IlliniGuys Celebrate 3rd Anniversary

By Larry Smith - IlliniGuys Co-Founder & Host/Executive Producer, IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

January 12, 2024

(Photo courtesy Mark Jones)

Three years in, it still seems like a dream.

IlliniGuys co-founders Larry Smith, Mike Cagley, and Brad Sturdy (photo courtesy Mark Jones)

It was the first week of September, 2020.  COVID had kept us isolated for about six months and I was bored.  Like so many others, I was spending way too much time on the internet.

But on this day, I'd had enough.  I had been a member of a website covering Illini sports for most of the past 15 years.  I didn't post very much, but enough that the regulars had figured out that I was that (now) former CNN Sports guy who had been born and raised just down the road from the U of I campus in Mattoon.  I had come to appreciate the board's members as being pretty savvy and had used them as a sounding board from time to time for different stories or topics I had planned to talk about on my shows on CNN and on the various Turner Sports programs.  But with sports on hold due to the pandemic, the board was overrun with political talk and COVID arguments.

I decided that I couldn't do it anymore.  I called the toll-free number and cancelled, rejecting the operator's offer of several free months if I stayed.  About two hours later, I received a Facebook PM from one of the few on the board I had actually met asking 'have you ever considered being a publisher of an Illini site?'

Mike Cagley and I shared two things: a love for the Illini and a love for pizza and that combination had driven us to meet a couple of times in central Illinois to enjoy both.  We jumped on a call and I discovered that he too had tired of the arguing and bickering and name-calling and the talk of everything BUT Illinois sports.

At the same time, a poster named "CubsInOctober" sent me a PM on the website (I still had a few paid days left on my membership) saying he was willing to jump in as an investor if I chose to strike out on my own.  Huh?  Were these two working in concert?  24 hours earlier, I had never thought about anything like that, other than how I would have handled certain situations differently.  And now, Mike and this guy named Chris were echoing what I was hearing from these faceless Illini fans in private messages; 'hey, we're really going to miss you on here!  If you strike out and do something on your own, count me in.'

And that's how it began.  A whirlwind conversation and finding a web developer in Neon Rain that shared our passion, a question quickly became a quest and within weeks we had a plan in place.  But one thing was missing:  Brad Sturdy.

I had befriended Brad years earlier through our love for golf and had flown up from Atlanta during my CNN days to play a round or two from time to time.  I thought it was pretty cool to talk to the guy I considered the pre-eminent Illinois insider and I guess that he thought it was pretty cool to play golf with the CNN Sports dude.  We'd exchange Christmas cards and family pictures and he was nice enough to arrange to get me a ticket to a few Illini games when my schedule permitted.  It turned out, the other two guys knew him well too.  A few phone calls to describe the vision and promise to help share all the writing and he was intrigued.

A short four months and hundreds of hours of talking and planning later, we lit the candle on IlliniGuys.com.  The name was Mike's idea; my suggestion was IlliniJuice.com.  We were nervous.  We built it...now will they come?

Well, come they did!  We hoped to get 25 signups in the first month; we got 25 in the first day.  We broke the site on our second day.  We called the developer that night to complain that we couldn't access the site and he called back to say we'd overloaded the system.  'Who are you guys?!', he asked.  'Startup websites have like three visitors and they're all moms and grandmas.  You have people all over the place reading stories and talking on the forums.  I've never seen this before!'

Those initial members believed in us so much that they became a willing test group.  The message board setup was bad; there's no other way to put it.  We immediately invested in an upgrade.  We set out to be a politics-free site void of the silly juvenile drama that had forced us from our former internet home and these people agreed!  They self-policed the site and either chastised those who broke the rules or reported the instigators in rapid time.

Our goal was 300 in the first year; we hit that number on day 81.  And we quickly discovered that drama sells.  The Illini had been upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but membership soared in the weeks to come as die-hard fans looked for more information on recruiting and especially off-season roster movement.

We looked to those things on our five-year plan that we could implement next and that's where the IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular was born.  As a youngster growing up in Mahomet, Mike used to dream about putting together a statewide Illini radio network and there were many days as a teenager that my buddies and I would record mock radio shows about a fictional university's athletic teams.  That August, just seven months after the website's launch, we debuted on what is now 30 radio signals reaching six states around the Midwest and our overall radio initiative has developed into seven weekly shows with nine hours of programming.

We thank everyone who has taken this journey with us.  There is an urban legend that IlliniGuys boasts 44,000 members.  Our growth hasn't been that good, but as of this morning we can report a record number of subscribers and the recent Terrence Shannon Jr. saga pushed our message forum numbers to all-time highs as well.

I just celebrated 36 years in broadcast media last week and I have as much fun with IlliniGuys as with almost anything else I've done.  To work with our team and formulate content is the best hobby ever.  Today could be a monumental moment in the Illinois' DIA's history as Shannon learns his immediate future with a program that has proven it's an elite team even without him, but a legitimate Final Four and national title contender with him.  I'm thrilled that will get to help tell that story.

So to all of our team - Mike, Brad, Chris, Karl, Kedric, Matt, Steve, Patrick, Joshua, Nate, Connor, Elijah, Jonah, Jaylen, BreAnnene, Zain, and Mason, a hearty 'thank you' for your talent and dedication.  And we continue to appreciate the contributions of our members.  We have always said it is you who will determine the path of IlliniGuys.com and that continues with changes implemented as recently as last month.

Here's to 2024 and year four!  I-L-L!!!

 

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