It's only a few minutes past noon on the first college-football Saturday of the fall, and validation is already coming from the dozen flat-panels mounted on the wall. "Men against boys," purrs Phil Steele, their owner, as the day's first ill-fated point spread melts away. "Men against boys."
Steele's sitting in a well-worn desk chair at Northcoast Sports, a small, cluttered office tucked in a Westlake industrial park. Steele, slight and mustached, wears Ohio State garb, but he's not watching the Buckeyes play Youngstown State. His jumpy eyes are fixed only on the TVs facing his massive corner desk; his woofing is directed at the teams he thinks can make his customers some cash -- Michigan State and Miami.
This is Steele's business: top-shelf pigskin intel. And business is good. What started as a childhood hobby now affords him a million-dollar home just a short drive from the office. Better yet, he's made his living doing something many men do anyway, at least when the wife lets them: watching Vegas-buffet heapings of football.
"Bottom line: I work more hours," says Steele, who is 47 and, somewhat miraculously, married. "I work more hours than anyone can possibly work on football."
If he isn't watching, Steele's mining statistics for games he thinks the oddsmakers botched. He digs out a handful of picks each week, then spreads the word by phone and newsletter. It's called "touting," and Steele's among the best: Up to 70 percent of his picks have been winners in years past. And while Northcoast isn't the industry's fattest earner, the 30-employee company will rake in more than $4 million this year, Steele says, selling picks to bettors as far as Japan.
But tripping up Vegas isn't what earned Steele his reputation as football's Geek-in-Chief. When the screens go cold each winter, Steele works tirelessly -- at least 10 hours a day, seven days a week, from December to June -- absorbing, analyzing, and packaging the info he's collected on all 120 major college teams. The result is Phil Steele's College Football Preview, a 328-page tome packed with brain-stomping write-ups on each team, laid out in microscopic type and flush with indexes and acronyms.
In its 13th year, the Preview has become college football's Bible. Lee Corso, a commentator for ESPN's College GameDay, keeps one on set. An NFL team called once, wanting copies for its scouts. Later today, Steele will hear Brent Musburger mention his name during a national broadcast.
When the mag's done, Steele spends the balance of the summer -- his so-called "off-season" -- doing up to a dozen radio shows a day, satiating fans who need to know what their team's future holds: Is it the Rose Bowl this year, Phil, or the Chick-fil-A? Then suddenly, it's September again -- time to light up the screens.
In season, Steele's up at 6 a.m. every day for 30 minutes on the stationary bike -- USA Today in hand, ESPN on the tube. Ninety minutes later, he's in the office, devouring more newspapers and reams of stats from every game. He finalizes his newsletter picks by Friday -- for the following Saturday's games.
Steele likens himself to a stockbroker, and once his market opens Saturday, there are no distractions. "I feel I have to watch every game that's on," he says. He eyes the screens like a sentry, gaze shifting after every play, and there are no wasted blinks. His head rarely moves, even when he talks to a reporter or calls one of his staffers about something he may have missed. These half-dozen assistant geeks -- they range in age from 25 to 45, in athleticism from Trent Dilfer to Dilbert -- linger outside his office, watching another dozen TVs in a small maze of cubicles.
Paul Tirakis, an athletic guy in his 30s, holds the office's most important job. "I'm the remote control," he says, darting into Steele's office to change channels. This way Steele can stay fused to his chair for up to 15 hours, nestled inside a foxhole of note cards and newsprint, powered by a small warehouse of Diet Mountain Dew. "Ten to twelve cans a day," he says.
The only thing that distracts him is the occasional call from his wife, Rebecca. Sometimes she calls to talk shop. (Not surprisingly, Steele married a woman who can tolerate his obsession.) Today she checks in when Oregon, one of Steele's picks, starts pulverizing Houston. But usually Rebecca calls with news about their two-year-old daughter. When the Oregon conversation turns to young Savannah -- She ate okay, huh, but got her nap late? -- Steele momentarily breaks the 12-way stare for a glance at the pictures framing his computer monitor. "She's the best thing that's ever happened to me," he says later.
Steele's paternal instincts took some molding. He tried to plan Savannah's birth around the magazine; he was hoping the doctor could just tell him what time the baby would be born. When Rebecca nixed that -- That's not quite how it works, hunny -- Steele told her he'd be there in a few hours. "I was like, 'Well, thanks a lot,'" she jokes. Lucky for Steele, Savannah waited.
His family knows he can't live this way much longer. His mom, Mary -- who's worked for him since 1982, when he started the business in her dining room -- frets about his lifestyle, especially the Diet Dew. "I wish he wouldn't do so much," she says, as if the soda were a banned substance. And Savannah's almost two; she's starting to notice when Dad's not around.
He's doing his best to cut back. The staff has started writing the weekly newsletter, and he even took the family on two short vacations this year, their first in four years. "They're more stressful than work," he says. "You've got your routine. Everything's set. You go on vacation, it's all completely way off."
Still, it's seven o'clock now, and Steele's not close to going home. He's got scores to log on a thick stack of note cards; staffers, some of whom are complaining of headaches, duck in with statistics. He even puts Scene's reporter to work, asking him to flip the channel on the second screen in row two. That big Cal-Tennessee tilt kicks off any minute.
He finally turns out the lights a few hours later, hoping that the six new flat-panels he ordered for the house will soon make it easier to cut out early. Once they're installed, he can sneak into his office after Rebecca taps out, sometime before midnight, and catch the day's last action.
"The Hawaii game usually ends at three," he says.