Some History and a Promise
By Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com, 3/13/00

HokieCentral.com turned four years old yesterday, so for once, I wanted to spend a day talking not about Virginia Tech athletics, but about HokieCentral itself.

Sometimes, four years can seem like a long time. Sometimes, itís just the blink of an eye. Sometimes, in four years, a lot happens, but sometimes, barely anything does.

My college career at Tech, for example, went by like a blur. One day, I was throwing the Frisbee on the drill field with a handful of guys Iíd just met on my first day freshman year, and the next, I was sitting in my graduation robe in Lane Stadium ignoring the graduation speaker and wondering, "What just happened?"

It had gone by quickly, but man, a lot had happened.

HokieCentralís first four years are like that. Four years ago, in March of 1996, I was a software engineer who had finally gotten his stupid modem to work and was ready to surf the web. For the record, I had a faulty mouse, if you can believe that, that was constantly interrupting the processor on my computer, and was therefore blocking the modem from interrupting the processor and functioning properly. When the mouse died one day, the modem suddenly got better.

I was trying to figure out what in the world the Internet was, but one thing was clear: whatever it was, it was leaving me behind, and as a software engineer, any technological innovation that I wasnít aware of was just a source of embarrassment for me. It was apparent to me that there were a lot of people out there who were on top of this newfangled Internet thing and were beating me to the punch. I was committing the unpardonable engineering sin of falling behind on the technology curve.

I quickly learned to surf the web and deal with email. The next step was obvious. "Iíve got to make a web page," I told myself.

Hokies or ... Comic Books?

So I got to work and started reading books and learning how to do HTML. And I read one piece of advice that Iíll never forget. It said, "If youíre going to create a web site, make it about a subject that you care about, and update it frequently. Keep it fresh, and people will keep visiting."

Hmm, good advice. Then what should the subject be for my fledgling web site? Iíve got to admit, Iím kind of a do-nothing type of guy. No outdoor activities for me. No camping, no mountain biking, no golfing, nothing. My only hobbies at the time were comic book collecting and Virginia Tech sports. Hmm, which to do?

Yep, believe it or not, you came within a flipped coin of reading this article on SpidermanCentral.com.

Just kidding. It was VT sports all the way. I like to write, and I saw the Internet as a perfect opportunity to get my own personal feelings and opinions out to the world on the passionate topic of Virginia Tech athletics. I thought it would be neat to provide an alternative voice to what you could read in the newspapers or the Hokie Huddler.

The rest, as they say, is history. On March 12, 1996, I started writing, posting weekly updates and opinions on Virginia Tech sports. Somehow, the word got out, and the site continued to grow, and it went from ten hits a day to twenty, then fifty, and then, incredibly, a hundred. And it just kept getting bigger and bigger.

In the late summer of 1996, I got an email from a guy named Mike Bakas who had a web site called BigEastFootball.com. Mike thought my Tech site was the best heíd seen (sure it was Ė it was the only one heíd seen), and he wanted to link to it from his site. Sure, I said, go for it.

Traffic picked up quickly from there. Mike, you see, had the first Internet message board I had ever seen, and it attracted fans from all over the Big East football conference for, shall we say, "lively discussion." Mike did a great job promoting his web site, which was Ė how shall I put this? -- one ugly web site, but very popular. Among its visitors, it drew a lot of Tech fans. Ergo, I got a lot of traffic from his web site, because he linked to my site.

For the record, Mike long ago switched his focus to recruiting, renamed his web site "EasternFootballJournal.com," and was bought out by Rivals.com. Heís now one of their recruiting experts and is making a pretty penny, no doubt. I have a lot of respect for him and what he has been able to do over the years.

Bigger, and Bigger, and Bigger...

The football season of 1996 was HokieCentral.comís first football season, and the site continued to grow in popularity. By the end of that season, HC was getting over 2000 visits a week, a number that I considered to be phenomenal. The traffic was fueled by Techís run to the Orange Bowl, and the constant stream of Tech football players through the legal system Ė on the wrong side.

1997 dawned, and it was a year of rapid change in the Internet and HokieCentral. HC got its first message board long about February of that year, which led to an explosion in the growth of the site. The board was hosted by Grassy Knoll over at www.grassy.com Ė yes, that Internet haven for Miami football fans. Strange bedfellows, eh?

Visitors to HC loved the message board and abandoned Bakasís BigEastFootball.com message board in droves. Bakasís board had been dominated by Tech fans to that point (you know how Tech fans are when it comes to the Internet), and it got pretty quiet after HC opened up a board.

In March of 1997, I reached a critical point with HokieCentral. As a hobby, it was taking up way too much of my free time. At the time, I was running a failing medical billing service in my spare time, a business that was barely breaking even and was $8,000 in debt (I had one customer, and that customer wasnít very good at paying his bills).

I decided to can the billing service business and make HokieCentral my business, so on March 12, 1997, when HokieCentral was one year old, I introduced the "membership" concept. In exchange for a little money, HC fans could get bumper stickers, soft drink huggies, mouse pads, T-shirts, and even a printed and bound copy of the 1996 HokieCentral archives. (BIG mistake, but I did faithfully print and ship about 75 copies of the HC archives that year. Iím sure theyíre rotting on someoneís bookshelf somewhere.)

I had a whopping 275 members that year, and much like the medical billing service had done, HokieCentral lost money. But at least I was having fun, and this time, my customerís checks didnít bounce.

Through 1998 and deep into 1999, not much changed. It simply got bigger. The membership offerings grew nicer and more sophisticated, and the revenue increased, and in 1998, HokieCentral broke even. And it continued to grow, by leaps and bounds. By March of 1998, the site was getting 9,000 visitors a week and had topped 10,000 during a couple of weeks.

1999 and the Big Break

One year later, in March of 1999, as HokieCentral.com turned three years old, it was doing 20,000 visits a week and still growing.

But one thing was shrinking: my free time. Over the years, people had asked me, "When are you going to quit your job and start doing HC full time?" and I always told them, "Why would I want to do that? Iíve got a great job, and the web site is a great hobby that creates a little pocket change."

But a simple truth was becoming apparent to me: I was reaching the breaking point. If it grew one more iota, it was going to collapse. I stubbornly refused to let anyone help, so as the site grew, my free time disappeared, and I was either working my job or working on the web site. My lunch breaks and work breaks were spent keeping an eye on my message board, and my nights were spent doing updates for the next day.

At the time, I had a thousand members, and the sad fact was, in order to quit my job and work on HokieCentral full time, I needed about five times that many members to support myself. I was starting to feel backed into a corner, and this was the spring and summer of 1999. I was dreading the oncoming football season and was wondering how I was going to manage it all.

Fortunately, just in the nick of time, I was approached by a company that was interested in investing in HokieCentral, giving me the unexpected opportunity to Ė GASP Ė work on it full time. I jumped on the opportunity like Corey Moore on a spindly, pencil-necked quarterback, and in August of 1999 had the good fortune to walk out of my company where I had worked as a software engineer for four years, and into a small office, to run HokieCentral full time.

Peachy keen, right? It darn near killed me. The Hokies werenít any help, having the gall to embark on an undefeated season at just the same time that I was trying to get a company up and running, which included moving the web site to a new server and implementing a new message board. Fortunately, I was able to hire James Arthur, an old college friend who had been hanging out on the message board under the alias N2VTFTBL, to work with me and keep me from going insane.

James has done a lot of things for HokieCentral. Heís got a much better business brain than mine, and his skills complement mine quite nicely. But most importantly, heís got a better head for details where the players are concerned, and he was finally able to fill one huge, gaping, Grand Canyon of a hole in the HC web site: recruiting coverage. I think that with James on board doing recruiting coverage, and with our sister merchandising web site, TechLocker.com, HokieCentral.com now has everything I ever wanted it to have. It took four years, but we pulled it off.

All of that smacks of self-congratulation and back-slapping, though, which Iím not really comfortable with. If it sounds self-indulgent, it wasnít meant to be. I just thought the relative newcomers out there might like a little insight into the history of HokieCentral.com.

Along the way, the web site has changed a lot. It has evolved from being a basement fan page to serving as a news outlet for Virginia Tech sports. Of course, we have encountered many of the people, players, coaches, and administrators that we cover on a daily basis, a closeness that has understandably dulled the point of the harsh pen we sometimes used to wield. Such is life.

The web site has changed, yes, but I have always tried to keep it fresh, informative, and entertaining. Every day, James and I examine what weíre doing and whether or not weíre taking the web site in the direction that our readers want it to go in.

Now, A Promise

Which brings us to the subject of you, our loyal readers and visitors. Iíve said "thank you" to you many times in the past, but please allow me to say it again. Iíve had some rough times, some very rough times, in running this web site. There were times where I almost gave it up, but right about then, I would get an email saying, "Hey, Will, I really enjoy HokieCentral, and I just wanted to say thanks for everything you do. I really appreciate it." And that made it easier to stay up until midnight or one oíclock, again, and do another update.

When all is said and done, itís the appreciation of our readers that keeps us going, and little else. And you have been very generous with your praise and with your contributions over the years, whether the contributions were monetary in nature, or an article here or there (like what Nova Hokie 95 did for todayís celebration, or what GalaxHokie and Apex Hokie do with the Hotline Notes), or just words of encouragement.

Iím just an ordinary person who feels his way blindly sometimes, unsure of what to do, but through sheer dumb luck and good fortune, Iíve been granted the opportunity to do what I love for a living. That opportunity didnít come about because of something I did, or because of a generous investor Ė it came about because you took time out of your busy day to see what Will, James, and the nuts on the message board were up to. Without traffic, weíre dead in the water, so thanks for stopping by. Sounds trite and simple, but thatís it in a nutshell, folks.

About two and a half years ago, in September of 1997, I was putting on the first HokieCentral Tailgate. It was the day of the 1997 Syracuse game. Message board poster "Technically" was carrying around a video camera and taping the festivities (Iím sure he still has a tape of me breakdancing that day that makes him snort milk through his nose whenever he watches it).

For whatever reason, Technically pulled me aside and interviewed me. I donít remember any of the questions he asked me, except for the last one. He asked, "Is there anything you would like to say to the HokieCentral fans out there?"

I was quick to answer. "Sure. Tell Ďem Iím not going anywhere. Lots of web sites spring up and die out all the time, but HokieCentral will be around as long as they want it to be. As long as they keep visiting, Iíll keep doing it. Count on it."

Amen to that. Itís still true nearly three years later. Iíll make the same promise now that I made back then: keep visiting the web site, keep talking on the message board, keep telling us the things youíd like to see on the web site, and keep doing us the favor of dropping a few bucks at TechLocker.com now and again, and weíll keep producing HokieCentral.com, "The Premier Independent Publication Covering Virginia Tech Athletics," well into this century and beyond.

See, itís not about me, and itís not about James. Itís about the two of us, and all of you. Together, we number in the tens of thousands, and once that many people decide to breathe life into something and sustain it, it doesnít just go away. So keep visiting. Weíll be here. Count on it.

And one more thing: thanks again. And happy anniversary.

Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of HokieCentral.com.  He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for HC, and he contributes a column when time permits.

          

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