Secret Mailbag I

Jan 22, 2021

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Have a friend who has some friends who had some questions for me. I told him I'd just answer them all in a mailbag. So here are the questions that were emailed to me. And then my answers. Because it's a mailbag. And that's how mailbag posts go.

First question:

Best hire on the staff? ~Kyle

For me it's Bart Miller. From everything that has happened in the first month, I still feel like the identity of this team is going to be the offensive line (as I said in that Area Of Concentration post). This might take a bit to explain.

I've referenced that 2012 story (where Bielema fired his OL coach Mark Markuson two games into the season) so many times over the last eight years. Mostly because I've come full circle with it. At the time, I thought it to be arrogance. And a sign of Wisconsin's impending downfall. "Fire the OL coach that you just hired six month ago? That's a desperation move right there."

Over the years, I started to see it as leadership. I just tried to find the post where I referenced it in 2015 or so and I can't find it. But I remember writing about it, how something that needed to be done eventually must be done immediately (or however that phrase goes). I believe in long-term plans for head coaches and I believe in installing systems and doing the same thing for a decade, but I pivoted to add "if you know it's wrong from the outset, make the change immediately". Wisconsin had this certain way of training their offensive line, and the new guy tried to change it, so Bielema fired him after only two games and gave the job to his GA (Bart Miller) who knew how to continue the legacy of what had been installed over the previous decade. It was a move to get back to "do one thing and keep doing it over and over".

Bart Miller probably wasn't "ready" at that time (he was a 27 year-old GA). It was a patch for that season, but it worked. Wisconsin went 7-5 that year (they lost four games by a field goal, the fifth game by 7, and the last three losses were all in overtime), but because both Penn State and Ohio State were on probation, Wisconsin won the "Leaders" division and went to the Big Ten Championship Game where they beat Nebraska 70-31 and went on to the Rose Bowl.

Bielema took the Arkansas job in the offseason, he hired Sam Pittman as his OL coach (Pittman is currently the Arkansas head coach), and Miller had to go pay his dues. He hopped around from New Mexico State, Florida Atlantic, Minnesota (for one year until Tracy Claeys was fired), Air Force, Ohio, and Wyoming. And now, with his dues paid, he rejoins Bielema in Champaign, taking over an offensive line with NINETEEN scholarship linemen fighting for five spots. Four seniors return for one more year, four freshmen arrive - I'm not sure he'll even have enough seats in the OL room for everyone if the walkons join.

So let's assemble all of that. The one thing that the state of Illinois has produced over the years is offensive linemen. We've watched many of them go north to Wisconsin. We hired the old Wisconsin coach and his OL protege. Last season was a massive disappointment for the offensive line. I hold the personal opinion that Bob McClain was the worst assistant coach on the coaching roster (and I've said that for two years). The pieces were there, but he couldn't assemble anything.

That's why I have Bart Miller as the best hire. Energetic, makes-you-want-to-run-through-walls guy. Has paid his dues. Has a chance to put an immediate stamp on the program with a great 2021 offensive line. If we want to sell this as "players from Illinois can come here and be great offensive linemen" like it used to be with Marques Sullivan, David Diehl, et al, Miller seems like the guy who can do it, both from the recruiting side and the coach-em-up side.

What is your early prediction for football next season? ~Mason

Well, if you know me you know I'm not going to do an actual prediction. That comes the night before the season. We have so very much to learn over the next eight months. (And it really is eight months - the Nebraska game is 8 months and 6 days from today.)

But, as I mentioned on the podcast with Martin O'Donnell today, I can already tell that my "don't fall for it again" resolve will be tested.

In 2012 we had one more year with a bunch of seniors. They were coming off two seasons of 7-6 and 7-6. We knew that the rebuild was imminent, but maybe there was one more year of .500 football in some of the seniors? Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence, and Glenn Foster on the defensive line. Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green in the back-seven Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic on the OL. I do think 6-6 is possible.


In 2016 we had one more year with a bunch of seniors. They were coming off two seasons of 6-7 and 5-7. We knew that the rebuild was imminent, but maybe there was one more year of .500 football in some of the seniors? Duwuane Smoot, Gimel President, and Chunky Clements on the defensive line. Hardy Nickerson Jr. and Darius Mosely in the back-seven. Austin Schmidt and Joe Spencer on the OL. I do think 6-6 is possible.


Granted, there were reasons for all of this. The first thought that comes to mind is the offensive coordinators both seasons. Garrick McGee only lasted two years. Chris Beatty/Billy Gonzales didn't even get a second season. And there were other issues, of course. 2016 started with nine seniors in the starting 11 on defense for the first game and had three seniors in the starting 11 on defense for the last game.

But because of that, I have this sticky note over the "I think we can go to a bowl this first season" button. And I'm so glad I put it there, because with the Covid rule allowing these seniors to return (12 are returning, including nine starters), this just feels like a second opportunity at the 2020 season.

I do need to remember those seasons, though. We thought both the Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales hires were incredible (and they both left here and went on to continue their excellent recruiting ways) but it's a lot harder to recruit at Illinois. Garrick McGee turned down the Oklahoma OC job in 2015 (they hired some guy named Lincoln Riley instead) and then he flopped at Illinois. There's nothing that says in two years we don't feel about Tony Petersen the way we feel about Garrick McGee. So many unknowns.

Which means that, for now, I'm keeping my expectations fairly low. I do think this is an excellent staff full of college experience. When compared to Lovie's staff, that certainly sticks out. But Tim Beckman's defensive staff was filled with former defensive coordinators (like Greg Colby and Mike Ward) who took a position coach spot here, so I'm trying to stay tempered with all of the "look at how much experience!" stuff. I have all these sticky notes basically forcing me to.

Sorry that's not the answer you were expecting. Maybe by August I'll be all "I've looked under every rock and I still feel like we can surprise some people and get to a bowl". For now, though, I have to read these tattoos on my body and remind myself to not do it again.

What is the most meaningful moment since you went full time that makes the years worth of hard work worth it? What's one of the most surprising things you've found now that you've gone full time? ~Nick

Most meaningful moment is easy. It was how I was feeling when I tweeted this:

There was just something about walking to my car that night, 800 miles from home, where I realized that this was my job. We had reached enough subscribers in the first two months where we (IlliniBoard LLC) could afford all of the road trips I wanted to take. We weren't (and still aren't) at our ultimate goal, but it was enough to project forward to say "we can afford to do this now". And something about that moment simply hit me - I have a new career. Very meaningful moment.

Which leads me to my most surprising thing. We can't make our paywall completely impenetrable without accidentally keeping paying subscribers out, and I guess I'm surprised at the number of people who seem to be still finding their way over and around. That's a tough one for me because I have this "I've told you that this is my job now and you're... trying to find ways to get me to write for you for free?" reaction (I'm probably going to regret typing that later). So I wish that people, when they reach the paywall and have a "this is not worth $30 to me" moment (which is fine), would simply stop coming to the site.

Wow. Bitter, party of one. I didn't picture that paragraph coming out like that. But since I've started down this road (in my brain I'm getting past it with "well, you asked" even though you didn't), I'll keep going. Picture yourself in my shoes when people take "365 days of Illini content for $30" and say "you know, maybe there's some back door where I can get it all for free?". Why isn't it a simple "not worth it, not gonna go to his site." Someone someday will have to help me understand "$30 a year is too much, but I still want the content". Like, if I sold unlimited cheeseburgers for $30 a year, and someone came and didn't like the burger (or didn't think it was worth $30 per year), they'd just not come back, right? I don't understand why people still come daily, wait until no one is looking, and grab a burger.

When we had a really leaky paywall before, I actually had a guy email me and ask me to make it harder to get around the paywall so he'd feel like paying. It was more or less "I know your store closes at 9:00, but your employees keep leaving the back door unlocked so I can't not walk in and take stuff. Please start locking the back door so I'll stop doing that". I don't know what to say in that situation. Other than to just repeat our structure. You get two posts a month for free. If you split that across 3-4 devices, you get 6-8 articles per month for free. If you find that six or eight is about the max of what you want to read, keep on keepin' on. If you want to read daily, please subscribe. The lowest level is only $2.50 per month.

And it wasn't just that guy. I'm not kidding about this - since we started doing the $12-per-year subscriptions in 2013, I've had at least 15 people come up to me to personally apologize for using ways to get around the paywall. Like, they were carrying all this guilt (but not enough guilt to pay $12 or $24 for a year) so they felt like telling me in person was the best way to feel better about it. Back then I'd give them a "don't worry about it - just try to subscribe at some point when money isn't as tight". Now that I've made the switch and this is my income, my feelings towards those statements have changed a lot. It's no longer "no big deal" (because I got my income from elsewhere and was just trying to cover expenses with those subscriptions). Now it's "well it is my job...".

So maybe my answer should be this. "What's one of the most surprising things you've found now that you've gone full time?". The bitterness that comes out when writing about people searching for unlocked doors to read my stuff for free. It's a compliment ("hey man, I check your site daily for new stuff" and an insult "hey man, I think I found a way to read your stuff for free so I'm not gonna pay you".

I don't know why I'm telling you people this. I'm guessing only a few people would use a free click on "Secret Mailbag", so I'm mostly telling this to people who have subscribed. But as I've always said, sometimes I just have to get the words out because they're blocking other words. These words were blocking the drain, but now that I've poured Draino on them and the clog is out, many more words will flow.

They'll just have to come in a second Secret Mailbag post since I'm 2,000 words deep now and have only gotten to three questions. Let's publish this one now and then I'll start writing "Secret Mailbag II". Hopefully 94% less bitter.

Comments on January 22, 2021 @ 03:21 PM

As one of the question writers, I'm honored by knowing a friend of your's ;). More seriously though, the answer for the hard work question is so relatable and makes me (and all of us) proud to support you. It is hard for anyone to find something they're passionate about in life. You taking that passion, paying your dues over the years, and having that ultimate payoff is a road less traveled and we all appreciate that you took us along for the ride.

uilaw71 on January 22, 2021 @ 04:22 PM

Some of us, myself included, believe you aren’t charging enough. The News Gazette is 10 bucks a month, and other than Asmussen and obits it’s barely worth that. I’d bet my beach house that the majority of your readers go to you first, before whatever daily paper they take.

NC_OrangeKrush on January 22, 2021 @ 05:34 PM

Agreed 100%

$30? $2.50/no.? Compared to any other Illini Sports news and ANY anywhere near the quality of your insight? Way more....

So be angry about protecting your work.. Keep working the leaks... Thanks for all you do!

22 on January 22, 2021 @ 09:08 PM

could not agree more. Man, people suck.

IBFan on January 22, 2021 @ 05:16 PM

As Kyle said I believe many on here are proud to see you succeed. You let us in your demented world and make us a small part of it.
And agree with uilaw71, you are a steal. Get that tip jar up so when we feel like it or can throughout the year show a little more support. Finally, you aholes out there that probably went to Iowa stop robbing Rob. All the Illini content that’s out there for free and pull this? You know HIS writings and thoughts (even though occasionally misguided- see “Luck”) are worth it so just pay.

Goorblue on January 22, 2021 @ 07:09 PM

Robert, I never post. I love what you do. Given the spirit of the age you are an oasis for me. It's a bargain to receive all of your content. Well done. Keep up the good work.

Efremwinters84 on January 22, 2021 @ 07:23 PM

Robert, I have to admit --- I don't like you playing the role of pessimist/realist. For a guy who could get excited about the (lowly) Lovie Smith regime and the anticipation of the 2019 Michigan game, you've made a 180 degree turn. It's so obvious you're holding back despite all the positive vibes going on out there.

Just let me inform you that Bret Bielema is the real deal. Feel free to let yourself feel good!

SactownIllini on January 23, 2021 @ 02:08 AM

I think he can feel great and still be pessimistic. New staff often brings good vibes as Robert mentioned. You can spin new coaches any way you want.

I remember being so jacked about Lovie and Hardy and what seemed like a promising staff. I just thought how could a young kid not want to play for these coaches with NFL pedigree and some college success? But we are Illinois football after all and we can't be trusted. Those young kids are far removed from the glory days of Lovie and Hardy.

I have to say, I was ho hum on the Bielema hire at first but now I can't help but be jacked again. Probably because I grew up near Prophetstown and he seems really genuine I'm too biased.

illinivek23 on January 24, 2021 @ 11:26 AM

I personally like optimistic Robert. It's what we fans do. Watch team and individual development and see how it becomes effective, entertaining and winning. I say that as a life-long Cub fan who was always looking to the minors for the next talent on the come during the lean years. This is our respite from the day-to-day, so not be upbeat. If you get fooled and disappointed (again), most of us will be right there with you.

But I don't think so this time. Feels very different.

Shemp89 on January 24, 2021 @ 11:51 AM

Shemp89 on January 24, 2021 @ 11:53 AM

Not a believer in karma at all...but opened the site today and finally decided it was time to stop freeloading. Registered, subscribed, and THEN saw this article. Wow. on January 25, 2021 @ 04:17 PM

Dear Robert: CHARGE more for your content---your writing is truly undervalued by "the owner" of this site :)

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