Heat Checks and Hail Marys - What I've Learned in Year 1 of the IlliniGuys

Mike Cagley, IlliniGuy

January 3, 2022

It's been a fantastic first year for the IlliniGuys. After launching last year on January 12, 2021, it's been an amazing ride.

The first few months were fun yet crazy balancing act as Brad worked for both IllinGuys and Rivals until the end of the basketball season. It certainly would've been easier for him to immediately come over to the business he helped start, but keeping his word was important to Brad and to all of the rest of the IlliniGuys. At the same time, we could watch the subscriber count balloon past our business plan's annual objective and marvel at the passion of Illini fans and their belief that Brad was the ultimate uber-Illini insider.

The year has been like watching an endless freight train go past you while you wait at the crossing for the locomotive to finish its journey and allow you to continue your drive. For me, each boxcar is a new learning experience and the number of total lessons learned allows a person to really understand what Coach Bielema and Underwood mean by the "stacking days" term. Each day exposes us to so many new things that at the end of a week, we have learned so much more than any of us thought we could learn - and surely more than we thought we wanted to learn.

I've decided to list just a few of the things that I've learned this year as an IlliniGuy:

Heat Check Learning #1 - Never Think a Team has "Enough" Depth

The Illini basketball team looked to be one of the deepest Illini teams of all time. It was easy to see that Coach Underwood would be able to play 9 guys or maybe 10 in his rotation. In fact, some were even worried that the team wouldn't have enough minutes to keep players happy (okay, that's always a concern). With three super seniors leading the team - Frazier, Williams and Plummer - many fans thought the Illini would be fine and would be able to weather any storm in terms of injuries or missed games.

Brad Underwood courtesy of the Daily Illini

Well, it has stormed, and it stormed a lot.

Trent Frazier injured his shoulder for a few games, Kofi Cockburn received a 3 game NCAA suspension, Andre Curbelo suffered a concussion that has kept him on the shelf for over a month, Austin Hutcherson has been forced to have season ending surgery, and the flu bug has already hit the team hard (and even the coaching staff). I didn't even get to listing Covid causing one game to be canceled and delaying the game against Minnesota for two days (as of this writing).

This team has already been through more adversity than many Illini teams have had to face in a full season - and they've not played one game in January.

Saying a team has enough depth is like saying the most dreaded phrase, "it can't get any worse." Illini fans should know to never assume that things can't get worse - we've seen before that they can. And no Illini fan should ever think an Illinois team has enough depth - because they might need even more than we would expect them to require.

Going 9-3 so far may have disappointed fans and the national media, but from my vantage point, it looks like a heck of an effort. And if you ever wanted to know why the staff is always recruiting, we've seen that no amount of roster depth is often not enough depth.

Heat Check Learning #2 - Hiring a Staff Really Matters (x2)

The IlliniGuys got a front row seat a rare chain of events that featured both the head football coach and the head basketball coach hiring completely new staffs.

Bret Bielema courtesy Illinois Athletics

We had nothing but respect for Josh Whitman deciding to end the tenure of the Lovie-to-the-B1G experiment one year earlier than most "experts" anticipated. The time had come to look for a new solution to the puzzle that is the head football coach for the Fighting Illini. After Coach Bret Bielema was hired, we knew he'd have to hire a staff. We didn't anticipate that Coach Underwood would have to do the same thing for his basketball staff.

Coach Bielema had been lauded for hiring what many have said is the best coaching staff the football program has had since the Mike White or John Mackovic era. There are only two ways that happens. Coach Bielema has the ability to attract talented coaches and Athletic Director Josh Whitman has found a way to pay what the market requires for talented coaches to move to Champaign-Urbana.

Illini Athletic Director Josh Whitman

When it came to the basketball program, Josh Whitman did his best to support Coach Underwood's efforts to keep assistant coach Orlando Antigua to stay in Illinois. Antigua turned down the opportunity to be the highest paid assistant coach in college basketball to return to Kentucky. The Illini may have lost Antigua, but the message sent across the country was clear, the Fighting Illini are back in the game and they're in it to win.

With Coach Gentry and Coach Coleman also leaving to coach at Gonzaga and Kentucky, respectively, Coach Underwood had to put together his own new staff. The Illini basketball program was able to hire extremely well as Coach Underwood strategically took his time and assembled a strong coaching staff to support his efforts. To support the evidence of a successful hiring process, the Illini staff continued the strong recruiting with an excellent 2022 class to keep the player talent pool as deep as possible.

Teams don't compete without excellent assistant coaches. To assemble a strong staff, a school needs head coaches that can attract talented assistants and identify which of these assistants will be a great fit for the program. The Illini have those head coaches. They also have an Athletic Director that will do his level best to attract and retain the best coaches. Witness his offer to Orlando Antigua and his successful contract extension of Illini Defensive Coordinator Ryan Walters making him one of the highest compensated coordinators in the country.

Heat Check Learning #3 - Getting to Pick Who You Work With is Great

Having spent my entire career in big corporations, it has been a real treat to spend my "free" time working with high performing people. It is important to note that each IlliniGuy made the choice to work together as a team. This is in total contrast to taking over sales teams that were struggling and needing to turn them around or getting a job in a new department of a company and hoping that you like your co-workers.

With the public facing IlliniGuys, Brad was the only person who could qualify as the ultimate uber-Illini Insider. If he had said "no" the whole venture would've died a natural death, and no one would've known that the IlliniGuys had ever been a thought that almost became a reality. Thankfully, he said "yes", and the future was more exciting than any other time of my life.

The other public face of the IlliniGuys was truly a public face. Larry has more experience at the national/global network level than just about anyone and he understands the nuances of covering the news from a local standpoint because of long experience as a local nighttime news anchor. His knowledge of the media and how to report on news the "right way" has been invaluable. I've never had the opportunity to work with talented individuals like Brad and Larry from day one at any company.

When approaching the IlliniGuys from a silent partner standpoint, having a lawyer who is the founder of a prestigious law firm along with a pediatric heart surgeon means the IlliniGuys presents the rare opportunity to work with two more individuals who are at the top of their profession. That's a pretty incredible experience to participate in. Trust me, opportunities in life as good as this don't present themselves very often and it's pretty cool (for lack of more flowery terms) to be a part of a greater whole.

The real key (on top of what I noted above) is that each individual involved in IlliniGuys is a trusted friend. Each individual involved in IlliniGuys is very competent in their skills. Each individual involved in IlliniGuys is fun to hang out with on a personal level. It's not lip service if it's true.

If IlliniGuys seems like a team effort and the team truly gets along, that's only because it happens to be reality.

Heat Check #4 - Making Tomorrow is Better than Today

Larry Smith, David Williams, and Mike Cagley courtesy Shannon Denny, IlliniGuys

As we enter into year two, we've had great moments like meeting All American Wide Receiver David Williams. If we can, we want to find a way to top that event! Don't worry, the IlliniGuys have big plans!

We want to make the website better than it was in year one. We want to improve on the IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular and make those shows an effort of continuous improvement. We will give those our best efforts.

We want to build strong relationships in the Illini community. This is important. We want to work to build our connections with the coaching staffs and players involved in Illini athletics. We want to work to cover the Illini to provide our subscribers the best information in the marketplace. We want to be involved in the Illini fan community, whether that's in Champaign or Chicago. Whether that's halfway across the country or halfway across the planet.

We want the fandom for Illini sports to be a bridge that creates and elevates relationships between Illini fans and allows people to feel part of a community in a time that sources of community are scarce. We will strive to keep that positive attitude and environment a part of IlliniGuys. We're all rooting for the same team. We can differ in our opinions, but our goals are the same. We want the best for the Illini - and each other.

Let's make the next year of the IlliniGuys journey even more enjoyable than the first.









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