Oklahoma and Archie Griffin had sensational seasons in 1974, but theirs pale beside that of Danny Sheridan, a garrulous 28-year-old Mobile, Ala. real-estate agent who forecasts the outcome of college football games. According to Sheridan, on opening week last year he picked Arizona State to upset Houston, which the Sun Devils did 30-9. Later he became so convinced Kansas would topple fourth-ranked Texas A&M he phoned the athletic department in Lawrence to tell Coach Don Fambrough not to worry, the Jayhawks "couldn't possibly lose." They didn't. As the season ended he selected USC to beat favored Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, and Notre Dame, a 10-point underdog, to defeat Alabama in the Orange Bowl—which they did. All told, Sheridan predicted 19 upsets, a triumph he dismisses as being "relatively irrelevant."
As a sophomore at Alabama in 1967 Sheridan gained a following of fraternity brothers whom he touted autumn Saturday after autumn Saturday until he graduated with a B.S. in commerce. In subsequent years his following grew to a point where today he gets calls from friends all around the country wondering what he thinks about, say, USC against Notre Dame. Sheridan is happy to oblige, and for free.
Danny says he fears gambling. He remembers, at the age of 17, dreaming Texas would beat Navy in the Cotton Bowl and wanting to bet his father, a custom-home builder in Mobile, that he knew the outcome. "I'd never bet now because I'm scared to death of the IRS," he says, smoothing his bushy mustache. "I want to become rich. I think I have a talent that could earn me a lot of money without breaking any laws, but I won't bet. Besides, it might affect the way I handicap."
Last September a friend pointed out that there was no reason why Sheridan should not publish a weekly tip sheet and pick up a little side income. Sheridan agreed, and contacted Bill Sellers, a Mobile Press Register reporter for 18 years and a fellow member of the Skyline Country Club, hoping to get a plug. Sellers told Sheridan to prove that he could pick as accurately as he said he could. "On a lark I invited Danny to send me his weekly picks," Sellers recalls. "I figured he'd miss right away, and the ridiculous idea would pass." On Thursdays, usually, Sheridan delivered his selections to Sellers, who put them in a manila folder on his desk. Mondays Sellers compared the picks with the results of the games. "Unbelievable," he says now. "It was as if Danny had picked Saturday's games out of Monday's newspaper." By the end of the season Sheridan says he had picked 28 Specials, every one a winner. Overall, out of 205 picks he claimed to have had 184 winners. More astonishing and "relevant," he was picking not simply winners but winners against the spread.
As even doornails must know by now, the spread is the points oddsmakers give the underdog for the sake of attracting equal amounts of betting money on both teams. For example, Rice vs. Texas, even, would draw little Rice backing, but Rice and 20 points just might. Trouble is, as one bookmaker points out, over a season most football bettors cannot pick winners more than 50% of the time. Sheridan's 1974 percentage was 89.7.
"Sixty-five percent would be phenomenal," says Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder. "Eighty or 90 is impossible. If Danny Sheridan or anyone else says he picks like that, between you and me, it's pure applesauce."
In August Sheridan visited Las Vegas, reached Snyder by phone and asked him for advice about furthering his career as a football expert. Snyder told him, "Danny, when a guy picks 90%, he doesn't need anybody's advice."
Snyder says he has spent 40 years developing the rating system he uses to supply more than 300 newspapers with his own point spreads. Scouts in 26 cities feed daily information and news back to Snyder to help him make his line. Sheridan believes football cannot be computerized. He picks by intuition. "Intuition?" says Snyder. "Isn't that ridiculous?"
Well, not entirely does Danny Sheridan pick games by intuition. He has a high regard for the point spread, believing that it is a solid indication of how two teams match up. It takes injuries into consideration as well as coaching advantages and even mental attitudes. If football were mechanical rather than emotional, Sheridan agrees that the spread would make almost every game equal.
Late Saturday, as the afternoon scores roll in, Sheridan studies the next week's matchups and begins his ritual of picking. He starts groping for a "feeling," never pushing for it. He crams "tiny emotions" into his head. Is one team coming off an upset? High or low in spirits? Ripe to play over its head? Is somebody on the list loaded with seniors who were beaten—better yet, humiliated—by its upcoming opponent once before?