The other morning, Phil Steele woke up at 4:45 AM inside his sprawling home in suburban Cleveland, as he does nearly every single day of the year. He climbed onto an exercise bike at 5, and then he turned on a broadcast of last year's football game between Cal and San Diego State. It was not a particularly good game—the final score was 35-7—and it was not a contest with much lasting impact, but that's hardly the point. For Steele, it's the minutiae that matter. A preoccupation with the fine print of a sport that tends to lend itself to obsessiveness—the lineup of personnel and the use of backup quarterbacks and the recounting of coaches' interviews rendered by color analysts and sideline reporters—has rendered him one of the most weirdly influential figures in college football.
This week, Steele's 352-page college football preview magazine landed with a thump at pharmacies, big-box stores, and bookstores across the country, just as it has for more than two decades, a seeming dinosaur still stomping through the digital age. To rifle through it is to gain entrance to a beautifully hallucinogenic universe straight out of a David Foster Wallace novel, a world entirely devoid of white space and crammed with tiny type—Steele once experimented with making the type even smaller, then realized no one could actually read it—and hundreds of monomaniacal abbreviations the author made up on his own in order to save still more space. It is a work aimed at completists, at those of us who either write about the sport or bet on it for a living, and those who study and speculate and argue about it the way academics debate Herman Melville or Isaac Newton.
All that research is buoyed by advanced analytics, by computer models, and, most of all, by Steele himself, the ubergeek who spends Saturdays watching and charting games on the bank of 12 televisions in his office; he hasn't actually been to a game in person, he says, since watching Toledo play at the Glass Bowl in 1981. Steele interviews dozens of coaches each spring and spends much of the time asking them about, say, the potential playing time of their third-string left tackle. During the season, Steele tells me, he works precisely 102 hours per week (not 100, but 102); during the "magazine season," which runs from the end of the regular season until late May or early June, he works 77 hours per week. In the summer, he allows himself to scale down to 50 hours, to spend time with his wife and children.
All year long, he does endless local radio hits and writes for and appears regularly on ESPN. When I requested an interview with him for this column, his publicity man scheduled me more than week in advance and said he had no availability before then and very little afterward.
"Sometimes I lie about one thing on the radio," Steele tells me. "They ask me if I'm excited for the season to start, and I always say yes, but in my head, I'm thinking I could use about seven more months of summertime right now."
In a way this, too, is a lie, because Steele is buoyed by his work; even if he were able to slow down at age 56, which he almost certainly could given the money the magazine and his premium subscriptions and his ESPN work brings in, his conscience would not allow him to do so. This is his 22nd year publishing the magazine, and his goal is to be correct about everything and to miss absolutely nothing—the metric he touts year after year is that of Chris Stassen, whose website ranks the accuracy of every preseason magazine, and consistently puts Steele ahead of the others.
Steele writes three drafts of each team preview for his magazine while drinking a steady stream of Diet Mountain Dew at his desk; up until this year, when he began typing out his previews, he dictated everything into a tape recorder. He has a staff of roughly 20 people who help him compile information and team reports. He compiles nine different sets of power rankings, using both algorithms and gut feeling, and he reads and re-reads the proofs of nearly every page in the magazine. This thoroughgoing research, Steele says, is the reason his circulation has held relatively steady amid the rise of the internet; he claims the sell-through rate of the magazine at retailers is higher than the majority of his competitors.
"The rule of thumb with college football magazines was always to be the first one out there, to be (on the newsstand) as early as possible," Steele says. "My magazine is different from anybody else. Because you need my magazine, I can come out later than the other guys.
"This year, I went to press on June 2nd, which allowed me to capture all the last-minute transfers. You'll notice on our Baylor page, we have Jim Grobe listed as the head coach. People say the internet is rendering print obsolete, that you can look everything up, but would you rather have our magazine or go to 128 different fan sites? It blows away the internet."
Maybe that comes across as a borderline ridiculous claim, but this is one case where it's actually kind of true. And this is also part of the charm of Steele's magazine: its voice is one of straight-up Comic Book Guy authoritativeness. That's a reflection of Steele himself, a genial man who grew up in Cleveland as the son of Marine Corps sergeant, who began toying with power rankings while still in elementary school, who bought a print shop in 1984 with money from a second mortgage his parents took out and slept for several years on a couch in that same print shop, and who lost money for seven years before putting out his first magazine in 1995.
Steele largely gave up on paying close attention to other sports outside college football long ago. He is a single-minded man, and when he makes his weekly predictions for ESPN Insider and gets something wrong, he spends hours examining how that could have possibly happened. This is what drives him to wake up and watch otherwise meaningless tape of games that the players themselves have no doubt long forgotten; this is why he shows up at his desk at 6:30 every morning with no intention of stopping anytime soon.
"I sleep for eight hours on vacation, and I wake up and my back is sore," he says. "If I'm going to do something, I want to be the best at it."
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