Spending The Summer With Phil Steele And 9,000 College Football Players
My summers are predicated on three constants. First, I avoid the sun as much as possible in order to maintain a complexion somewhere between Henrik Sedin and Brian Scalabrine. Second, I consume as many Arnold Palmers (or “John Dalys” when vodka is present) as humanly possible. And third, I buy, consume, dog-ear, study, and re-study Phil Steele’s College Football Preview.
Phil Steele did not invent the college football annual, but for all intents and purposes, he is the most important singular person thinking and writing about college football in this manner. And I do mean “singular.” Phil employs a team to help mine the initial data needed to compile the 328 page book, but ultimately, the eponymous writer ends up doing all of the team previews himself. Each team preview is a staggering two-page spread that employees exactly two photos, always placed in the same spots. You learn something new every time you pick it up, you can find everything very quickly and easily, and there are countless lists and projections to digest. Basically, it’s a first-ballot Bathroom Reading Hall-of-Fame-er.
If Phil Spector is the genius behind the “wall of sound,” then Steele can only be considered college football’s father of the “wall of text.” Running down each position, the schedule, last year’s summary, the coaches, the depth chart, the incoming recruiting class, a Phil Steele team preview contains an overwhelming amount of information. Essentially all of the useful information you would find in a team’s 100+ page media guide is condensed into what looks like the screen they showed Keanu Reeves that contained the coding behind The Matrix. Steele uses his own system of shorthand, acronyms, and abbreviations allowing him to stuff as much info into the publication as possible.
For the team previews, which make up the bulk of the magazine at 240 pages, Steele acts as our tour guide through the college football universe. Often, in this 2011 edition of the book, he starts each position breakdown tracing the lineage of a program (E.J. Henderson is mentioned in the first line of Maryland’s linebacker preview). The level of detail is downright shocking. Every team’s depth chart doesn’t simply stop at “WR” and “OLB.” Instead, Phil lets you know what each team calls the positions based on its scheme (it seems somehow important to know that Maryland currently uses “Rock” and “Star” to denote its outside linebackers). Keep in mind Phil personally does this for every NCAA team. To give you an idea of how large the college football universe is, take the NFL, and multiply the number of teams by four. Now multiply the number of players by at least five. When the preview is released in June, Steele, who is based out of Cleveland, will have typed at least once the name of every single semi-relevant NCAA FBS player. I was once on a flight with the 4th string center of Ben Roethlisberger’s Miami Redhawks. He told me he was bummed that his likeness had not made it into that year’s version of EA Sports’ NCAA Football video game. I was able to reassure him by pulling out my Phil Steele annual and showing him his name, near the end of the extensive paragraph on Miami’s offensive line.
Once the business of the previews is complete, Phil becomes less of a tour guide and more like Bill James in his early days of the Baseball Abstracts. Like James, you get the sense that Steele would write this preview every season even if he was the only one interested in reading it. There are charts and tables, editorials and rundowns of every football-related event of the year, including high school recruiting, the NFL draft, award races, and Phil’s manifesto on how to determine college football’s national champion. If you’re picturing a crazed, information junkie in a room with twelve flatscreen televisions constantly playing college football games, well, you’re exactly right. In fact, you can see the 12 simulscreen war room on page 17 of this year’s preview. What separates Steele from the ethos of James’ early career is that he’s not in an aluminum shed somewhere faxing his manifesto in to Kirk Herbstreit. Steele is a bona fide college football insider. He votes for every major award, including the Heisman. He speaks to coaches as he writes the book. And for his efforts, he’s been able to cultivate the best record for prognostication of any major college football annual over the last thirteen years. This is also why the Preview has sometimes been referred to as the “Gambler’s Bible” (did you know that Arizona State was 10-2 against the spread last season?). Steele’s competition includes ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Athlon, and Blue Ribbon. What sets Steele apart is how personal his book feels. You can see in the jam-packed pages the man behind the words. There are plenty of photos, but you get the sense they are only there because staring at a full page of single-space text is grounds for insanity. The team pages sort of employ the team’s color scheme, but function rules supreme in Steele’s world. When I brought this up to him in an email, he did not hide his disdain for art.
“I designed the magazine the way I wanted to see the information. I am 99% facts/figures and substance and about 1% style and art. When I see white space in the magazine, I wonder how I can better utilize that with meaty information. The writing style is that of a sports junkie and the only way for me to put as many words, stats and facts into the magazine is to abbreviate. I know this style is not mainstream and does not go over well with English and or Art majors but I think football junkies appreciate it.”
So, if Steele’s book is not a slick as ESPN or not as current and extensive as say, The Internet, why do I plunk down $9 for it every season? There is something about having the information in your hands, in one place, to tote around with you during the summer. As Phil told me via email, “I like to think it is even better than having 120 media guides . . . I feel that no matter how much folks rely on the internet, there will always be a place for the magazine.” While Phil agrees with me, a recent Kindle convert, that there is no immediate e-replacement for the college football annual, he has supplemented his annual opus with content and updates on PhilSteele.com. I appreciate how forward thinking this is, but frankly I’d be fine if Phil Steele didn’t have a web site.
The most important thing about the Preview is that it physically exists in its bloated, glossy form. It lives in my carry-on bag, in the car, at the beach, by the pool, and yes, in the bathroom. It takes me all summer and I rarely get through 60% of it. I don’t know the first thing about Arkansas State football, but give me half an hour with Phil Steele’s book and I could confidently take over for their beat writer.
I don’t buy the College Football Preview because its accurate, although it is. I don’t buy it because it’s pretty to look at, because it’s not. And I won’t continue to buy it because Steele was extremely nice and quick to respond when I sent him a very long email, although he was.
I buy the Preview because it signals those three sacred words: “Football is coming.”
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore, works for a sports-oriented non-profit, and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore.