to New York City in that time. I think that move and not really knowing anyone here is what also helped bring me back to the IlliniBoard, a community of people that I could hang out with even if virtually. Especially when I was moving a place where I barely knew anyone besides a few coworkers.
So then we can fairly rapidly accelerate to today. 2013 I shut down alioneye.com and move to IlliniBoard, we change the format to fit the steady stream of articles, we add several more writers, and the IB is reborn.
I have to say - as someone who had been part of IlliniBoard from the beginning, it's a real thrill to see "Robert Rosenthal, IlliniBoard" when look on the chart to find my pressbox seat. I posted on every iteration of IlliniBoard in history - from the first message board in 2000 to the Scout days to the back-to-independent days - so I really am Robert FROM IlliniBoard. The thing that started me down the path of writing about sports is now the place where I will write about sports full time. You know, if this virus ever goes away.
I think we're all caught up. So I guess I'll ask you this: any goals for the future? You know, besides Illinois basketball returning to the Final Four and winning it all?
Holy crap that seven years of Robert from IlliniBoard has been longer than any iteration of IlliniBoard when you put it out on paper.
I mean for me there are no goals. IlliniBoard was never a goal driven thing, more of an "I want to try this" type thing. It definitely grew bigger than I ever anticipated and I definitely was never ready for it to grow like that when I was younger.
Now? I'm an old man in his forties with two kids. I just want something that's fun and can remain fun. Hopefully in a few years I can start watching Illini sports through the eyes of my kids and see that passion again. But knowing my luck they'll end up being Gopher fans because we live here and all their friends are. I'll have to work on that. So that's my goal, make sure they don't grow up to be Gopher fans.
Hey man, I survived three boys growing up in Missouri while Miznoz was top-10 for a few years in football and the Illini were.. the Illini. I even survived a son whose girlfriend went to Mizzou - kid would wear orange and blue to the tailgates (poor kid). So you can do it if you have to attend a Minnesota tailgate. Just 20 more years and Illini football should be back on top.
Also, now that you're in Minnesota, I'm applying for a press pass for you to go to the Minnesota basketball game. If for no other reason than my inevitable "Brumby, diggin' it in Minneapolis!" tweet.