Happy Second Birthday, Hokie Central!
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 3/12/98

Yep, it has been two years of HokieCentral.  Hard to believe, isn't it?  HokieCentral was born on March 12, 1996 as "Will's Hokie Sports Home Page."  I was a software engineer with a love for Tech sports and a desire to learn web publishing, and I had read that if you were going to create a web page, you should pick a subject that you cared about.  Then, once you posted the web page, you should update it regularly, because there's nothing more annoying than a dead web page.   Even back in early 1996, everybody hated dead web pages.

I poked around on the web a little bit, and although I discovered a few decent web sites, including a pretty good Miami Hurricane's site at www.grassy.com, there didn't appear to be a single Virginia Tech sports web page in existence.  Not one that I could find, anyway.

Having lived in Charlottesville for most of my life, and having depended upon the Richmond Times-Dispatch for my Hokie coverage (and unlike most people, I think they do a pretty good job), I knew more than anyone that the Hokie public was starving for good sources of Virginia Tech sports information.

I thought to myself, "Hey, here I am in the New River Valley, with access to the local TV stations and The Roanoke Times and World News.  I'm close to Blacksburg, and I go to all the games, anyway.  I should share all this great information and experiences with Hokie fans through the web."

And away I went.  I grabbed a text-based HTML editor, read up on HTML, came up with a few cheesy graphics, stole some Tech graphics off the Virginia Tech web site, and went to work.

The pairings for the 1996 NCAA men's basketball tournament had just been announced, and Tech had gotten royally shafted by being seeded 9th, so I picked that subject and went off.  Also, I had seen an article in the New River Current section of The Roanoke Times that talked about the revenue generated by Tech's licensing efforts, so I passed that on to readers of the web page.

And now, two years later, as a special treat, click here to see my first HokieCentral posting.  The archived page looks nothing like it did back when I first posted it (the trademarked Virginia Tech logos have been stripped out), but the words are the very same words that I posted that day.

Now, It's Two Years Later

It's not hard for me to believe that it has been two years since I started this, but it is very hard for me to believe that the last year has only been one year.  Sure, the first year of HokieCentral was pretty busy, but the second year was one of phenomenal growth that saw me dedicate more and more time to the site.

At the end of the first year, on March 12, 1997, the hit counter on the main page read just over 57,000 hits.  Today, as I write this on the night of Wednesday, March 11th, 1998, the hit count is just a shade under 400,000, and it doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

A year ago, the site was located on my Internet Service Provider's (ISP's) web server as part of my "1 free megabyte" of storage space.  There wasn't much to it - I was updating the News and Notes section almost daily, I wrote game reports whenever the football or men's basketball teams played, and I had an archives section that contained the first year's worth of work.  About once every two weeks or so, I would pick a topic and write a Special Feature, which was called "My Opinion" back then.

The message board was in its infancy, but on that particular day (March 12, 1997), I believe I had shut it down temporarily.  The board was added in February of that year, but it wasn't password-protected, and when some ingrate started posting links to pornographic pictures, I shut it down and asked Grassy to code one for me that was password-protected.

And that's all there was to it on March 12, 1997.  It was a fun little web page, and a good source of information, and it was getting good word of mouth advertising and was starting to consistently get about 3000 hits a week.

But it was no big deal - except for one thing.  It was starting to eat up a lot of my spare time.  It was time for me to make a decision.  I either had to take it to the next level, or start scaling it back.  It was a big ego boost to have people tell me how much they liked it, but it was starting to be a time drain.

I wanted to start somehow generating revenue with the site, but I wasn't sure how.   I wasn't arrogant enough to think that I could turn it into a subscription site - it had always been free, and I didn't want to anger the friends I was starting to make on-line.  On the other hand, I didn't feel comfortable just asking people to "donate."

In a fit of inspiration, I had one of the few original thoughts I have ever had in my entire life:  HokieCentral membership.  In exchange for a donation, I could provide "members" with some web-site related merchandise.  The site itself would remain free, but for those who were enthusiastic enough about it, they could pitch in something extra and get some goodies.  It was a pretty interesting idea, one that bridged the gap perfectly between a pay site and a donation site.

Right around this time, Hokie Matt and I got in touch with each other about this subject, even though we had never known each other before, and he resides far away from me, in North Carolina.  Matt rightfully convinced me that if I was going to go the merchandise route, I needed a readily identifiable visual image, one that was different from trademarked Virginia Tech logos.  He convinced me, and using a computer and his computer graphics skills, he came up with the original concepts that would later become the HokieCentral logos that adorn my merchandise and web page.

I incorporated Matt's logos into some merchandise:  T-shirts, mouse pads, bumper stickers, and drink "huggies," and I came up with the membership ideas - Platinum, Gold, Silver, etc.  Depending upon how much you donated, I would send you a package of merchandise.

A few days before launching this idea on the web site, I showed the concept to my dad, who looked it over and said, "It looks pretty good.  But don't be surprised if nobody signs up for it."

I nodded and said, "Yeah, but I figure it's worth a shot."  So, on March 12, 1997, I finished an exhausting week of preparation and posted the new membership concept, on HokieCentral's first birthday.

Money, Money, Money!  Uh, Sort Of.  Well, Not Really.

The response was surprising.  My new P.O. box didn't exactly bust at the seams, but I did get a steady stream of memberships, enough to convince me that people really liked the site and wanted me to keep it going - and it was also enough income that I could pour money back into the site and get serious about it.

Since then, I have used the income to turn HokieCentral into a big-time web site, because I knew that was what you wanted.  When I started the membership concept, I said that I would pour your money back into computer equipment, software, and supplies to improve the site - I did just that, and the site has benefited from it.

The first thing I did was pay to have the "hokiecentral.com" domain name created, and then I transferred the site from my ISP's server over to a web-hosting service, one that didn't restrict my content or bandwidth (I chose BizNet in Blacksburg, because I had heard good things about them, and I can report that I haven't been disappointed.)

I paid to upgrade from a sluggish text-based editor over to the Microsoft FrontPage web publishing software, and I bought a scanner, a video capture card, and countless other pieces of software and equipment, including a new P-166 computer to replace the aging 486 that I had been using (boy, you should have seen that old dinosaur grind to a halt when I installed FrontPage on it!).  I even purchased a brick outside of Cassell Coliseum that says, "HOKIE CENTRAL MEMBERS 1997" on it.

A year later, as a business, HokieCentral has been little more than a break-even proposition, and it remains more a labor of love than anything else.  But by introducing the membership concept, I got what I needed: the will and the funds to continue working on the site, and, through your donations and enthusiasm, a clear-cut indication that you wanted me to go on.

During the HokieCentral tailgate last September, a HokieCentral member (I believe it was message board poster "Technically") taped an interview with me.  I don't remember most of what he asked me, but I do remember one question.  He said, "Is there anything you want to tell HokieCentral readers?"

That's an open-ended question, and I usually have trouble answering questions like that.  This time, though, I didn't.  I looked into the camera, and without hesitating, I said, "Yes.  I'd like to tell everybody that I'm not going anywhere.  Unofficial web sites spring up and die all the time, but HokieCentral is here to stay.  I'm here for the long haul.  Keep supporting me, either by becoming a member or by just saying 'thank you,' and I'll keep doing it."

Or something like that.  I don't remember, exactly.  I'm sure Technically could tell you just what I said.

It's Been an Incredible Year

In retrospect, it's very funny that I wasn't sure if anyone would sign up to be a HokieCentral member.  The membership total for 1997 reached 260, and in just 2-1/2 months of offering 1998 memberships, over 150 people have stepped up to the plate.  Some of those are renewals, but a surprising number of them are brand-new members.

HokieCentral's second year saw the web site grow from a small cult following to a, uh, large cult following.  I discovered something funny along the way - HokieCentral membership isn't about donating money to get the merchandise or to support the site.  It's about belonging. Sure, the goodies are neat, and many of you donate because you recognize a good value and want to keep the site going.  But the real excitement comes during things like tailgates, when message board posters who have been talking on-line for months finally get to meet face to face.  It's fun to watch.

There's something neat about a phenomenon that brings together total strangers into a common bond, and HokieCentral does that.  Of course, I personally have almost nothing to do with that.  That bond is generated by the interaction on the message board and at various functions like tailgates, games, and happy hours (speaking of which, when I hear that HokieCentral people are getting together at happy hours, and it's all because they were strangers who met through a forum that I created ... well, that's a strange feeling.  Gratifying, I guess would be the best way to express it).

For me personally, having spent most of my life in Hokie Hell (also known as Charlottesville), it has been like a dream come true to be tied in this closely to the Tech community.  I've met a lot of influential Tech people through my efforts on the web site, people that I ordinarily wouldn't have a snowball's chance of getting to know.   For instance, if you had told me five years ago that Bill Roth would one day recognize me on sight and say, "Hi, Will," I would have laughed at you.  I never even called into the Hokie Hotline radio show back then!

It has also required some adjustments on my part.  It took a while to get used to having total strangers suddenly stop me in the stands of a game, and say, "Hey, are you Will?"  Most of them just want to say hello and thanks.  Actually, all of them just want to say hello and thanks - it's not like anybody's asking for my autograph.  Sometimes people that I've just met will give me an impromptu membership donation, but usually only if they've been drinking (I carry a flask for just such occasions).

Thanks to HokieCentral, I've been on the radio (Sportstalk With John Hale), TV (Channel 10 ran a story on the Gator Bowl ticket donation), and in the newspaper (The Roanoke Times also did a story on the ticket drive).  I got to meet and interview Bill Roth, and I've chatted with Greg Roberts of Channel 10 and several Hokie athletes.  And then there's the hundreds of HokieCentral readers, members, and fans that I've met along the way.

And people ask me why I do this.  Because it's fun!  Time-consuming and exhausting sometimes, but always fun.  I feel truly blessed, and once again, I wanted to thank everybody for supporting me and helping out.

So Now What?

Onward and upward, I guess.  I'll keep plugging along, trying to inform and entertain you, although the message board posters are better at both of those tasks than I am.

Although HC has undergone dramatic changes in the last year, I don't think you'll see many changes in the next year.  I think we've got it down to a science, and I have used your membership donations to expand the site to include everything I wanted to put in it.  As always, your suggestions are appreciated, and if they fit well, content and time-wise, I'll incorporate them.

I'm sure that my life will change, and the time and resources that I'm able to dedicate to the site will change, but I'll try to keep the promise that I made to Technically (or rather, to his video camera).  But I'm not worried about where the site is going.   I'm too busy having fun along the way, regardless of what the ultimate destination is.

You old-time HokieCentral readers know what I'm talking about.  It's HokieCentral's unofficial slogan:  It's the Journey, Not the Destination.

Once again, folks, thanks for listening to my babbling.


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