June 14, 2013

D3sports.com: Our 16-year journey

A look at D3hoops.com from December 1998.

By Pat Coleman
D3sports.com

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is not one that we’ve published in any FAQ on any of our sites. It’s something that journalists, coaches, sports information directors and fans ask fairly regularly, however. And it’s almost always the first question.

When you started D3sports.com, did you ever think it would be this big?

And the answer is interesting, because I have to usually correct people right off the bat. I didn’t actually start D3sports.com.

The D3sports.com network stems from a text-only site started by Centennial Conference commissioner Steve Ulrich in the 1995-96 basketball season, a site called Division III Basketball Online. I remember reading about it in the NCAA News that winter and having barely been on the web myself at that point, I thought it was a pretty neat idea. It ran on a computer in the conference office, and as I recall the story, it would slow to a crawl if more than seven people were on the site at any one time.

Steve ran it for a couple of years. I watched it. It only covered men’s basketball and was updated occasionally with news from around Division III.

Fast forward a couple of years, where I’m filling in as an interim SID at Gallaudet University because my wife, Cate, was pregnant with our first child and we desperately needed the extra cash. I was running a handful of small websites as well by that point – one covering the Capital Athletic Conference, plus Gallaudet and Catholic University’s official athletics sites. I was sitting in my office, one shared with the volleyball coach, and noticed on several occasions that the site hadn’t been updated. The 1997-98 basketball season was days from starting. I emailed Steve and asked him if he would be interested in me taking the site over.

One of the parts I don’t tell people when they ask is that I figured there was less than a 50 percent chance he’d say yes. I’d been bugging Steve for almost as long as he’d had the site up, making suggestions, sending content ideas, asking why he didn’t include women’s basketball info, sending updated links and the such. I was a 24-year-old kid and could be pretty obnoxious. But mere minutes later I got back an email with an enthusiastic yes, followed by an email with a bunch of attachments.

So I got to work. I figured I’d work on the site a couple of hours a night, two to three nights a week, it would be more than what was there before and everyone would be happy. I got to work building the site, which was partially hosted on Gallaudet’s athletics site and partially on Catholic’s site. I took a parquet floor background from somebody’s Geocities site and a spinning basketball graphic from somewhere else.

In the same couple of weeks, I also fly to San Antonio to cover Catholic’s football team in the Division III playoffs and Cate gave birth. The new Division III Basketball Online launches on Nov. 25, 1997, the day after Elizabeth was born. In my mind, the site wasn’t ready yet, but I found out it was live when I started getting emails about it. Steve had put a link up to send people over. It was the last day we’d have without a child at home and I spent most of the night writing HTML pages, mostly by hand.

Steve still ran a football site, Division III Football Online. More about that later.

When I think back on it now, it seemed like an incredible amount of traffic. SIDs were eager to send information. Fans were eager to read about what was happening in other parts of the country. By January, Gallaudet’s IT department requested politely that we move off of their network, as the site was the most popular thing on Gallaudet.edu, more popular than the rest of the university’s website combined. So in February 1998, we bought a domain name. And it was short, and sweet, and to the point: D3hoops.com.

A look at Division III Football Online from 1997. It's included because Division III Basketball Online looked the same way when we took it over.

We covered the D-III Final Four. The next year, we added a message board and had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. And we talked about starting a football site that next summer, but decided not to, because there already was a site. But we watched and we listened, and in the spring of 1999, we decided we had to do football. I offered actual money to purchase Division III Football Online, mostly because I wanted the name and the links, but the offer was declined, so we started to quietly build a site.

And it needed a name. So we drew on the domain name for inspiration for the new title. And D3football.com was born. It launched on July 7, 1999. We started calling the basketball site D3hoops.com as well.

Jim Stout has a detailed remembrance of the D3football.com discussion in a blog post on d3photography.com.

This is still so very early in the life of the Web. Our team was pretty small. The inner circle at the time was myself, Ray Martel, Mark Simon and Jim Stout. Ray was a classmate of mine at Catholic U., a fellow broadcaster who has gone on to be producer for Mike Francesa at WFAN in New York City and now produces the morning drive show on the CBS Sports Radio Network. Mark was a writer at the Trenton Times and now is in the research department at ESPN. He’s the Mark Simon whose name you may hear dropped by analysts on Baseball Tonight and he’s partly responsible for most of the D-III highlights that ever make it on ESPN. Jim was a writer at the News-Times in Danbury, Conn., and is basically single-handedly responsible for getting the sites exposure throughout New England by writing a multiple-times-a-week notebook for D3hoops.com. He now works for MaxPreps.

So the four of us are building a football site as quietly as possible. And because there are only a little more than 200 teams, we are collecting every piece of info we can: coaches’ names, quick facts, the 1999 schedule, etc. Many programs were not on the Web themselves at that time. Eventually word gets out, but we have a massive site ready to drop about two months before kickoff.

We thought it would be big. And it was. Traffic came roaring out of the gate. The 1999 Internet economy was booming and we brought in what was a big amount of money for the time. We had a site with more than 400 pages on it, information that was not collected anywhere else, and people came to read it.

And it was a good thing, too, because we needed that money. The bottom dropped out of the economy about a year later, and it stayed soft for years. We laid off, for lack of a better term, our poorly paid columnists, cut back on travel and just tried to keep the lights on. And we did, thanks to the help of our fans. They came to our aid to keep us going in 2001 and 2002.

Pat Coleman sports the ubiquitous Division III color of purple at the Jake Wade Award ceremony.
Photo by Tracy Maple, Cal Lutheran athletics 

Meanwhile, we continued working as hard as we could to cover Division III basketball and football, despite the limitations. Keith McMillan joined the football site and soon became the lead columnist. Gordon Mann approached us out of the blue and started broadcasting games. We moved to a database-driven format and gave SIDs the ability to post news stories directly to the sites. It was no longer necessary to have Cate update scores or take front page updates over the phone, which made things much better at home.

Dave McHugh started a radio show called Hoopsville and we eventually brought him and his show onto the team. We started a baseball message board and found enough interest in Division III baseball to invite Jim Dixon and his Division III baseball site into the network. Jim Matson came to us with an idea and a love of soccer, so we started a soccer site from the ground up and created D3sports.com as an umbrella site to serve as a portal for the rest of the network. Then we joined the PrestoSports network, and got a much-needed makeover. Most recently, Matthew Webb and his team have brought a hockey site to the D3sports.com network.

People have asked why we don't do a site for Division II, and the honest reason is that this is a labor of love. Everyone on the team has a love of Division III and what it stands for. We're all conceted to one D-III school or another. For us to try to expand to Division II would detract from that, and I don't think it would get any closer to being a full-time job for anyone.

There are other sites which cover other D-III sports, but what I think sets us apart is the site is founded by professional journalists and run like a news site. We take pride in that. I spent 12 years at Baseball Weekly and USA Today, Keith McMillan is the NFL editor for the Washington Post and Dave McHugh has spent more than a decade in television news. We all have broadcast games and that's something we love to do. And we've all followed Division III since long before these sites came around.

Without the timely support and contributions of many people, we wouldn’t have gotten this far. Aside from the people I mention above, here are some of the others.

Brett Marhanka, now the sports information director at Wheaton (Ill.), was SID at Gallaudet in the mid-1990s. I pitched him on hiring me to build the athletic department’s first website and he bit. Without that, I’m not sure I would have had the credibility to take over Steve Ulrich’s site.

Catholic University men’s basketball coach Mike Lonergan and football coach Tom Clark were very supportive of the sites when they first launched. Gabe Romano, CUA’s sports information director, helped me see how much of a need there was for national Division III sports coverage. And my parents instilled in me a love of sports and taught me to work crazy hard, but try to do everything.

Robert runs the camera for me on a trip to Wheaton over Labor Day weekend.
Photo by Ralph Greenslade for D3sports.com

Brad Bankston, the commissioner of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, immediately deemed our site credible and gave us the access we needed to cover the men’s basketball Final Four. So many websites and blogs have been denied access to championships and big events since, so this is not as much of a foregone conclusion as it sounds.

Cate and our children, Elizabeth, Robert and Colleen. The older two have each been on D-III trips with me in recent years and are capable of actually helping out. Thank you to the SIDs who have welcomed them with open arms. Elizabeth is my best camera operator for video broadcasts and is learning the production software as well. Colleen is only 8 and is dying to take a trip as well, probably because I often drive with the kids to Chicago. Working on the sites has taken me away from them quite a bit, but thankfully I have been able to spend some time with them on the road.

One of the other questions I often get is, “how long can you keep doing this?” And I’ll be honest, it isn’t easy to explain why I work another 30-40 hours a week for little to no money. But there are so many Division III stories that need to be told, and in all honesty, I wish we could tell even more stories. Maybe someday we could cover lacrosse more, or softball. A decade ago, I asked that question of myself, and I asked Cate as well – is it OK with you if I keep doing this? Thankfully for all of you, she said yes. Since then, technology has allowed us to do more with less time, and more people have stepped up to help.

Did I ever think it would be this big? No. But I don’t think we’re nearly done.

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