Phil Steele is the preeminent expert on college football.
Since 1995, Steele has published Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, a publication that he essentially writes on his own. Each year he gathers information by watching every game (literally), researching, reaching out to college coaches and generally immersing himself into college football.
One of the many benefits of UMass upgrading to FBS is getting a full two pages in Phil Steele’s magazine. UMass fans should pick up this publication and see what he thinks about the program. For day-to-day updates on college football, check out his website.
I reached out to Steele a few weeks ago for an interview, and his staff graciously set up a time. We here at the Maroon Musket appreciate Phil Steele and his staff (particularly Joey Lucci) for setting up this interview.
How much extra research did you have to do on UMass when it decided to upgrade to FBS?
It wasn’t a lot of extra research at all. The last two years we put out a full-blown FCS magazine with a complete full page on each team – so we’ve done a lot of studying. We have followed UMass for the past five or six years, so we’re very familiar with the Colonial Athletic Association and UMass football.
What is a reasonable goal for UMass this coming season?
Generally when a team moves up, there’s always a little bit of a transition process. Massachusetts has to prepare for eight new opponents this year. There’s not a single FCS opponent on the schedule. You also have to look at the schedule itself. You’ve got to figure that, if they’re on the road against teams like UConn, Michigan, Miami (OH), Western Michigan, Vanderbilt, Northern Illinois, they are going to be the underdog every time out.
If you look at the home slate, they have Indiana, a Big 10 team, and Ohio might just be the best team in the MAC. Bowling Green and Central Michigan are much improved over the past few years. It looks like there are only a handful of winnable games on that schedule.
I think for Massachusetts to step in this year and match last year’s five win total would be a very, very good season. I’m looking at more of a two- or three-win season this year.
Where does UMass fit in the ever-changing college football landscape?
Eventually I could see them fitting in with the Big East, but we’ll just have to see how that goes.
I think that any team that steps into the MAC has a chance to be competitive in the short term and then be competing for conference titles. Look at Temple. They got kicked out of the Big East, they were in the barren wasteland as an Independent and just got mauled by teams on a yearly basis. Then they signed up to the MAC, and all of a sudden they’re in back-to-back bowl games and playing pretty good football while putting out NFL-caliber athletes.
I think for a team to step into the MAC, you can get into a competitive level in a short period of time, and once you start getting into bowls and getting your name out there, then more and more kids are going to come in as recruits. It’s a good cycle to get into.
As far as recruiting goes, what are realistic goals for a team in the midst of an FBS upgrade?
There are a lot of kids out there that play football, and the limitations on scholarships that they put in about 20 years ago – the 85 scholarships – really helps out the little guy. I remember a time back in the ’70s when Bear Bryant would sign close to 200 kids. His main thing was, while they might not see the field for me, they won’t be seeing the field for my opponent.
That being said, there are quality kids out there, and that all reflects on the job the coaching staff does on getting recruits. I think Massachusetts will probably focus on the local states, but clearly being one of the 124 FBS programs will help them bag folks from around the country.
Have you heard a lot about Coach Molnar prior to him signing on to coach UMass?
Coach Molnar is a coach that I haven’t had many interactions with, and I really haven’t followed him a lot in his coaching career. I know he coached a few MAC programs, which is a positive, especially when you are stepping into a new conference like UMass is. I also know that being the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame is a good deal. Not too many people step into a job like that without being a top-notch coach.
I think he has the potential, but I haven’t had the chance to speak with him and see what’s been said.
Are the so-called “body bag games” beneficial to smaller schools, or is the payout sometimes not worth the punishment?
You look at it, and there’s going to be your Appalachian State games, and there are going to be some upset games. There are a few every year. I think it really benefits recruiting. If you can go into a recruit’s living room and tell that recruit that they are going to get to play in the Big House in front of 100,000 people, you have the opportunity to get a kid that’s on the fringe.
I think it is positive. You will get those kids that want to go out and compete against these bigger schools and see how they stack up against the elite of the country. Of course, the schools get a pretty hefty paycheck to go out there and play those games, so that helps, too.
However, if you’re playing four games against Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and USC in a non-conference slate, you’re probably going to be too beat up to play in the conference.
I like Massachusetts’ non-conference schedule this year. I think it’s manageable enough with the one big boy (Michigan) and a couple of other teams that are sort of close to their level.
A lot of smaller schools, including UMass, want to be the “Boise State” of their region. What does it take for a team to fill in that role?
It’s tough to be Boise State, that’s for sure, because there’s a team that took itself against WAC competition and made itself a national title contender. They do a tremendous job in strength training, which is huge. You can go out and get a kid that doesn’t have the size, strength or whatever, and you bring him in and size him up with strength training and get them to the next level. Of course every kid grows during that time.
That’s how teams like Boise State and TCU win. They have great strength training. You get the marginal blue chip guy and then you turn him into a blue chip guy. That would be the biggest factor.
Another factor is success on the field because success breeds success. If you can become one of the top teams in the MAC, you can go into living rooms and ask: “Would you rather play for us and be one of the contenders, or would you rather play with them?”
You touched on UMass being a good fit for the Big East. What needs to happen for UMass to be a Big East team if that is in the cards?
I think the area that they’re in is huge. If you remember, Temple got kicked out of the Big East, and for years the Big East thumbed their noses at Temple. Then they went out became a key player in the MAC. and you can argue that they had the best talent in the conference each of the last two years. Now the Big East has taken them back.
Massachusetts, as a team that just moved up from the FCS, is not going to be in the conversation yet. I can see if the success is there that the Big East would start checking them out. They have a geographic fit, and they would have some natural rivals right there in the area.
What built-in features does UMass have that will benefit them as an FBS program?
I think there has been a lot of basketball success there. I also think that any team that moves up can thrive. Look at Marshall for instance. They became the best team in the MAC, made a name for themselves there, and then vaulted into C-USA. I think almost any program in the country has the chance, once they get to the FBS level, to succeed. Again, that goes back to strength training and winning.
For your publication, what is the reaction in the room when teams upgrade? This year, four teams made the maneuver – I assume that caused some waves in the editorial room.
I write each of the 124 teams myself, and I remember 18 years ago was was writing about 88 teams, and there are a boatload of $100 work weeks from December 1 to May 15. I know for myself, when I see that four teams are moving up, I think to myself that that $100 work week is about to become a $102 work week.
It gets busier and busier for me all the time. I imagine when we get up to 150 or something, I’m going to have to give up writing these teams by myself. It’s a lot of hours on the project. I don’t just glance over a piece of paper and make a forecast. I really get to know the team, read through their entire season from last year, go through the play-by-play from each and every game, log each player four or five deep … so it just means a lot more work for me during the off season.
I know you have 12 TVs in front of you throughout the season. Where are UMass games going to be, top right?
Yea, I have 12 TVs, and I’ve watched a few Massachusetts games over the years when they play the big boys. At the start of the year it might be a top-left corner game. I usually put the smaller ones up there, but I usually do pay attention to them. On Mondays and Tuesdays I go through the play-by-play of every game to refresh what I watched on TV.
When there’s 12 TVs, there’s only three or four plays going on at the same time, so I can comprehend it pretty well.
UMass is changing its offense from a pro-style set to a no-huddle spread offense. Is that something that can be changed in one offseason, or is that something that will take a few seasons to set in?
I think when you go from the spread to the pro style attack, it’s actually a little harder. A lot of these kids in high school are running a spread instead of a pro style, and trying to teach a quarterback that has been taking snaps out of the shotgun and putting him under center is a tougher transition than it is the other way.
Moving to the spread is a good thing. A lot of kids play it in high school, and I think it will be an easy transition. Plus, I kind of like a lot of the newcomers. For instance, Michael Cox, the Michigan transfer at running back. I know he wasn’t at spring practice, and he’s a little behind in the offense, but I think by the end of the year he will be the starter there.
Speaking of Michael Cox, the fifth year transfer rule is helping teams around the country. Is this a boon for new programs or is this something that any team can use to its advantage?
I like it a lot. It gives kids a chance to play. Look at Kansas for example – their quarterback is going to get a chance to play at Colorado. It’s great for college football. You have a fifth-year senior that has graduated. He has gone to classes, and he has done the work. He deserves the chance to play somewhere and a shot at the starting job.
I think its better for the smaller programs. Michael Cox was, what I call, my PS #88 running back, and he originally signed at Michigan. If Michigan is offering you, you’re going to go to Michigan. In the recruiting process, Massachusetts wouldn’t normally have a chance at Michael Cox with Michigan recruiting him. Now, they have a chance to get an athlete like that. I think it’s tremendous for the smaller programs.
What stories do you look for in the offseason when you can finally relax a little bit?
In June and July I go through every stitch of reading I can find. If it’s recruiting, I put it in my extra pile and I give it to my assistant to go through. Kids will give a verbal commitment, and two months later they choose a different team. I just wait until they sign with a team so I can figure out where they fit in.
Other than that I do about six to 10 radio shows a day, and I also get caught up with a lot of coaches. I do about an hour interview with each of the coaches.
The fun part is that I get to talk football and there are no deadlines.
UMass football has been around for a long time, most of the time playing at a lower level. Does history serve any benefit for a program?
For me it would have an impact. I have always been a college football fan, and I’m a bit of a historian. If I was a player, and I was getting recruited to play somewhere, I would look at a school’s history. But, I have a 17-year-old, and with 17- and 18-year-olds, it’s what have you done for me this minute. It’s a very short retention span.
I think, in the long run, if you have UMass recruiting against UTSA, a school that’s only been around for a few years, I personally would hold history in high regard. I think that’s only the case for 10 percent of the kids out there right now, and the rest live minute-to-minute with Facebook and everything else out there.